Collecting New Media

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Archive for the 'Inspiration' Category

08 April
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UbuWeb wants to be free


In the Dance Digital Archives usage survey I was pleased to see that UbuWeb came up high in the rankings as a popular source for Digitized Dance materials.  UbuWeb is for me, a signpost in my digital life.  I remember where I was and who I was with when someone showed me UbuWeb. For students interested in ephemeral and liminal art practices like dance, performance, limited editions, small run books and sound works, UbuWeb was a revelation.  It was presented to me as a kind of rascal undertaking. “There is this guy, he’s into concrete poetry, and he has been collecting links to works that are floating around on YouTube and putting up scans of his own work.”

Kenneth Goldsmith ‘this guy’ is a well respected contemporary poet who showed up to a reading at the White House dressed like a queer shaman pimp and totally killed it. Goldsmith began ubuweb in 1996 as a resource to diseminate marginally available avant garde resources.  The site embodies much of the utopian idealism of the early Internet. The entire site operates on a gift economy–hosted across a few universities in the US and Canada with help from a supportive ISP.  The works are not cleared or sanctioned in anyway – books are scanned, CD’s are ripped, videos are compressed into mpegs.

I have been told, through the grapevine, that if an artist seriously objects to a work being hosted, that Goldsmith will take it down.  I imagine  most are honored to be considered within his unorthodox mix of forms and creators.  One of the things I love about ubuweb is how it has organically grown to other media, mirroring the interests and influences of the artists themselves.


Take the sites name, for example. Ubu comes from the surreal early modernist play Pere Ubu by the French aburdist Alfred Jarry. Jarry advocated a systemic upheaval of language in the interests of associative punning and play.  In addition to other poets, Jarry was a huge influence on Marcel Duchamp, whose Large Glass makes use of several of the sexual motifs and puns articulated in a Jarry piece called “Supermale.”

Scholars have found copies of Jarry’s Pataphysics novel, adorned with spirals, in the collection of Robert Smithson with assembled notes for Spiral Jetty. And so in the same dance of associations and exploration  goes the UbuWeb spiral.  As the archive has expanded, Goldsmith has brought on guests to create personal top ten lists.  Keeping with Melanie’s article, these lists are as much guides to explore new material as they are vistas into the minds of working artists, scholars, and whatnots.

While dance has long been a part of UbuWeb’s film & video collection, it has recently gained a section of its own. UbuWeb Dance is presented in partnership with and is largely curated by Contemporary Dance Video Database

I wanted to conclude with a link to one of my personal top ten.  This is Trisha Brown performing Watermotor, documented by Babette Manglotte.  Enjoy!


17 March
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Serendipity and the Internet

For a company/data tool that started out in 2001 (!) I’m always amazed at how few people I interact with know about StumbleUpon, let alone use it. I think its safe to say that most people who are internet savvy have their guilty time-wasting pleasures to pass by idle hours, but these seem to be refined and limited to a set of sites which, in and of itself, is limited to a small group of actors, ideas, and resources. That’s part of why I find StumbleUpon fascinating and refreshing in a seemingly otherwise stagnant web, which at times offers up the same thing in different forms/from different sources- it allows you to break free of that stagnation. If you’re unfamiliar with it StumbleUpon is a discovery engine, something that many people have hailed for re-injecting serendipity into the web; it shows you things you might never have seen otherwise, but just might find fascinating or entertaining, based on the universe of themes you might like (which you choose- so arguably could be just as limiting).

After reading the article by Kraus and the Prelinger style of information organization, I immediately thought about StumbleUpon and its use of proximity and context as a form of (seemingly) random organization. I found a short article about this idea of the loss of serendipity on the web, although it does focus more on new people rather than new ideas. Many of the tools/attempts to interject serendipity among individuals have had disastrous results (see Google Buzz, or the GirlsAroundMe mentioned in the article…). Recently we’ve seen Facebook initiate something similar with their Graph Search, perhaps indicating that people are growing tired of the current ways to organize and access data, and are looking to recapture that serendipity (or the execs at Facebook just think it’ll be profitable…). There’s been discussion (via a TED talk most notably) about the fact that the way most people use the web/social sites tends to feed our confirmation bias rather than opening us up to new and conflicting information, and I like to think that StumbleUpon to some extent can help people break out of those type of patterns. If you don’t use it, I suggest you try it the next time you have some time to burn online and want something new; I’ll preface that by saying it takes a little time to set up- like a good Pandora station you have to spend a bit of time before you reap the rewards, but sometimes the best things in life require a little work (do it, don’t be lazy). Serendipity needs you just as much as you need it?

