A Literary Reading of the Archive

April 26th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

On friday I attended a ‘colloquium’ in the Comparative Literature department at NYU, at which Cristina Vatulescu gave a presentation related to her recent book, “Police Aesthectics: Literature, Film, and the Secret Police in Soviet Times”.

After giving an overview of the state and history of police archives in eastern Europe in general, and detailing some of the bureaucratic hurdles she had to climb over in order to gain access to some of these archives (and quoting Derrida and Foucault on archives along the way, naturally), she got to what I found to be the most interesting part of her presentation.

Ultimately, she found that gaining access to the archives was less of a problem for her than the act of actually working through the materials: basically, she had no idea how to read the documents, and she had to undergo a process of “patiently re-learning how to read.”  She soon realized that she was essentially the second reader of these files, the first being a supervisor or archivist who had made numerous markings in red pencil.  However, there was a huge difference between herself and the first reader: the document had been written to meet the expectations of the supervisor and thus, the files can tell us more about the police than about the individuals who are the subjects of these files.  The traditional biography aims to create a comprehensive portrait of an individual, but the purpose of the biographies created by these files is to do the opposite: its intent is to eliminate any doubts or any contradictions and to transform all aspects of one’s life so as they fit into the context of “legal” or “illegal”, thus estranging the subject’s relationship to his or her own value system.  The only value system of any consequence is ultimately that of the interrogator, and that value system is aligned strictly with the secret police’s goals, whatever those might be.  She likens her own experience with the documents to surrealism: the groups of documents, when laid out on the table, seem absurd to the viewer, unless one looks at them through the strange lens of the secret police’s goals.

In the end, she makes the comparison between literature and the secret police file as a genre of writing, and how the two influence each other. She argues that the position of the author and the shaping of biographical materials (in literary practice in general, but more specifically in Eastern European literature) must be re-evaluated in light of the roles played by authorship and biographical truth in creating these police files.

[Photo by John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images]

Images & Orphans @ NYU – April 26 – Today!

April 26th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Images and Orphans: Seeing Pictures in the Archive
April 26, 4:00-6:00 PM, 19 University Place, Great Room (Ground Floor)

NYU Workshop in Archival Practice

Workshop Leaders:
Tina Campt, Professor of Women’s Studies and Africana Studies at Barnard College
Dan Streible, Associate Professor NYU Cinema Studies; Orphan Film Symposium

Previous workshops this semester have addressed “The Radical Politics of Hidden Archives” and “Black Gotham in/outside the Archive.” Among many other issues, these conversations raised the possibilities of writing “partial” histories by honoring the trace or fragment in the writing process, emphasized the importance of archivists as cultural mediators and editors of context, and questioned the categories of “hidden” and “radical,” ultimately asking whether radical movements die or cease to be radical once they are archived.

With “Images and Orphans: Seeing Pictures in the Archive,” the Workshop brings the series’ aims to the specific terrain of visual media. What types of knowledge do visual media archives produce? What particularities of form, methodology or narrative strategies should guide young scholars as they seek to develop archival acumen in working with the still or moving image?  How do current topics like the surge of interest in digital humanities or recent litigation decisions involving Google affect us?  In seeking to craft scholarly work using “lost works” of visual media (photographs with partial histories or orphan films), what are the politics of un-hiding?

Sacred Trash

April 26th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

“At least once a month, from the ages of 5 to 15, I would take the little train from suburban Maadi to Cairo and back. Today it is electrified and goes underground as it reaches Bab-el-Luk Station in Cairo (not far from Tahrir Square), but it still stops at Mari Girgis, or St. George, on the way. This is where the Coptic Church stands, visible from the train, in what was once the center of Old Cairo. Right next to the grand Coptic Church, though invisible from the train, is the tiny synagogue of Ben Ezra.

The synagogue once housed a remarkable treasure trove of written material, thrown any old how into a small room high up above the women’s gallery and handed over, quite unlawfully, in 1898 by my grandmother’s great-uncle, Moise Cattaoui, then head of the Cairo Jewish community, to a Cambridge scholar to take back to England. The story of that transaction, of the cache that was shifted and of the scholars who subsequently deciphered it, has been told many times but never so well as by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole in “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza.”

