The Archivist’ dilemma

A while back the Interwebz mysteriously put on my path this excellent article by Vic Gray “Preservation vs. Use: the Archivist’ dilemma” which I found so intriguing I happily spent the $30 needed to read it in its entirety.

Predictably, I also promptly misplaced it and now cannot find it anymore, but this is not a great problem as I remember well the gist of the article which is whether the main purpose of any archive should be its conservation or its accessibility. This is an issue which is highly pertinent when said archive is, e.g. my film collection: started in the era of VHS, I soon (but not soon enough) realized that this “fabric” (to use one of Gray’s words) is highly IMG_20170504_141719.jpgperishable and switched to longer-lasting and by then available DVDs and later to Blu-Ray.

The upgrade of the 600-odd movies I had on VHS is obviously a financial challenge, especially as it needs to be performed WHILE the collection is growing with new releases, but you will be pleased to know I am halfway through. I briefly thought of adding a soft copy (i.e. ripping the movie upon arrival so that I would never have to use the DVD again – preservation!) but the job is VERY time consuming and with the advent of online MOD services such as Netflix, of dubious usefulness.

Physically speaking DVDs are much smaller than VHS, so this means my existing storage space should easily suffice for another 5-6 years.

Plus, movies come with a universal barcode that enable quick data entry (I use the very capable MyMovies software for archiving and retrieval). Such good software means that if it takes a second to satisfy the quest for essential factoids such as how many movies directed by Stanley Kubrick I have in my collection (10) or how many feature Woody Allen as an actor (28).

Books, however, are an entirely different ball game, for two main reasons:

  1. they have no universally accepted barcode system (many modern books do, but a lot of the ones I own date back up to forty years). This makes data entry a daunting task.
  2. no universal book database exists: AFAIK the most comprehensive Italian database is ALICE (*ahem* not available online) which carries about 1.1 million titles (not bad considering Italy publishes about 62,000 books per year); about 15% of the books I own are however in other languages.

This rules out the use of book archiving software, leaving only physical archiving, which is prone to numerous mistakes: we chose to archive by Author, but last time we moved, we found three copies of Joyce’s Ulysses(*) !

Even a simple count is difficult: at the time of our last move (again!) we counted 167 boxes averaging 20 books each, so the current estimate hovers around 3,000 units.

Up until recently, I though e-books were the answer and my preferred choice for new books, but yesterday I was let down also by that simple solution.

I went looking for Richard Feynman’s “Six not-so-easy pieces” lectures and could not find them together with my other Feynman books. I am rather sure I read that book, so I concluded I misplaced it; since I still wanted to re-read it, I decided to buy the Kindle version as a) it’s cheaper and b) when the book surfaces I don’t feel entirely a moron.

Unfortunately, Kindle books are really bad for essays, as they do not support anything except the written word: in this case, all the mathematical formulas are but illegible, making the book practically useless.

It seems that the only solution to my issue is manual labor: hire someone who manually inputs the data and builds the database: at 5′ for each book, 3000 titles would require about 250 hours of work.

I guess this goes on the list, after I finish the Great Digitization.

Note (*): don’t feel bad, I still don’t get it!


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