04 March
Comments Off on All we have is what we’ve been through: New Media and Love

All we have is what we’ve been through: New Media and Love

The Love Artist at work.

Kathe Izzo is a performance artist. She also calls herself a healer, shaman, writer, teacher, a mother, the mother of all creation. She has been engaged in a conceptual performance piece for the last decade or so called The True Love Project. This project is composed of love performances and installations in addition to private, individual sessions. During these sessions or performances, Kathe Izzo falls madly, deeply in love with her audience.

I worked as a studio assistant to Kathe Izzo in the winter of 2007. We began our correspondence in 2005, when I scheduled a love-appointment with her. She was living in New York, and I was in highschool in Virginia, so most of our day-long love affair consisted of emails, text messages, and sending each other songs and pictures online. When I came to New York to live and work in her studio I brought so much expectation and fear and uncertainty. She often told me to “be bold,” and I am still working on that.

Her work is experiential and transient. The majority of what she “has” is documentation of a piece, and not the piece itself – blog entries, video, photography, letters, transcripts, love objects, set pieces, altars, costumes, ad infinitum.

She is not really a new media artist. Love is as old a medium as I can possibly think of. That said, I don’t know how you would write about Kathe without also writing about email, virtual communication, travel, digital photography, web design, twitter, blogs – essentially, new media. You could argue that these digital objects and interactions are just the by-products of her real craft. Even if they are, you could not begin to collect Kathe’s work without collecting all of these things. Her online presence is, in some ways, more real and permanent than the fleeting glimmer of her love. And, as far as I know, she has no archival method in place for storing this information or collecting it as part of her body of work. When I worked with her, she had converted a small pantry off of her dining room into a kind of personal archive. She had boxes and binders full of clippings, fliers, all kinds of documents about her and her work, starting around the 80’s and her work in photography and film. The kind of ephemera she was saving has largely moved online, and there are fewer clippings to save and fliers to preserve. In January she funded her book project through Kickstarter, she is a a tweeter, YouTube artist, and infrequent (if heartfelt and intriguing) blogger. She certainly uses and incorporates new media into her performances. In fact, our own love performance would not have been possible without it. She is a wild, one-woman show, and I sometimes worry about the longevity of the digital goods produced out of her work. I don’t know if it bothers her. It would not surprise me if she found the fragility of digital objects to be somehow poetic and organic. But, it certainly creates a challenge for curators and collectors. It has always been difficult to “preserve” performance, but how can we keep the relational? the emotional? All we have is what we’ve been through, and some tweets.

18 February
Comments Off on Curating objects as instruments

Curating objects as instruments



I want to take Usai’s Charter of Curatorial Values as a jumping off point to introduce a few other models / conversations around curatorship in visual art and popular culture.   The word  curator has steeped, perhaps a bit to deeply into our everyday life.  “Curate your Facebook profile like you curate your life,” a recent NY Times article suggests.  In keeping with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion that objects solidify and project the power of a fragile and variable individual self — popular media has been inundated with the notion of a ‘well-curated’ life.  Popular ‘curators’ in fields from music to art, fashion to beauty present themselves as emulatedable object selectors, taste-makers for an overabundant world.  To mind come names like Taavo Somer, Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, and Danielle Rubi-Dentzel. Often the selections are heightened by a rarified or hand-made quality and the curation extends into the most banal arenas of life, invisible to outsiders – toothpaste and soap come to mind.

Tavi Gevinson, teen blogger of Style Rookie and now online Rookie Magazine was catapulted to fame  not simply for her artful writing on fashion, but for her own depictions of herself in stylish outfits and her presentations of collections of artifacts (both physical and digital) that depict an idealized adolescent bedroom.   Style Rookie elevated the teen bedroom to a curated space.  I argue that this represents a move away from traditional fashion media as well as from the creative production of teens because the thrust of the bloggers activity is to project an image of self, rather than to produce art or comment on fashion.