The room that housed the material was known as a geniza, from the Persian ganj, meaning “hidden treasure.” In the Talmud, the word usually implies concealment: Any writing that seemed heretical should, it was felt, be ganuz, hidden away. Gradually that came to include manuscripts that time or human hand had rendered unfit for human use but that could not be thrown out due to their sacred content and so required removal to a safe place that would allow them to decay of their own accord. In Old Cairo, the habit extended even further. Soon any piece of writing thought to include the name of God, and finally anything in Hebrew, was thrown into the upstairs room, there gradually to expire.

And so it remained for the better part of a thousand years, as Cairo shifted northward, as the synagogue of Ben Ezra became a backwater and as Egypt lost its place as the center of a thriving Mediterranean culture. But in the 19th century, material that had lain hidden for centuries in the Geniza, preserved by the dry climate of the region, began to surface, and stray items started to be sold to Western buyers in the markets of the region”

~from Gabriel Josipovici, “A World Revealed,” Review of Adina Hoffman & Peter Cole, Sacred Trash (Nextbook, 2011), Wall Street Journal (April 23-4, 2011): C10.

Final Projects & End-of-Semester Agenda

April 21st, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

BiblioBurro from jeitson on Vimeo.

After much schedule consultation, calendar making, and class discussion, I think I’ve worked out an end-of-semester plan that offers more advantages (e.g., no super-rushed 7-minute presentations, more time for discussion, better venue, food and drink) than disadvantages (e.g., three of you won’t be able to join us for the final meeting; you have to sacrifice a Friday night) and delivers the “greatest good” for the greatest number of people. Here’s the plan:

Our class on May 3 will be optional. You’re encouraged to attend if you’d like to workshop your final presentation, extend or wrap up any of our in-class discussions from throughout the semester, collaboratively reflect on the course, etc. But you’re not obligated to be there, and you won’t be penalized for not attending.

All final projects will be due by the beginning of class on May 10. This means you’ve got a one-week extension. Your means of submission will depend on the particular format of your project. If it’s a paper, just submit it via Google Docs. If it’s a full-scale recreation of Otlet’s Mundaneum, we’ll need to talk strategy.

In class on the 10th, we’ll have our first set of presentations. The day’s program will obviously include those of you who won’t be able to join us for our outside-of-class-meeting on the 13th (about which more below), but I’m hoping we’ll get a few additional volunteers. Ideally, we’ll have 5 or 6 presentations, of 15 minutes each, today. **UPDATE: Allison, Lily, Kelly, Sue, Nick, and Maria will be presenting on the 10th!**

Then, on Friday the 13th, from 6 to 10pm (we’ll end early if we finish early), we’ll have our remaining 10 or 11 presentations in room 1204 at 2 West 13th Street. I’ll order pizza. We’ll have drinks. As I mentioned above, three of you will unfortunately be unable to join us; you of course won’t be penalized for your absence. I’m also aware that a couple of you will be unavailable for the full four hours. That’s fine; we’ll accommodate your schedule.

*     *     *     *     *

Feedback? Recommendations? Post a comment.

The Future of Libraries and Reading in the Digital Age @ NYPL, 4/29

April 20th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

in conversation with Paul Holdengräber


Friday, April 29th at 7:00 p.m.
Celeste Bartos Forum, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

$25 General Admission
$15 FRIENDS, Seniors & Students with valid ID

Paul LeClerc, a scholar of the French Enlightenment, will be retiring in June 2011 from his position as president of the New York Public Library, where he has served admirably since 1993. To mark this occasion, Paul LeClerc is joined by Bruno Racine, president of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, for a wide-ranging conversation about the future of libraries in the digital age moderated by Paul Holdengräber.

This event is co-sponsored by the Maison Française of Columbia University.

PAUL LECLERC earned his Ph.D. in French literature with distinction at Columbia University. He taught at Union College from 1966 through 1979, joined CUNY as University Dean for Academic Affairs, and later became Provost and VP for Academic Affairs of Baruch College. In 1988, Dr. LeClerc was appointed President of Hunter College. He has presided over the New York Public Library since 1993.

