What’s In A Name?

In September 2017, during a Twitter Q&A session, #AskACurator, hosted by the British Museum, curator Jane Portal tweeted: “We aim to be understandable by 16-year-olds. Sometimes Asian names can be confusing – so we have to be careful about using too many.” The Museum has since issued an apology. 

This type of cultural imperialism in the Western world is so ingrained in archival practices that museums can sometimes feel like less of a place to acquire cultural knowledge and more of an institution of capital-gaining cultural appropriation and superficial gandering. That tweet demonstrates some of the themes in this week’s readings, namely the discussion about the lack of including a community in an effort to create an archive pertaining to their heritage, and the effort to name items in the vernacular of said group. This also raises a question mentioned in the Digital Social Memory panel, who is the audience?

When a name is changed or taken away it strips the cultural significance of the item; it replaces the bodies and histories attached with a centerpiece, a decoration; it panders to those who are not affected by the misrepresentation. I wonder what is the full range of dangers or limitations of uninformed naming practices in archives? What are the politics of inclusion when an archivist so steeped in their own hegemonic viewpoints only considers the audience and neglects the bodies which created the content?

Community (of) Practice

In “Digitization: Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should” I found the theme of provenance, particularly of importance. I agree with the sentiment that participators in this adult magazine were unaware that they would one day be included in an archive available on the internet, a distribution much wider than they expected. 

Initially, I thought “Perhaps making this available offline within an academic setting for scholarly research provides a context for the work that doesn’t exploit the subjects or stray too far from their initial expectations of distribution?” However, who is to say that this needs preservation? Who made the decision that this even has epistemological relevance? Where are the voices of the community which the content was initially created for? Here, the archivists failed to acknowledge the community which would stand to be affected by this, both the intended audience and the participants.

In regards to one of the “setbacks” of citizen genealogy, as mentioned in the article by Jarrett M. Drake, there is little accountability when it comes to the validity of information. I don’t see this as a problem. If the information in an archive is curated by those who hold ownership over the artifacts which affect their own community, does it matter what is a truth or mistruth? In instances such as these (as I have come to find out through my own genealogical research) sometimes, especially for marginalized people, the stories we tell ourselves have a greater level of validity than the “truth” itself.

Community and Ephemerality

With traditional epistemological institutions, there is a level of intimidation towards disenfranchised communities, those who are quarantined into spaces where an expanded cultural knowledge is limited. Pertaining to the theme of “community-driven knowledge”, community practices adapt the current infrastructure and can result in archives that reflect various nuanced cultural perspectives.

Framing an archive from an artistic perspective grants it, I believe, (1) a level of accessibility, an affordance for the audience to participate as much or as little as desired. It also—I believe—constitutes a semi-removal of institutional epistemological speed bumps by displacing the formality of an “archive” with the interactivity of art. (2) In the traditional sense, I feel that an archive is an entity that attempts or aims for objectivity. Though as we discussed last week this oftentimes fails due to the limited perspective of the archivist. Art allows for archived material to be brought into the realm of subjectivity, to take a perspective, or more accurately reflect society.

In reference to the theme of destruction and ephemerality, I found Nam Jun Paik’s statements interesting. Paik did not take steps to archive his work, under the ideology that art is meant to be experienced in its original form, that the aesthetic of preservation changes the original intent. However, not only is meaning changed based on the medium or context in which the work is displayed, but it also changes with time and space. Society influences how art is experienced and interpreted. When art is destroyed it is frozen in time, free from shifting cultural influences. The destruction of the art form is also its salvation.

The Total Archive and Posthumanism

The Total Archive and Posthumanism

“…The Library is total and its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols … the interpolations of every book in all books.” [1]

In Jorge Luis Borges’s,[2] “The Library of Babel,” he envisions a fictional, seemingly unending and universal library that contains all things that have been written, and will be written. Somethings are sensical and others are nonsensical. This library is one constructed of infinite space and time. It is a metaphorical replica of the universe and depicts the theory of the total archive.