Csikszentmihalyi argues that the way to get beyond materialism is to use objects “as instruments rather than projections of our selves.” Might it be possible to make the argument that a ‘curator’ used in the broad pop-media context, might be using objects/artifacts as instruments? Does this appellation extend to both curators in institutions and lifestyle curators on blogs?

Curatorial work in the visual arts has exploded with the exponential growth of the contemporary art market since the late 1990s.  In this context, the figure of the curator-as-artist has been debated widely. Usai seems to land on the side of the curator as artist – as capable of creating new works. “New works may be created through the use of one or more existing items in the collections (something whichshould always be encouraged by curators who believe in the archive or museum as a catalyst of invention).”

I am more inclined to agree with the depiction of the curator as a cultural producer–this incompasses a wide-swath of curatorial duties. Both the traditional duties of an arbitor looking down from the ivory tower determining merit, but also allows for the essential role of uniting a creative team and guiding ideas to fruition.  Nato Thompson and Michelle White address this perspective remarkably well in an interview for artlies. Nato and White discuss the possibilities of curatorial work to upset and engage with the matricies of social, cultural, and monetary capital through collective curatorial work.  In effect, to answer my own question, I believe they would be inclined to agree with Csikszentmihalyi that objects are best used as instruments not projections of self, but that collecting and arranging objects – or experiences of artifacts – can be a great disruptor of materialist power.

I want to end by citing the intro to their interview…

In 1934, during Hitler’s ascendance to power, Walter Benjamin gave a lecture called “The Author as Producer,” at the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris. With urgency, Benjamin questioned the role of the author and the artist. He felt that it was their job to not just respond to what was going on from a removed observational vantage point but, as a “producer,” to engage and actively change the course of social politics. Part of being a producer is letting go of individual conceit. Revolutionary power is the autonomy of the collective idea—not the autonomy of an individual.




12 April
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New Media and New Education

I follow a lot of education blogs, and there’s an interesting sort of Goldilocks effect that happens when you mix discussions of new media, America’s education system, and online learning. Some materials take an optimistic (and at times Pollyanna) approach, crediting the Internet and new technology with our potential salvation (see this infographic on Apple’s new education initiatives). Some materials take a Chicken Little approach, crediting the Internet and digital media with the destruction of civilization (see Lanier’s (in)famous Digital Maoism piece). And a lot of materials manage to strike a more balanced approach. Sites like Good Education and Open Culture tend to take a more nuanced approach in their discussion of education issues.
What’s interesting to me is the way in which so many discussions about education and technology tend to assume that technology is a sort of self-evident solution to America’s education woes. It’s not so much of question as to whether or not to use technology in the classroom, but as to how we should use it. And in some cases, there are discussions about how technology can disrupt (positively) the traditional classroom itself.

Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning and Good Education have some interesting posts on efforts to institutionalize online learning with online learning “mandates,” revealing how technology is often used as a sort of panacea in education “fix-it” schemes.

But there are also some more innovative and integrated examples of utilizing online learning. One example is the San Francisco Flex Academy, where the classroom has been transformed into a sort of open-concept cube environment and high school students take online courses and schedule meetings with teachers.  Class here has become a sort of free-wheeling space where students work independently or collaboratively as the mood strikes them.  There’s a definite trend towards learning taking place outside of the classroom.  So how can this be a positive development? Is there a way to empower more individual, independent learning and to recognize achievements done in those areas?

Mozilla launched an Open Badge project, where learners can earn badges (kind of in the Girl and Boy scout model) to reflect learning accomplishments online.  Mozilla’s Open Badge project says that “learning today happens everywhere” and that learners should be able to get recognition for the things they do online – classes, peer learning, volunteering, challenges. In a way, the badges seem like something you’d earn in a Mario game, a sort of fun extension of the types of learning projects you’d pursue online, at places like the Codeacademy, which actually issues its own badges, or Harvard’s free online courses.

But I wonder, do these badges take some of the fun out of online learning? Should lessons at the Kahn academy or the Plato Virtual Academy be seen on par with university courses? Are online learning opportunities a means to an end (employment, career development, etc.) or should they be seen as spaces of exploration, where you can tackle more off-the-wall or hobbyist topics? Is there a way to blend these different objectives?  I think that, ultimately, questions about where learning occurs and how technology can and is changing education need to be part of a broader conversation about what we want out of education in the first place.