BRUNO RACINE is president of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Hisprevious positions include cabinet appointments in the French Ministry  of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s office, Director of the French Academy in Rome, and President of the Centre Georges-Pompidou.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER is Director of LIVE from the NYPL.


“Staging Archives” @ NYU, April 22

April 20th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

See the website for the NYU Workshop in Archival Practice for more info.

Goodbye, Google Video

April 20th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Via Steve T.: Google Video will meet its maker on April 29, but Archive Team is working to save its content from oblivion. Their site includes downloading instructions; I know some of you were looking for these.

Alan Berliner’s Archive

April 19th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

[My midterm paper was a short profile of the filmmaker, Alan Berliner, focusing mainly on his use of archival materials and the meticulousness with which he maintains his own personal archive, comprised of both personal materials as well as things he has collected over the past thirty-five years or so. Embedded below is part of the scene that I mention in the first paragraph – apologies to Alan if posting this causes some copyright issues.]

(For some reason, the video won’t embed properly, but you can follow the link below.  -Steve)

Alan Berliner – Wide Awakeby wouspike



Now let me tell you a few things I love about home movies.
They are anthropological sites.
Shards from archaeological digs.
They are mirrors.
They are windows.
Time capsules.
They are questions waiting to be answered.
They are answers waiting to be questioned.

-Alan Berliner

There is a scene in his 2007 film, Wide Awake, in which Alan Berliner, having imbibed coffee for what he reckons to be the third time ever in his life, steps in front of the camera and gives a hyperactive, madcap tour of his editing studio and amazing personal archival collection. Berliner’s films are nothing short of miraculous in their use of archival materials: both the volume and diversity of materials is bewildering, but what is truly striking is how effectively he uses these materials to create emotional resonances with his themes, counterpoints with the audio track, a visual playfulness through careful juxtaposition, and a rhythm of montage that pulls the viewer almost helplessly into Berliner’s world. This world is not quite somewhere between fact and fiction though; I would say its somewhere between fact and fantasy. This is an important distinction because I don’t think he is creating a fictional world, but he is definitely pushing both himself and his viewers into some kind of dreamland, where historical images take on new layers of hidden meaning.

The idea of a dreamland is appropriate, especially in the context of Wide Awake, which is about Berliner’s attempts to break the destructive pattern of insomnia that he has suffered with for much of his adult life. The film even begins by evoking one of his own recurring dreams that he has visually reconstructed from archival footage. The scene in his studio however, is not a dream at all: this is Berliner at his most awake and alert – his voiceover until now had been thoughtful and meditative, but now he has a manic giddiness as he takes us on his tour. His studio and, more precisely, his archive, is where he feels most comfortable, and once the tour commences, you come to understand that his meticulously crafted films are the direct result of both a meticulously organized mind as well as a meticulously organized, albeit eclectic, archive. » Read the rest of this entry «

Scheduling Our Final Presentations

April 13th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

via Letterology: http://bit.ly/gOkHtA

There seems to be some interest in canceling one of our final two Tuesday afternoon meetings — either May 3 or May 10 — and scheduling a longer outside-of-class, and outside-the-classroom, meeting for (some of) our final presentations. Please respond to this availability poll before next Tuesday, so we can finalize our presentation schedule in class. If none of the polled times works for you, or if you’d simply prefer to present during one of our regular Tuesday afternoon meetings on May 3 or 10, please reply to this post or write me privately with your preferences.



Update: April 18: It’s looking like our best option is Friday the 13th. Oh no.

Spaces around Digital Access: Kiosks in sub-Saharan Africa

April 11th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Spaces around Digital Access: Kiosks in sub-Saharan Africa

In “The Atomized Library” Geoff Manaugh asks a closing question “when it comes to public libraries, whether we’re referring to New York City or Ciudade del Este, what is the architectural equivalent of One Laptop Per Child? Is the future of the community library a modular shed, or has an entire building type been made obsolete by handheld devices? “ (BLDBLOG, 11 Feb 2010).  I would like to explore the work ongoing with several kiosk-based initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa and try to address at least some parts of Manaugh’s question by developing an understanding of how these emerging environments work to provide something like “public libraries.”


