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Much Ado About…A Lot of Things, Actually

The UNSW Library has recently been in the news due to a policy that disposes of books and other such bibliographic paraphernalia if they have not been borrowed within a given period of time. The Sydney Morning Herald published an article strongly critical of the Library’s actions: Books get the shove as university students prefer to do research online, quoting an unnamed former library assistant as saying that ”Most libraries see their function as an archive but these guys see it almost like a video store. After you’ve had the book five years, why keep it?” To clarify, the library disposes of these items because there are digitized copies available online, and any books within the collection which have the distinction of being the last Australian copy in physical form are protected from such culls.

This brings up an interesting point about the purpose and function of archives. In contrast to what the aforementioned former library assistant appears to assume, archives are not intended to simply maintain physical items as relics of the past. Wikipedia defines archives as “a collection of historical records, as well as the place they are located. In general, archives consist of records that have been selected for permanent or long-term preservation on grounds of their enduring cultural, historical, or evidentiary value.”

This appears simple enough. Yet this definition doesn’t specify how we as a society decide what has value enough to be archived. This is particularly important because archives are a repository of our collective memory. There is power in this – in lieu of simply being able to remember the past, we keep records of it; by choosing selectively what we are going to preserve, we can in a sense rewrite the past. There are many deep implications of this – as we’ve seen with the History Wars in Australia, for example, with the opposing ‘Three Cheers’ and ‘Black Armband’ views: atrocities such as genocide can be erased or glazed over, and the dignity and identity of people can be lost or corrupted.

These stories are important. The Holocaust for example, is recorded in great detail – not simply because it happened and we as a society are now witnesses, but because of how it came about, how easily propaganda and the zeitgeist were manipulated to create the Nazi State; it stands as a warning and a preventative. The Apartheid Archive, likewise, “is fundamentally premised on the understanding that traumatic experiences from the past will constantly attempt to re-inscribe themselves (often in masked form) in the present, if they are not acknowledged, interrogated and addressed.” (Apartheid Archive Project, 2010)

Gulag Archive, on Omeka

As a society, therefore, it is important to maintain archives. Digitization has made this more open and equitable – many digital texts are, by their very nature, searchable and replicable. Yet even more so than that, the internet facilitates the sharing of stories – through projects such as Omeka, “a free, flexible, and open source web-publishing platform” for the display of archives, through blogs and forums, through online publications and compendiums and collections such as Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia. Even on a personal level, sites such as Flickr, Gmail and Facebook offer private archives, in which we can explore our own pasts.

In many cases sites keep a record of their history, and because of the phenomena of caching and taking screenshots, much of the past is preserved to be viewed in its original form. Apart from the greater variety and depth of content however, the greatest advantage of digitization is searchability – it is easy to lose data in a physical archive, and even when one knows what they are searching for, there is a lot of data to sift through. On a computer or otherwise over the net, search functions make it infinitely easier to find specific data, and there are numerous algorithms which suggest to users other data that they might find interesting based on their previous searches.

Given that this is the case, it does seem rather ridiculous, I believe, for The Sydney Morning Herald to criticize an academic library for disposing of books that haven’t been borrowed for two years. Archiving is not, after all, the same as hoarding.

*As a point of interest, another UNSW staff member wrote a rather more succinct and well thought out article in defense of the Library’s policies: The Museum of the Book: Thoughts on UNSW Library’s book cull.

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About spud1991

Writer, adventurer, music aficionado, lexophile. I use the word 'lol' in regular conversation and appreciate the irony of it.

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