02 April
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Digital Public Library of America

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is a planning initiative that began in December 2010. It is sponsored by a grant from the Sloan Foundation, and based out of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Robert Darnton, John Palfrey, and 15 other “non-profit and foundation leaders, government officials, and notable academic and public library directors” sit on its steering

All rights reserved by Digital Public Library of America

committee. Darton mentions the DPLA in the interview we read earlier in the semester: “I feel that Google Book Search, which was going to commercialise access to a database of books, was a real threat to the communication of knowledge, even though it looks like a great leap forward. And, therefore, we are trying to create what we call the Digital Public Library of America: an Open Access digital library that will be available to everyone, not just everyone in the United States, but everyone in the world.”

There are 6 DPLA workstreams (Audience & Participation, Content & Scope, Financial/Business Models, Governance, Legal Issues, and Technical Aspects), each with a group of 10-15 convening members (librarians, academics, developers, etc.) who, reflexively enough, are charged with the task of defining their workstream.

Dan Cohen, a convener of the Audience & Participation workstream, had this to report after the first of a two-day convening: “at today’s meeting I kept coming back to a more basic question, a question faced by any new website or digital project: Why would anyone use it? For something as ambitious (and potentially as expensive) as the DPLA, there is the further question: Why would anyone choose to visit the DPLA first, rather than, say, commercial providers like Google or Amazon, or non-profit entities such as the Internet Archive’s Open Library or OCLC’s Worldcat?” (bold & italics are Cohen’s).

These are good questions to ask. Only, the timing is unfortunate: the first iteration of the platform is due to launch April 2013. And there are other questions that need to be answered before, or concurrently with, those about audience and participation. In the same blog post, Cohen notes that “the DPLA may or may not have in-copyright materials, it may or may not be an meta-platform or a centralized resource, it may focus on popular content or the long tail. Obviously these are all questions that will have to be resolved over the next 18 months.” If you’ve noticed that this post is lacking in descriptive details about the DPLA—that’s why.

This isn’t to suggest that the DPLA will not be successful (in part because I have no way of defining what a successful first iteration DPLA would look like); it also ignores, in my opinion, the best feature of the DPLA to date, namely, its website. The website’s design is fine, and it’s easy enough to navigate from page to page, but its content—and linked content—is GREAT! I try not to think of myself as someone who’s about to enter the LIS workforce, but, as someone who’s about to enter the LIS workforce, I was impressed—maybe even inspired—by the interviews with Nate Hill, a web librarian, blog manager, and Audience & Participation convener, and Michael Kelley, Executive Editor of news and features at Library Journal. The blog posts themselves are kind of hit or miss (I recommend “What We Can Learn from DIY Libraries”), but almost always contain one or more promising link. It’s expected, but still very cool, that some (I’m not sure how much) of the development team’s code is accessible through GitHub public repositories. The development wiki, from my perspective, is an even better resource; it’s what I think a development planning document should look like (but of course, I know no better…). The last thing I will mention is the page that links to the WPLA beta sprint submissions. Some of these betas are incredible, others are neat (even if they don’t seem at all suited for the task of indexing and providing access to the DPLA’s hypothetical holdings), and a few fall flat—but still were worth a look, because they introduced me to even more development packages and content management platforms.

02 April
Comments Off on Compassionate Focus: The future of working together in publishing

Compassionate Focus: The future of working together in publishing

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker blog featured an interview with Monica McCormick, a woman who works at NYU Press and for the NYU libraries almost as a liason, in the Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing. McCormick’s statements echo a lot of the concepts and sentiments originating in libraries that we read this week. For example:

Library publishing is just part of a whole continuum of services that libraries offer to support scholarly collaboration and research, which might include data management, curating scholars’ born-digital research collections, providing guidance on copyright and intellectual property, and making the research results available.

However, she is quick to emphasize that university presses and library publishing are very different, the former expected mostly to sell books by developing and refining an editorial vision, and thereby not just adding value to scholarly writing but actually giving back to the academic community. “As a result, university libraries have more leeway to publish as a service rather than a business, by, for example, providing a repository for their institution’s research, or hosting space for online journals for their faculty.” At NYU the press develops a vision of its own, and the library nourishes but also reflects the scholarly community it serves.