Borges in this literature is undermining the idea of totality. In order for information to be accessible, it must be discernible. But, Borges’s library holds no classification scheme, no decimal system, no form of indexing. The information is infinite, and as such cannot be counted by ephemeral humanity.

The shelves, or containment units, typically represent accessibility of material, but here it is used ironically. Borges describes the specific architecture of this unending labyrinth. There exist an infinite number of hexagonal galleries. Each contains 20 shelves with five shelves per side, except for one. The shelves span the distance from the floor to ceiling, which rarely exceeds the height of the average librarian.

Paul Otlet’s work can be looked at as a more feasible attempt to a total archive as well as a precursor to the World Wide Web. In the Mundaneum, original works were reduced to a system of three- by five-inch index cards placed in filing cabinets, limiting the information stored. “Otlet’s vision was focused on pure information, not objects, and was distinguished by its universality and its emphasis on establishing the connections between bodies of knowledge…,”[3] allowing for a more effective use of space and indexing. Otlet was able to recognize the importance of search and retrieval. This system did not need containers for the original works, for it focused on effective retrieval of information.

The librarians in Borges’s work lived in an existence where they were surrounded by knowledge, and despite the architecture of the library, the openness of the shelves, the heights constructed for them to reach, they still could not find the answers they sought. The useless and the useful cohabit the same space, indiscernible. No book is more important than any other, thus knowledge becomes inaccessible.  

Finally, Borges leaves us with a sentiment: “The Library is unlimited and cyclical.” This in response to the idea that totality is achievable, and in as so much as the library (and the universe) must come to an end. He remarks such a notion is “absurd” and that once one has reached the theoretical end, it would simply begin anew.

Jonathan Basile is a writer and creator of libraryofbabel.info, which is a site that aims to make Borges’s library a reality through the use of an algorithm. The digital library houses 10 to the power of 4,677 books. Even still it represents a much pared down version due to digital storage limitations and parameters as constructed in Borges’s Library, such as page numbers (410) and symbols (22). The site also houses a similar application for images.

Ultimately, he states: “my project resembles Borges’s library only by mirroring its failure.”[4] The fruition of the universal library remains elusive because so long as the universe exists totality is “essentially incomplete.”

Basile’s algorithmic embodiment of the Library may contain all words that have been and will be written, but it lacks intention in its randomness. Humans have not written nor said nor will probably ever say all that can be, making the information meaningless. But what about the future? A future that looks inhuman.

According to N. Katherine Hayles,[5] beyond this theoretical metaphysical total archive, there is a natural phenomenon that limits the practical flow of information; expansion and compression. Borges’s library can be described as a compression. Once one has reached the “end” of the library, the cycle of information repeats in exactly the same order. This creates a lack of randomness to the universe, in other words, a compression. The inverse of this is expansion. “The Aleph,” another Borges work, envisions a photographic archive that contains a photo of itself, which contains a photo of itself, and so on and so forth. Like a set of nesting dolls, one encapsulating another, infinitely growing.

Tangibly, we see expansion and compression as a system of information ebbs and flows through “apparatuses of control,” such as political powers and institutions.[6] As information archives expand or compress the inverse occurs in relative systems. Hayles uses automated storage and retrieval systems employed in libraries as an example of this. These systems allow for the removal or compression of human browsable stacks while inversely expanding the space for utilization of other activities.  

I believe this phenomenon is seen within the internet. It acts as a system that is not only the closest and latest iteration to the Mundaneum but also acts as an expanding archive. However, as we know, server storage capacity is limited, not all permutations exist within it, and the information is transitory. As information expands data must compress, at least for the time being.

Researchers and scientists are working on means to develop information protocols through the use of quantum entanglement in quantum computing, which could mean infinite storage. Though, even this does not address the overarching issue of retrieval. With that issue aside, what if storage and containers are of no limitation if space and time simply do not act as ultimate parameters of archivable information?

Posthumanism can be envisioned as a future where the upper echelon of intelligence no longer belongs to what we now consider to be human. This future includes ideas that are un-human by nature, a world that has transcended the human form. But, how does this future affect current information infrastructures? Does it allow for infinite information storage? Does it allow for navigation? And must this information be transmutable, as seen in Otlet’s archive?