I will first provide an overview and background of the Digital Drum and Digital Doorway projects.  These are being run, respectively, out of Ugandan and South African technology development centers.  Second, I will discuss some of the issues around library and space, particularly through the lens of “information as experience” raised by Anna Klingmann in her essay on datascapes.   Finally I will explore how the “physical space [of these kiosks] supports, or fails to support … core information provision and public service functions.”


I. Background of Kiosks as Libraries


The two “libraries” that I will discuss are variations on the same theme.  They are both rugged physical objects that can be left in rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa (or elsewhere) with relatively little day-to-day care and maintenance.  They are built to withstand climate (dust and temperatures regularly over 40C), social dangers (theft, abuse) and most importantly the curiosity of children who will inevitably try to make “creative” upgrades to such devices using twigs, rocks or other bits of material that may be lying around.


The Digital Doorway (Fig 1, below) was built in South Africa by a team of researchers at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria.  The Digital Drum (Fig 2, below) was built in Uganda by UNICEF’s Technology for Development unit in the UNICEF Uganda country office.


Figure 1: Digital Doorways awaiting deployment in Uganda, built by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South Africa (photo: Chris Fabian)

Figure 2: Children in Kampala, Uganda using a Digital Drum (built from used oil drums) prototype at an education fair. (photo: Sean Blaschke)


Both of these kiosks are similar in many regards, and they do not stand alone in the world of technology for development.  Manaugh mentions the One Hundred Dollar Laptop (or OLPC) in his blog post, but that particular device has had a troubled history and cannot be, at this time, considered as “library” environment in the way that these kiosks can.  The issues behind the failures of the OLPC are manifold and could (should) be a dissertation in their own right, but for the purposes of this discussion, the OLPC failed because it was not tested with users, Negroponte was not able to secure any significant agreements from country governments to go to scale and the device itself was foreign enough that its uptake in communities was at best troublesome and at worst a danger to those carrying it around.


Without spending too much time on the pedagogic particulars of the kiosk projects, they do come, fundamentally from the same constructionist (Seymour Papert et al.) school of teaching and learning that inspired the OLPC.


Many of the theories expressed at MIT’s Media Lab concerning the use of technology for education and dissemination of information came to life in Dr. Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” project in India.  In this project, Dr. Mitra provided children access to a terminal and watched while, with no external instruction, children from some of the poorest slums began to teach themselves how to use the interface.  (TED Talks, Sugata Mitra).

Link to Dr. Mitra’s TED Talk


Figure 3: Artist’s rendering of how kiosks can supplement traditional information sources by providing localized audio / visual accompaniment to textbooks.


With these elements in mind, the teams behind the Digital Doorway and Digital Drums have sought to understand how a fixed, ruggedized kiosk – an Automated Teller Machine for access to information – placed in some of the most difficult operating environments in the world can become a source of information and a place of learning.  The kiosks contain tremendous amounts of information.  Content includes everything from a cached / offline copy of Wikipedia, to books from Project Gutenberg, to a wide array of videos in local languages on topics from health to basic mechanical engineering.  They also include panoply of content that is slightly less traditional from the library point of view – every thing from educational games to content created by young people (the kiosks have microphones and webcams) and their teachers.   Hardware, operating system and all content are entirely open-source and in the public domain.


Figure 4: Over 200 Digital Doorway locations in South Africa.

II. Kiosks and Public Space


The kiosk computers described above are meant to be eminently “public.”  The locations where they are located are not inside facilities rather, within the limits of security concerns, in places that are as accessible as possible.  Concretely this can mean being placed outside of youth centers, near government or traditional leadership’s buildings, in proximity to schools or health centers.  In theory this sounds terrific.  These “libraries” of information are expressly designed to be externally facing, and to be non-enclosed.  This obviously makes it more difficult to maintain and care for them, but the expectation, following from Dr. Mitra’s work in Indian slums, is that this public-facing nature will create a kind of accessibility and universality that would not be present in the sort of enclosures described in Manaugh’s blog post.