I mention this not so much as a real direction or suggestion for a solution to any problem of how all libraries and university presses should trend or how they might be re-conceptualized or grow–the situation is far from resolvable at this point, I think–but because of the pragmatism of her take on the issue. Theory about what is, may, and should happen are all really important, but the reality of the situation is subjective and erratic and transitional–and no one is quite sure about what’s going to happen although we have to talk as though we know we do. So another way to look at the question of what will happen in libraries and academic publishing is to look more closely at individuals and their work.

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On Friday I participated in a panel at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning along with MIT Press editor Marguerite Avery, Harvard Library Innovation Laboratory’s Jeff Goldenson (a designer/architect/programmer), and two designer/architects from Over, Under and Pink Comma–Michael Kubo and Chris Grimley. I know, what was I doing there? It was an eclectic group which seemed to me indicative if the breadth of the perceived publication problem. SA+P Press (the school’s own imprint) needs to find a way to organize its editorial vision and present material created in a number of ways (and, as it’s an architecture school) in a diverse array of media: when presentation and design are integral to the content, how  to incorporate published print materials as well as new and even forthcoming publications into a web presence and publication platform?

Each answer to a discreet question seemed only to make the situation more complicated, less graspable. Everything is expensive, and there is no consistency over time. Lack of foresight and organizational consistency from the beginning means we’ll never be able to control everything that is out there, even when we’re talking about a highly limited situation. Part of this is manpower, and part of it is the evolving, unstable nature of “information”–as Robert Darnton put it rather articulately.

The first thought I had afterward was that it was a failure–at least in as much as there was no consensus at the end of the day. The conversation brought together the real problems posed both by print and digital storage, and no one really had a good answer to the question of why and how and where. Resources that archivists are aware of haven’t always gained traction beyond the preservation field. I sort of felt I should give up on any aspirations for participating in some useful way to the future of publishing.

But by now I have begun to feel better. First, this was a problem to be answered by MIT architects with a clear understanding of the published material, how it is beneficial to scholarship and also for recruitment and PR purposes. A solution is to be determined by students and alumni as well as faculty, as it should be. Second, there is room for all of this material.

Imposing order in the form of an interface (links to content, to purchase hard copies, etc.) will not change the nature of the work that has been done, but it will change way the school delivers a message about the interesting projects and theories developed under its purview and also pose an awesome suggestion for publishing beyond the school. And in this extremely cool and innovative group, the recognition that this needn’t all be limited to print or digital, but rather that media should extend beyond the screen, to be published in physical books, newspapers, and journals that exploit the variety of benefits afforded by print, was extremely exciting. The pink comma guys had some really interesting suggestions and examples of the ways publication and exhibition have coincided in their work, for example.

And as Avery pointed out, it’s not just about content, it’s about linking content to its targeted and potential readership in the most useful and efficient form/format possible. We have long acknowledged that actually the cover really does make a difference but an editor of the future must attend to meaning wrapped up thoroughly in form and presentation. Sometimes, the book should be 8″ by 13″ to respect the dimensions and qualities of maps included, even if it’s more expensive that way. Just as digital content design is a really interesting area of innovation, printing methods are changing rapidly and associated costs influence what we can do.

And as Goldenson made it clear, the librarian must observe and reconceptualize the ways its design impacts library use and readership. He spoke about a course he’s teaching at Harvard’s GSD (which you can read about at in which students experiment with what libraries can do for scholarly and broader student communities. Part of the implication is that libraries won’t be rarified and run by “librarians,” I think. The librarian role will evolve to diversify along the lines of perceived institutional needs in the form, primarily, of design and legal specialization. (He is also responsible for the Library License concept which is worth a look.)

I know it’s been said before, but the most important take away is that we have to engage with a lot of people, to move in tandem by communicating with one another (also meaning, we need to learn how to talk to people of many different disciplines), and to push one another very hard towards developing standards and protocols for presenting and expanding the notion of what information is and can do. Willingness to disagree is as important as an excellent ability to listen, to perceive priorities, to think critically about relationships of content, form, design, dissemination, and preservation. I dare say awareness, coordination, and compassion for the work of others are as important as editorial focus and diligence.