Hayles states in her book How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, that there are four challenges when thinking of a posthuman future narrative. (1) overcoming anthropocentrism, (2) including nonhumans, (3) accounting for the historical present, and (4) incorporating embodied cognition. Hayles uses the word “becomes” deliberately to illustrate that we are already in the fetal stage of posthumanism. That our interactions with computers act as an extension of ourselves. “We already are cyborgs in the sense that we experience, through the integration of our bodily perceptions and motions with computer architectures and topologies, a changed sense of subjectivity.”[7] Hayles does not mean to say that posthumanism will mark the end of humanity, but rather the “conception of a human.”  

Technologies now include the digitization of information and the container often being “the cloud.” This too is not unlike the system put forth by Otlet, where information changes form (in this case digital) to fit the container (the server). This is a reduction of expanding information, or in other words a compression.

Perhaps posthuman synths or alien intelligent life forms are able to decipher such a Library or at least one of its infinite translations.

The Pioneer Plaque,[8] which uses science as a universal language, were plaques placed on board of the 1972 Pioneer 10 and 1973 Pioneer 11 spacecrafts, and features a pictorial message providing information about the origin of the spacecrafts in case they are ever intercepted by extraterrestrial life. Though there is controversy about the universality of the pictured elements, conceivably information can be compressed into such dimensions and be written in a singular, universal, infinite language that allows for an ever-expanding consortium of information.

But, again raises the question of how would one index infinity? This may lie in the quantum computational field that I mentioned earlier. A system for post- or trans-humans to infinitely index information as it is infinitely archived. Though I am not an expert in quantum theory. Perhaps it is plausible. Perhaps it is not. And if so, I wonder if containers, boxes, shelves, filing cabinets, rooms, buildings, budgets, politics, bits and bites, hard drives, hardware, overall computational power, and our limited perspective of linear, observable time are necessary barriers. Epistemological barriers that guide the archiving focus towards information that has the ability to ultimately become knowledge.    


[1] Borges, Jorge Luis, and Andrew Hurley. Fictions. London: Penguin, 2000.

[2] an Argentine writer, noted for such works as “The Library of Babel”, and “The Aleph”

[3] Molly Springfield, “Inside the Mundaneum,” Triple Canopy 8.

[4] Basile, Jonathan. Tar for Mortar: The Library of Babel and the Dream of Totality. Santa Barbara, CA: Punctum Books, 2018.

[5] Katherine Hayles is a postmodern literary critic and professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Program of Literature at Duke University

[6] Hayles, N. Katherine,. “Theory of the Total Archive: Infinite Expansion, Infinite Compression, and Apparatuses of Control,” Lecture, Crassh, Cambridge, UK, March 31 2015.

[7] Hayles, N. Katherine,.  “Condition of Virtuality”, p. 12.

[8] Paglen, Trevor. “Friends of Space, How Are You All? Have You Eaten Yet? Or, Why Talk to Aliens Even If We Can’t.” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, no. 32 (2013): 8-19. doi:10.1086/670177.

Every Library is Autobiographical

Can large-form public institutions that are becoming ever more consolidated reflect the processes adopted by Warburg’s or the Prelinger’s libraries?

Warburg’s library did not divide domains by just subject or chronologically, but by subjective association. His library stood as a physical representation of ideas and symbols. I believe libraries function best in this serendipitous nature, as an institution that not only provides access to knowledge but inspires it. A seemingly insignificant idea from one context can permeate and lead to an acute association, drawing a mental roadmap of tangential domains. Traditional library indexing systems don’t serve browsers in quite the same way—it is at best community oriented.

The invisible inner workings of library systems is an integral part of these browsing affordances. The interface is a derivative of the interplay of this hidden network and patron browsing habits. For instance, “floating” practices allow for a tailored local library collection, one that is informed by the needs of its community.

I ponder how library science in the age of digitization and artificial intelligence intermingle. How might libraries be more personalized? Can a constantly evolving neural network trained on personalized data learned from browsing habits produce a digital library completely organized by thought patterns? And if so, what are the ethical implications?