In a sense these new access points can potentially become a new information landscape.  As Figure 4 (above) shows, this potential is enormously exciting.  The green dots that pepper the north-east districts of South Africa in Figure 4 are not a landscape of lack, a landscape of misery or sorrow (though of course they do indicate, obliquely, some of the most poverty-ridden communities).  The green dots in Figure 4 are indicators of access, of places where there is information, there is access to “a library,” where kiosks present hope rather than represent its absence.  “Encompassing both …concrete delimination as well as the potential of unlimited space… the new library constitutes an emergent typology,” says Klingmann, “[it is n]either restricted to territorial boundaries of physical enclosure nor to a space entirely aterritorialized…” (Klingman, 408).


Perhaps these kiosks can help us understand what the coming library is –  particularly in heavily resource-constrained environments.  However there are (at least) to enormous hurdles that are already arising – which, interestingly – mirror historical barriers to access put in place by / with / near libraries of various types.   A major area of discussion and further understanding concerns control of the space in which kiosks in sub-Saharan Africa exist.  I break this into two sub-areas for ease of discussion – first access restrictions placed on “users” of the library by authority, and second access placed on groups of users by other groups of users.


II.I Restricted Access by Authority:

Klingmann says “… it could be argued that the library throughout history has always presented a contested territory of prevailing powerstructures affected simultaneously by economic conditions, technological innovations and most importantly the social production of knowledge” (406).


On a recent (March, 2011) trip to Uganda, our team visited a site where a digital doorway had been installed several months prior.  When the initial installation had happened it was agreed, with the community leaders, that the Digital Doorway would be placed outside a youth center, in an area still covered by an awning.   This would provide access to anyone who wanted to use it, and also some amount of shelter from both the hot northern Ugandan sun as well as the heavy seasonal rains.


On the second visit, the team found that some minor changes had been made:


Figure 5: Digital Doorway in its very own child-proof cage.  Engineer Jean-Marc ironically signals his disapproval.

When the community leaders were asked why a huge metal cage had been built around the bullet-proof, fire-proof, child-proof Digital Doorway the response was: “well, to protect it.”  In many ways this sentiment is exactly parallel to the feeling of protectionism (particularly historically) in libraries.  When the resources (books) are so valuable that their loss or damage would have a financial impact on a person or facility, notions of ownership and care change considerably.  Similarly, today in the Morgan library (where volumes were originally collected for their pure financial value) every book is behind bars.  The Morgan’s filigreed bars look a bit nicer than the 6cm iron in Figure 5, but they serve the same purpose.  Keep the value in, and keep the peoples’ hands out.



II.II Restricted Access by Users:


Access controls from authority figures can be managed.  Allowances can be negotiated.  Metal bars can be removed (as the ones in Figure 5 have been).   What is potentially more difficult are access controls put in place by the users themselves.  Dr. Mitra’s TED talk paints a quite rosy picture of the heterogeneity of users who have access to a digital library such as the Hole in the Wall or the Digital Doorway.  In many of the sites that I have seen in sub-Saharan Africa there is a slightly different dynamic.  What is wrong with Figure 6 (below)?


Figure 6: “Old boys’ club” using a Digital Doorway in South Africa (photo: Grant Cambridge)

Average age of the “library user” in this picture is probably mid-teens.  Gender balance is 100% male, 0% female using the kiosk.  While there are some very irritated looking young girls in the foreground, it does not appear that they will have access to the Digital Doorway anytime soon, or with any sort of ease.


This is a huge problem.  It means that those who often most need access to information may not have it, and that the expense and thought that goes into installing a kiosk may be maintaining, if not growing, a divide in the communities where they are being placed.  This pattern of usage is common among many of the installation sites, both for these kiosks and also for more standard “computer labs.”  It extends, as well, to paid centers of access.  Plan International’s recent report on adolescent girls and technology highlights this gulf excellently.  Resoundingly, in the developing world adolescent girls find internet cafes to be less safe than their male peers do. (Plan International, Because I am a Girl)


III Can this “library” work?