01 April
Comments Off on New Spaces for New Missions: The Future of the Library

New Spaces for New Missions: The Future of the Library

To re-purpose an old gem of Mark Twain’s, reports of the demise of the physical library have been greatly exaggerated. What is instead happening is that the physical spaces of all types of libraries- public, academic and special, are being transformed to accommodate the library’s new functions as an electronic resource center, study space and campus living room, just to name a few. These changes are the focus of two articles published in the most recent issue of American Libraries, the magazine published every two months by the ALA.

The first article, “New & Now: 2012 Library Design Showcase”by Greg Landgraf, features new and innovative designs for physical library spaces. There are green libraries infused with natural light, inviting living room-esque collaborative study spaces, children’s sections that include interactive learning elements, outdoor reading rooms, and state of the art technology labs.

Spartanburg (S.C.) High School

Collaborative Study Spaces


What you don’t see a lot of in these spaces are rows and rows of stacks. Rather the emphasis is on people, community and technology. These are not libraries devoid of books, but they aren’t really the focus. There is also a clear interest in multipurpose spaces that people can interact with and shape to their needs at the time. All of these different changes suggest that a growing number of libraries are shifting their focus from being repositories of books to serving their user communities in a number of ways.


Centennial College Library, University of Toronto

Living Wall and Natural Lighting

The other article, “The Once and Future Library: An Architect’s Perspective on Designing for Changing Constituencies”, by Charles G. Mueller, who is a member of the ALA, as well as an architect, argues that the future of libraries and their mission is changing so rapidly that many of the plans made a year ago for new library buildings and renovations to existing buildings are now obsolete, as are the old formulas used to calculate space needs and codified library standards. Rather, he argues libraries should make a concerted effort to make their spaces as flexible as possible. They need more niche spaces for collaboration and socializing, and appropriate spaces for programming and library services. However, he realizes that right now many libraries do still need to use their space for stacks, but argues that they won’t for very long. Because of this, libraries should design spaces that can hold shelves, but can also be converted to other purposes- which includes small but important details like installing lighting suitable for both purposes.

North Carolina State University

Outdoor Reading Room

Both of these features agree that the best libraries are ones that accommodate collaboration, socialization, and have the facilities that users will want and that will serve the library well moving forward into the digital age. After all, as Mueller points out in his article, a 2011 survey said that %65 percent of adults had visited a library in the past year and an ALA survey showed that most public libraries’ resources, especially internet access and employment services, are more in demand than ever. Therefore, it is extremely important that physical libraries continue to exist in schools, universities and communities to serve their users. The question is whether the physical buildings will serve the needs of the users. The libraries featured in these two articles seem to be well on their way.

31 March
Comments Off on Is Free the New Price Structure for Publishing?

Is Free the New Price Structure for Publishing?

I am very interested to read about the Concord Free Press. The Free Press is a non-profit press that gives books away, yet achieves returns on investment as high as 800%. They produce a book in a press run of about 3,000 for about $6,000. And each book makes about $50,000. But the returns are in the form of donations–to other charities and non-profits.

How does this work? You ask the Press to send you one of their books. They send it to you free, no matter where in the world you live. (Or you can “buy” a copy at an online bookstore.) In return, you agree to donate to a charity or non-profit of your choice and then to maybe pass the book on when you are done with it. The next person to receive “your” book also gives some money away. And so the book travels along, generating donations with each new reader. The Press even provides a free online “GivingTracker” that enables the reader/giver to report when and where she made a donation.

Concord Free Press calls their publishing model “generosity-based publishing.” Everyone involved in the production of the book works for free and because the Press is non-profit, there is no need to worry about all that pesky capitalist stuff: profits, shareholders, dividends, whatever. The Press generates the money for each new book, basically, on good will: you can donate to the press, or buy a limited-edition t-shirt or poster. And that’s pretty much it, so far as revenue is concerned.

So far, the Press has published six books, they have “made” over a quarter of a million dollars, and they have managed to pay for each new book. Although they are obviously a very small press, their numbers are actually fairly impressive. Many small presses fail long before they have printed and distributed six perfect-bound books and many small presses lose money on each book, making up the difference in grants or university support or whatever. So the Press is doing OK, their “business model” is successful and they never make a dime. That’s sort of great and wonderfully wackily paradoxical.

