The race that controls the past, controls the living present
And therefore, the future
Who controls our memory machines will control our future. (They always have.)
I’m working on a few projects at the moment. One is a weeding project in the reference section of my library. This is challenging. What I normally do when weeding is look at circulation statistics. Items that haven’t been used in a long time are candidates for withdrawal. I consider other factors as well, such as the current curriculum and the availability of the item through other libraries. We don’t track the use of reference books though, so I have no data for my normal starting point. Some information is obviously outdated, like directories from the 80s, and some is available online, like many of our encyclopedias. Those decisions are easy; others and more difficult.
Another project, more personal interest than work-related, is looking into the history of open education. The meaning of the term has shifted a bit over the years in some respects, but the influence of Dewey and progressive education seems to be there throughout the years. I’m really just beginning my exploration, so my thoughts have yet to solidify. This project has me using things that could be candidates for weeding, like the book I just picked up, which hadn’t been touched in 22 years.
On one hand, you never know when something might be useful. On the other, our space is finite and most of our courses of study privilege recent scholarship. Simple economics means older information disappears.
I thought of this as I read Jim’s post about the Return of the Living Dead in Second Life. A video of a presentation he took part in, not even a decade old, had disappeared from the Internet, due to simple economic decisions. It was only saved because Alan kept a backup. How much information, how much art, disappears because someone, or some organization, fails to recognize the value of it? How rampant a problem is this going to be in the digital age? I believe that was a question that came up in the Decentralized Web Summit last month.
Audrey Watters talked about this at Digital Pedagogy Lab PEI – how information disappears, how memory, even when augmented by the digital realm, is fragile. Recorded memory isn’t just fragile, it’s manipulable. I remember reading about an art forgery scandal years ago, where the forging of the paintings wasn’t nearly as good as the forging of the provenance. In some ways, technology makes manipulation easier, but it also offers some protections. So we could have a memory hole as well as a Wayback Machine. We could leave it to others to make decisions about what gets deleted and what gets preserved. Or we could do it ourselves. Wikity seems to move in that direction, by forking pages rather than linking to them (something else to go on the long list of things I need to look into). It’s a way of taking control of information, memory and the past. Audrey’s closing line immediately brought up a memory of the Public Enemy cut from a quarter-century ago, linked at the top of this post.
But I’ve also been working on another project, an Omeka site for the Timely Times. This is a collection of hand-drawn newspapers my father made back in 1939-1941. Somehow they managed to get saved all those years. Somehow I can’t image they’ll last anywhere near that long online, or in their current digital format for that matter. But as long as they mean something to a few people (my brothers and I), they’ll stick around. At least I can control that much of the past.