Exploring the question of success of this new type of library, specifically how does the “physical space [of these kiosks] support, or fails to support … core information provision and public service functions” brings up some issues particular to the context in which the kiosks are being placed that are slightly different to issues that would be raised in, say, suburban America.  The main issue to be noted is that in these contexts, in, for example, north-eastern South Africa or in northern Uganda these kiosks may be the only things providing information and public service functions.  This means, of course, that there is enormous potential, but it also means there is an enormous responsibility to ensure that there is equity of access to this resource, particularly because it is most likely the only technology kiosk of its kind anywhere nearby.  As Grant Cambridge, the lead engineer of the Digital Doorway in South Africa loves to say: “for many of these villages technology is so far away that a “mouse” is just a mid-day snack.”


It seems that using some historical lessons and understandings from the world of book-libraries may help at least mitigate some of the issues of physical space and how these kiosks can support their communities.  In-depth exploration of these solutions is too involved for this essay, but I will suggest, at least, some areas of discussion that may be had towards developing the necessary parity of access among age groups, genders, and populations of differing needs.


III.I Overcoming Limitations of Access by Authority


As mentioned above, authority can often be negotiated with.  In the example of the iron cage that negotiation could have been fairly simple: “remove the iron cage or we remove the Digital Doorway.”   That would have been the wrong way to achieve that particular end.   Instead, our team lead discussions both about the ruggedness of the device itself, but also about how necessary it was for it to be accessed at all times.  Reassuring leadership that the thing itself was not going to be harmed by being in the open, and that it was locked to a bed of concrete, so not liable to being easily stolen, provided a solution.


This, however,  is not sustainable.  Libraries began to open their collections to the dirty, un-manicured fingers of the masses particularly after the commodity price of individual books in collection was low enough that loss or breakage was not a career-ending tragedy (for a librarian).  Even now, there is a clear parallel between the specialized collections with unique and expensive items and the levels of security around access.  I would suggest that as we find technology solutions that are cheaper, have less perceived value, and are more omnipresent than a looming kiosk there will be a change in the way that “authority” in these communities deals with the library function.


III.II Overcoming Limitations of Access by Users Against Users


Libraries in the States increasingly design for their users.  Examples of collections where the “media” (DVDs, etc.) are close to the front of the building, where the foreign language sections are placed in relation to how many people speak only that language in that community, where children’s areas are separated from the places in which research is done are plenty.  It is clear that these same user design research engagements, and mappings of how all types of users encounter a “kiosk library” must be done in order to ensure equity and equality of access.


It is also quite apparent that as with the question of authority, many of these issues of access can be resolved through having less specifically localized points of access.  A kiosk, and to some extent a physical building, will always be able to have those who are physically stronger and more “able” block access, if they want, for other groups.  Looking at radios, and now, increasingly, mobile phones, we find examples of technologies that are so ubiquitous that they are very difficult to block.  Perhaps here too there is a space to explore the extension of kiosk libraries.


In conclusion, the physical setup of kiosk libraries in sub-Saharan Africa provides an enormous set of opportunities to ensure access to information and use of that information to populations that desperately need it.  Perhaps, foremost among those opportunities, though, is the chance to engage in active research, as these initiatives progress, in how users use the new library, who becomes the librarian, what is the book that is accessed and read, and many other questions.   There is the opportunity to leapfrog past many of the historical advances of library science- and to leapfrog by looking at best practices and the trials-and-errors of others, rather than repeating them.  Finally, there is the possibility to use both the ethnographic and technological research from places like northern Uganda to contribute to, and inform “back” into concepts of “library” in the “developed world” as these facilities, globally, morph and shift into the digital age.



ChrisF, April 2011




Works Cited:

Klingmann, Anna. Datascapes: Libraries as Information Landscapes, In Susanne Bieri & Walther Fuchs, Eds., Building for Books: Traditions and Visions(Boston: Birkhäuser, 2001): 406-23.


Manaugh, Geoff. The Atomized Library BLDGBLOG [blog post] (11 February 2010).


Plan International. 2010. Because I am a Girl. Available: http://plan-international.org/about-plan/



TED Talks . Sugata Mitra: Can kids teach themselves? < http://www.ted.com/index.

php/talks/sugata_mitra_shows_how_kids_teach_themselves.html > .