The Press also uses a “slow” publishing model. They take their time picking books, they don’t worry about rushing to market, and they invest fully in PR and marketing for each book. Since there is no worry about making back the costs of the book, and no deadline for revenue, and the PR and marketing is free, why not take your time, do the job right, and work at a pace that is comfortable and sustainable?

The Press has gotten good press–news stories in Huffington Post, the LA Times, and on BrainPickings–and their authors are seeing are picking up a lot of readers. Pretty cool.

If you want to order a Free Press book, or learn more about what they are doing, just check out their web site. It’s well-organized and all of the information you would ever want about what they are doing is easy to find.

Maybe in the future, everything will be free.



21 March
Comments Off on The Mundaneum and Commonplace Books

The Mundaneum and Commonplace Books

Google is partnering with historical Belgian library project the Mundaneum (it’s really an archival repository, a sort of gigantic library catalog), according to an announcement made last week. And will sponsor a series of talks (including one by Tim Berners Lee) on the origins of the Internet and surely more. You can tour the “library” here.

Google may have taken on partnership with the Mundaneum to improve relations with European cultural institutions, to explore the origins of the web, and to lock in content for Google Plus, as reported in the New York Times. But it also up some important lessons we seem, as a culture, not to have learned yet.

The Mundaneum was intended to facilitate something we have long feared as inevitable: the death of the book. Instead, the project offers insight into our ever evolving (and fraught) relationship with books–one that extends seamlessly into this era of digitization, born-digital, hybrid and multimedia e-books. That relationship is no more or less certain now than it was a century ago.1

The Mundaneum is now widely accepted as a precursor to the Internet, predating even Vannevar Bush’s Memex proposal by decades. It was not just hypothetical, either. In the end, the Mundaneum’s collection actually comprised over a dozen million cards, each of which represented a book, article, or image.

Founders Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine (the 1913 Nobel Peace Prize winner) developed the Universal Decimal Classification system to extract what they deemed to be useful and important information from books. This information was recorded on index cards that were organized and cross referenced in a manner than increased their discoverability. The cards were kept to be protected and made accessible in the Mundaneum.

Books buried truth, the pair posited. And their goal was to boil them down to their essential information. In making these kernels of truth available to all for the first time, Otlet and La Fontaine hoped they could facilitate world peace. Absent were acknowledgments of the importance of context, of the subjectivity of information, of the human delight in reading and in narrative. Not to mention that this was a project that came of age during and after the carnage of World War I, and finally came to a halt in 1934.

A complete failure? Even if so, it was more interesting than just that. I thought about the Mundaneum last week and considered trying to write about its significance for the future of books, but I only just came to understand what the connection might be.

As we have discussed in class, and as was pointed out at The Millions this morning, the commonplace book has always been a part of our reading life (or, we have culturally–if not each–always made books of our own, notes of our own, in some personal way). Though most of us have not won the Nobel Peace Prize, we have attempted to make Mundanea for ourselves–catalogs or just discrete records of the (personal, perceived) essences of books. For many readers, I am sure, the “context” excised by Otlet and La Fontaine is exactly the important bit worth writing down and remembering.

Maybe this disparity between priorities helps explain why we are no closer to world peace now than we were then (though I quite doubt it!). What I really think the Mundaneum should help us understand is that deeper engagement matters. We can scan all the books in the world (and Google’s trying to do that too). This only gets us so far though. In bringing a sentiment of faith in not just books but literature–the diversity of possible truths, information, and the significance of context they offer–back to the fore, we can finally agree that their language, their particularities, are inevitable and important.

To put it in search engine terms, I think the logical argument is that it’s not just “results” we should be after, but what the results mean, where they come from. The Mundaneum is a demonstration of “why.” As human beings, we want context. We have to make decisions about what’s important for ourselves. The more we know, the more informed we are, the better I think we do as a society. Perhaps (probably?) this is too utopic a position, but I think it presents a great argument for Google’s move to integrate personal context (social networking) into searches. Really, after all, it’s the richness and strangeness and the unexpected aspects of human existence, no longer just in published books, but in our own share-able commonplace “books” that might help us understand one another…

Maybe some day…?

1 Although we certainly have gained some perspective on the significance of context in the form of Post Modernism…