Cheeseman – Question 2
2To what extent do previous representations (such as editions) of the archives with which you work – or the lack thereof – affect new representations of them?
Teaching Associate and Honorary Research Fellow – University of Sheffield
Project Leader, Sandpit – Furnace Park
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 One of the difficulties of working with social cataloging is the lack of access to original source material. Because these are largely mass products (especially easily digitized ones such as audio recordings, films, and books) there is a tendency to ignore this problem. A record, for example, can be easily digitized and its physical properties competently cataloged by amateurs because they are so uniform; a vinyl single, for example, requires audio digitization, simple scanning of the labels and sleeves, and notation of the matrix numbers. However, there are plenty of instances when users fail to catalog such items satisfactorily, perhaps due to poor language skills, lack of interest in accuracy, or human error. This is not a problem when the archival item is truly popular, as inaccuracies in previous representations are removed by consensus. This becomes problematic if the item is unique or scarce, and owners cannot be contacted or have no interest in collaboration. Furthermore, because social cataloging websites, such as Discogs, LibraryThing, or even, to an extent, Project Gutenberg, focus on the products of mass production, they lend themselves to generalizing archival items. This is due, in large part, to their database architecture. As a result, some of the archival interest belonging to individual examples of a mass product is already excluded from representation in the first place. This is most tangible in associated ephemera like press releases or even personal annotation.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Finally, when dealing with collectable and expensive items, one also has to be aware of the market forces that can occasionally distort or occlude digital representations, creating false representations. Although there is certainly an ideological commitment from many to share information freely on the internet (which can cause problems with copyright), there is also a rather complicated relationship with the market, and behind that a certain degree of commodity fetishization. Therefore, we need to examine the enthusiasm for social archiving; in some instances it arises from fandom and is fed by a desire for status within collecting communities, not to mention impulses resulting from the trading market in collectables. The previous representations we might deal with are thus dictated by the boundaries of desire for the original objects themselves. Not only does this privilege representations of certain collectable forms beyond others (such as books or vinyl records), it also emphasizes the most collectable instances of such forms (such as first editions). One’s conception of a defined archive, say records from South Yorkshire in 1978–1982, for example, is affected by social catalogers’ enthusiasm for values such as scarcity, aesthetics, fashion, and demand—values that can, essentially, be monetized in the market. Items afforded a high value can thus be emphasized in digital representations, which has the effect of pushing the researcher to the fashionable margins of the archive at the expense of the once-popular center. Yet this is a familiar problem of researching the products of consumer culture; one is always working in a complicated network of value and desire, both past and present. Items that do not leave an imprint in this network of contemporary, digital desire can easily escape further representation. Of course, such complaints and cautions can be turned upon their head. The scale of crowdsourced labor should be celebrated and without internet archivists digitizing old texts, music, and video, the scope of my own research, knowledge, and learning would be severely limited.