Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

June 29, 2009

Searching, Browsing, Print & the Internet

Last week’s SHARP conference gave me a lot to think about and more to post about, so let me apologise for the over-ambitious post-title you see above.  I don’t mean to encompass the total sum of all current debates in book culture in one post.  Don’t panic, this really is a lot more brief than it appears.

One of the more interesting/infuriating things about reading texts online, whether they be books, newspapers, blogs or articles is finding them.  One of the great limiting agents of internet-based information is the search engine.  It isn’t that search engines don’t find things, it is more that they find too much, often unrelated, information organized in a haphazard fashion.  You, the user, then have to go back again and again searching for new things.

Consider my recent attempts to identify a strange little bug I found on my couch.  Where once I would have turned to my Peterson Field Guide to the Insects of North America, instead I thought, “I’ll look it up online”.  First I searched for “small black beetle Ontario”.  Then “Identifying Ontario Beetles”.  “Identify Ontario bugs”.  “List of Ontario bugs”.  “List of Ontario beetles”.  “Is this a bedbug?”  “Field Guide to Insects”.  “Ontario Insects”.  Etc.

Nothing I found was of any help at all.  It isn’t that I now doubt that there is any information on insects on the internet.  It’s just that I haven’t managed to hit on the exact tags that the unfound resource has used.  Google does a valiant job of suggesting, refining, elaborating and extending your parameters, but this does not always result in a successful search.  Furthermore, a search for “Ontario beetles” and “Identifying Ontario Insects” will yield entirely different results, despite their being very similar topics, probably both relevant to a person looking for information on the subject.  But someone searching for one will not get the results of the other.

While at SHARP I had the priviledge of attending a paper given by Paul van Capelleveen of the National Library of the Netherlands entitled “Books will be Books”.  For twenty very amusing minutes he showed us slide after slide of Wikipedia screenshots, all on entries relating to Book History in six different languages.  The crux of his paper was not, as is usually the complaint with Wikipedia, that the information found was lacking or incorrect (though it was and it was), but that the information was totally different depending on what language you searched for the information in, and that there were few, if any, cross-references between the different language papers.  So, someone searching for “Book History” in English will yield the title of a Journal and a redirect to the History of the Book article, a strange and meandering piece covering 9,000 years of history in about 1,000 words.  The French entry, meanwhile, contains some articles translated from the English (or vise versa; I see the English entry refers to early printed books as “incunables” rather than “incunabula” – likely a literal translation from the French entry) while other sections are left out entirely, or relaced by different subheadings and articles.  Meanwhile a search for “History of Writing”, “Old books” and “History of Literature” will yield whole new articles, not all of which are cross-referenced.

While van Capelleveen’s language distinction is interesting, I think this is just one more thing that highlights the problem with digital information retrieval.  I have the same issues when I use The Toronto Star online, or Amazon.com.  If I don’t know what I am looking for, I won’t always find what’s on offer.  What they call “browsing” is just another form of searching, one where they allow that you might not know the exact title, but you still otherwise know what you want.

People tell me that computers now have that ability to link information in a more relational way, the way a librarian might.  So, when you go to the library to look up book on Ontario bugs, you go to the Entomology subject and you find everything on bugs, from Field Guides to biology texts, whether they are titled A Field Guide to Insects or Creepy Crawley.  And, similar subjects are nearby in case you have a slightly tangental issue.  Newspapers work similarly; if I want to read about “Sports” I go to the Sports section and it’s all there, whether I know what team, game or athelete I am looking for or not.  Do search engines help me thus yet?

Someone help me out here, because I haven’t figured it out yet.  And it doesn’t look like the users of Wikipedia have either, as Paul van Capelleveen’s research shows so far.  If all information really is going digital, this is top of my laundry list of requests.  I need the pathing of a human guide, a librarian, an editor. Our language(s) haven’t standardized terminology yet, and probably never will. Do we all need advanced degrees in search parameters? I wonder.

June 24, 2009

A Wednesday Tidbit

I am at the SHARP 2009 conference (“Tradition & Innovation: The State of the Book”) all week and so don’t have time to make normal posts, so I leave you with this totally amazing website.

