Sunday, August 21, 2005

Why preservation is important

During my downtime, I'm reading two books which I think tie in very well to the world of librarianship and information science. The first one, which I'll talk about tomorrow, is by Jeff Hawkins (with Sandra Blakeslee), and is titled On Intelligence (New York: Owl Books, c2004).

The second one, which I've just started to thumb through, is Nicholas A. Brisbanes' A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World (New York: Harper Collins, 2003).

In the preface (xiii-xviii), Brisbanes uses some striking examples and references to the power of the written word, from the film Annie Hall to the runes of Pompeii to a granite slab unearthed in the discovery of the sunken Egyptian city of Herakoleion (Thonis) and Caonpus, to a message in a bottle which had traveled from the Azores to Cape Cod over the period of 31 years.

Brisbanes notes that in human achivement there is an "innate desire we all have to pass on a record of what we have accomplished to the next posterity." I've always thought of writing, performing, composing, or creating (in a more general sense) as a giving of oneself away. This sharing might be ephemeral, but in a more universal sense it is the giving and receiving of creative endeavors is what makes us human. Or as Glinda (from the current hit musical Wicked) sings: "Because I knew you, I have been changed for good."

He further states that of all the forms of cultural heritage (jewelry, pottery, art) which were found in the salvage of the city of Thonis, that the discovery of a granite slab inscribed with text relating to Greek-Egyptian trade practices is the most illuminating of all. French maritime archaeologist Franck Goddio felt that this exploratory group "had made direct contact with the ancient world." This has been my experience as well, even with recordings of the last century. I remember listening in my American Music class in college listening to Folkways recordings of Native American, Sacred Harp, and other styles of music that I would have never encountered, save for that listening assignment. While I was only generations removed, because I was listening to these old songs and ancient voices, I bore witness to them.

The message-in-a-bottle tale somehow struck me the most though, as it did Brisbanes. He found great contemporary relevancy in this "fragile carrier of information making its way across a vast ocean." How like the current state of our electronic online documents, which sit on servers doomed to obsolescence and neglect. The written word has survived for thousands of years because of its carrier--paper. If only the spoken word and the musical documents of the late 19th-early 21st centuries would fare as long! If Egyptian tariff documents can bear witness to a lost culture, how can we as preservationists, archivists, and librarians ensure that a sample of our audio heritage will speak to those who unearth our remains. That is the challenge and the crux of our work.


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