Sketches and paintings of favourite literary creators or characters by comic book artists.  Above: Gene Ha interprets Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. But every piece is amazing – click on the image to check it out!

June 22, 2009

Interpreting “Archive”

I try pretty hard not to pooh-pooh the New Media, to keep an open mind about The Fate Of The Book and Literacy These Days as all of bookdom gnaws at their fingernails and tears at their hair over changes to print culture.  But sometimes a news story comes up that really sets my nerves on edge.

The Library and Archives Canada has put a moratorium on buying paper documents and books for its collection. They cite the cost of buying printed materials, as well as some notion that digital materials might somehow be a more “efficient” expenditure of funds.  Annoyingly, though this isn’t what I want to talk about, this freeze on spending includes the buying of antiquarian books.

What troubles me about this move is that I question the value of an “archive” which is entirely digital.  I understand buying digital books for personal use – they are a cheaper and easier way to enjoy a casual reading experience, the kind where you don’t think back to the book after you’re done with it.  I understand, even, keeping digital texts for a research library or institutional library – they are easy to search, can be used by multiple users simultaneously and are pretty accessible.

But I don’t grasp how archiving a text digitally serves the aim of an archive.  From Library and Archives’ own website, “Library and Archives Canada collects and preserves Canada’s documentary heritage…” (emphasis mine).  From Wikipedia, “In general, archives consist of records which have been selected for permanent or long-term preservation…”  Other archives will state the same mandate.  You will see words like “heritage”, “preservation”, “primary sources” and “unique” pop up regularly.  Making records accessible is great, but is really the purview of the library: the task of an archive is to keep those records safe over a long period of time.  It is a form of cultural protection.

The protection of records is an ongoing archival problem.  Books deteriorate, are stolen, burnt or damaged.  Languages change and are sometimes lost.  Technologies upgrade and sometimes leave behind old, incompatable records.  Nevertheless archivists do what they can to repair, copy and upgrade their charges in order to see that they survive to greet the next generation. We have come to a point where we take digital storage processes for granted, as if all of civilization has been building up to this technology one logical step after another.  But it seems to me that instead it is one of the more precarious archival tools we’ve ever known.

To read a digital book, you need a program that can decode it.  You need hardware that can read it.  You need a device to run that program, and some means of displaying the results.  You need a power source to fuel all of the above and then you need to start the sticky business of dealing with the text.  Digital media is like taking a book, locking it in ten kinds of lock-boxes with different locks, disguising the whole thing as a rock and then burying it.  You and I might, today, know where to find that rock, we can tell that it isn’t a rock, but rather a piece of technology, and then we have the complicated tools required to unlock all the boxes.  But will we in a hundred years?  Five hundred years?  Two thousand years?

We have become very confident that our society today is the pinnacle of all former societies and, somehow, proof against all the pitfalls of other precariously balanced societies.  We think we’re fail-proof.  Information abundance has certainly perpetuated that belief; we think that if our political, social and communicative networks start to fail, that’s okay, because we’ve got so much junk around us to remind us who we are.

But this really is an illusion.  Technologically sound and literate societies have come before us and have gone, and from their ruins we’ve managed to pick out bits and pieces of cultural ephemera and from that, we’ve painted pictures of who they were.  Rock paintings, scrolls, disks, books give us evidence.  We’ve preserved some of their wisdom and learning this way.  Now can you imagine if, at the sacking of Alexandria, rather than being able to run off with what scrolls they could salvage, the librarians were stuck facing a server bank?  What would they take?   What would they save?

Now archiving isn’t just a safeguard against societal collapse and apocalypse, obviously.  But it is concerned with permanence.  The day of a blackout, or an electrical surge, a fire or an alien magnet or sun flare, is that digital technology available?  Can it even be said to exist anymore?  And what if future politicos cut the budget of the Archives, and render them incapable of the technology upgrades they need to continue accessing the technology?  Is that it, the end?  Nothing even to sell off in an auction?

Information integrity has been recently protected with redundance.  Big companies have server space all over the world, spreading themselves out geographically in order to minimize loss due to environmental disaster or political upheaval (say).  So, perhaps, Library and Archives intends to keep their archive (archives?) in multiple places in order to ensure that our cultural heritage isn’t nuked when a server reaches the end of its life.  After all, this is one of the big benefits of digital technology: its quick and easy multiplication.

But then, what is the archive?  The “original” document?  Do they own it, or simply display it?  Is the “copy” on Server Paris the same as the copy on Server Ottawa?  Are all the copies safe from change?  Who retains the record of what the document “should” look like, in case of deterioration, information loss, virus or vandalism?  Where is the authority of the archive?

This barely scratches the tip of my anxiety iceberg, let me tell you.  And how will this even save them money – are people suddenly giving etexts away for free?  Did I miss the information liberation?

Nothing about “buying” a digital “copy” in order to preserve it sounds like a good idea to me.  In fact, it’s a lot like buying nothing at all.  Like this bridge here I have to sell you.  I tell you if you wanted the real thing, it would cost you.  But I can sell you a virtual one, cheap!

June 18, 2009

Now That’s Customer Service…

During CBC’s Canada Reads broadcasts earlier this year I could be found all over the internet championing what I thought was not just the best book on the list, but one of the very best Canadian books I have ever read, The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay.  I was totally devastated when it was voted off the program, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that Michel Tremblay is a rather prolific author and I would have a lot more of his work to read.

In particular I was pleased to see that Talonbooks, the publisher, was offering a Canada Reads special – all six books of the Chronicles of the Plateau Mont-Royal in one handy package for a mere $75.  I went down to my local bookstore (also, my place of work) to order it immediately.  That was back in February.

I can’t report on exactly what happened after that, but it seemed that Talonbooks’ distributor, Raincoast, was having trouble locating the exact package deal I wanted.  Phone calls were exchanged and databases were consulted, and we were assured my order was in progress.  Time passed.  More time passed.  A lot of time passed.

I got the call, finally, a couple of weeks ago.  My books were in!  I hurried in to the store for my little darlings (paying $45 for the set – I work as a bookseller strictly for the discounts.  I am paid in product, I’m afraid.)  I only got around to opening the package today.  I think, now, I understand what took so long.  The package appears to have been lovingly assembled by hand by some industrious employee.  A band cut from a 8 x 11 sheet of printer paper secures the books with some help from a bit of scotch tape.  The cellophane wrapping is – I am fairly sure – Saran Wrap, also secured with scotch tape, liberally applied. The six books are pulled from the shelf in various states of shelf wear, some having been there for some time.

But I am thrilled none the less.  I suspect that with Fat Woman‘s early exit from the challenge Talon gave up hope of having a great bestseller on their hands and withdrew the special.  I’m sure they were surprised to get my order but, as good and honest bookpeople, fulfilled it anyway on a to-order basis.  Somehow I like it better this way – I am left with the distinct impression of having been personally served.

June 15, 2009

Like Minds: The Triumphs and Trials of Collaboration

Well, first of all let me apologize for the prolonged suspense!  This summer holiday went into several rounds of overtime, and I have been caught up in the very busy business of reading in the backyard, meeting with old friends for tea and teaching the little one which rocks, twigs and leaves at the park are best for eating (answer: any).  But all good things have to come to an end, and new good things have to be taken up again.

May’s virtual exhibit, Like Minds: The Triumphs and Trials of Collaboration has been an eye opener.  First of all, submissions were overwhelmingly genre books, science fiction and fantasy.  Being a fan of both genres I can’t say that I mind, though as I wasn’t able myself to come up with many non-genre examples and had hoped you lot out there would be able to jog my memory.  Not a lot of luck there, but it does stand out as a sort of mystery to me.  Why are genre writers so willing to share a byline, while examples in “literary” fiction are impossible to come by?  I don’t have an answer today.

(more…)

June 2, 2009

Ah, summer holidays…

Just a quick PSA to let you know that I’m not dead, but that I won’t be making any posts this week before Friday’s Digital Book Collection.   Real life… you know how it is.

So in the meantime, go out with your phones and your cameras and hunt books!  The deadline for this month’s contest is Thursday night – lots of time to inundate my inbox with entries.

See you then!