An essay by Annet Dekker exploring digital archival projects. Published as part of 'Footnoting the Archive: Endnotes'
Preparing to write this article I lock myself inside a bright-lit room in the Centre for Cultural Studies library at Bard College in upstate New York. Opening link after link, tabs are stacking up in my browser.
I lose track and decide to open a new window,
In an attempt to postpone writing I begin to order my tabs. Soon they are all neatly divided, their brief tag words reminders of what the pages contain. In the meantime, new links catch my eye and I open more tabs. The computer starts to slow down, but I keep on ploughing the Web, eager to unearth the sliver of information that will bring me the golden idea; the start of this article. Suddenly, somewhere among the many windows and tabs, a website crashes, the computer freezes and my system has gone.
Luckily Firefox and Chrome—why not use at least two browsers to order my research—saved my history, so everything returns after a restart. Of course, I realise the inevitable will happen, I could lose it all (as has happened before). A browser can only remember so much, and tracking the history of a browser is no pleasure, as I have experienced several times.
Obviously this is not such a great research method and, I have to admit, I miss the paper equivalent of leafing through books, writing things in the margins, perhaps even the smell of yellowed pages or the crisp white paper with its fresh ink fragrance exuding from newly printed books—all I smell now is the odour of the new desk I’m sitting at and the faint scent of electricity racing through the wires. Don’t get me wrong, this library is one of the best I’ve been in for a long time: the furniture, the quiet, the people and the selection of books, journals and magazines are fantastic. But there’s the rub: the paper books—I can read them, browse through them, smell them, make photocopies or even scans, but I’m not allowed (officially at least) to write in them. While my digital system allows me to surf the information, I do miss writing marginalia.
Here at Bard College I find myself in good company, because this is also the ‘home’ of political thinker Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), who made many notes in her books. In 1976 Bard College acquired her personal library and in 2008 they began digitising its contents. The collection represents approximately 4,000 volumes, ephemera and pamphlets that were housed in Arendt’s last apartment in New York City. It’s an important body of works that aims to expand the dialoguearound Arendt’s significant contribution to public discourse. The importance and value that is attached to what is left behind is intriguing and uncomfortable at the same time. Perusing the digital catalogue, it feels as though I’m sneakily rummaging through someone’s private thoughts. It also makes me wonder what is missing, lost, discarded or given away. While some things were written in the moment, to be discarded or forgotten afterwards, the remainders may haunt one forever. An underlining may signal importance and appreciation, or doubt and disagreement. I wonder if Arendt would consider the importance people place on her marginalia as banal? I won’t answer this question here, nor am I necessarily interested in it; more important is that her marginalia can now inspire a larger audience to think.
Marginalia have produced some great projects. For example, and staying close to my current location, Hannah Arendt’s Library is an artist’s book by Heinz Peter Knes, Danh Võ and Amy Zion that came out of a collaborative project in the Special Collections at CCS Bard College. The clamshell publication contains photographed prints of Arendt’s ‘bookmarks’, although upon closer inspection these are perhaps closer to ephemera than marginalia: small receipts, matchboxes (Arendt was alifelong smoker), official and personal letters, and more. It is through these traces that the project slowly unfolds Arendt’s travels around the world.
Another place rich in marginalia is Google Books. Krissy Wilson’s Tumblr The Art of Google Books celebrates and showcases the weird and wonderful ways books are treated—in both the processes of reading and documenting them—and how the service offers broad potential for aesthetic, interpretive, and potential evidentiary provocation. In addition to the marginalia of notes, doodles, halos of flowers once pressed between the pages, and even violent redactions and profanities, it provides insight into the glitches inherent to the digitisation process: from the accidental inclusion of digitisers’ fingers in scans, to scorned diagrams and compromised images. Triggered by an interest in marginalia, the project also encourages consideration of the artefactual quality of the newly created digital objects and the (in)visible—and looking at Andrew Norman Wilson’s project ScanOps (2007) a rather racially specific—labour of digitisation processes.
While these examples are still anchored in paper-based forms, marginalia also thrive in the digital realm. Networked Optimization (2013) by Silvio Lorusso, Sebastian Schmieg and Amazon Kindle Users is one such example. Schmieg and Lorusso selected three popular self-help books on Amazon—The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, The 5 Love Languages and How to Win Friends & Influence People—and recreated them by focusing on the sections that were highlighted by Amazon Kindle readers. Although each book contains the full text, the letters are invisible with the exception of the highlighted content. What remains are the most popular sentences indicating thenumber of people who highlighted that particular extract. The result is a minimal book that mimics the Kindle design and reveals the loop of optimisation: readers highlight, Amazon records and displays the most popular highlights, and the designers strip all the ‘unimportant’ content and present the ‘essentials’. While marginalia are often discarded or objected to, Schmieg and Lorusso propose that value (or the devil, depending on your view) is in the detail—certainly, according to them, the marginalia of 3,760 readers should not be dismissed.
Another example is The Pages Project (2014) by Eric Schmitt, a collector of marginalia and one of the initial designers of the Kindle graphic interface. After he inherited a portion of his grandfather’s library he became interested in the notes and scribbles people had left on the pages. With his X-Acto knife in hand he cut out the pages and parts where the marginalia were made, digitised the pieces of paper and brought the fragments together on a website. While I appreciate this commitment to marginalia, at the same time it strikes me as an odd practice to abstract the marginalia from their context. Because isn’t that exactly what marginalia are about? Marginalia are inherently and closely connected to something else. Although it can be argued, as Schmitt does, that marginalia are about communication, ‘a little-noticed but powerful feature that was unique to a technology and mode of communication in eclipse’, to me this is stretching it a bit too far. While such a statement could work in the digital realm, in its physical counterpart (the world Schmitt was initially abstracting marginalia from) ‘communication’ is often a gimmick: for example, when someone leaves a question mark and someone else provides the answer (as in one of Schmitt’s examples), rather than a deliberate attempt to communicate with others.
To return to my current challenge of how to do digital marginalia… As Schmieg and Lorusso show, Kindle has made it possible to create highlights and notes, which can be saved on your Kindle or shared with others. But how easy is it to create, capture, store or retrieve digital marginalia? In the past decade several annotation systems have been developed (some are free, some need to be paid for): Evernote, iPad Pro, Galaxy Note, Skribit, Instanote, GoodReads, Diigo, Awesome, ScreenShot, ScreenDraw, marQueed, AnnotateIt, BounchApp and Moleskin’s latest gizmo Neo Pen (which is surprisingly familiar for those who had a PalmPilot in the 1990s)—and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite the inherent privacy issues of allowing these companies access to my interests, my doubts, my musings or my questions, the durability of these systems is more questionable—icebergs tend to capsize, unexpectedly and forcefully. As book critic Ruth Franklin recounts when trying to use Amazon’s Public Notes on her older version of Kindle, it brought up other people’s highlights but not their notes. To see the latest, one needs the latest.
The issues of obsolescence and software and hardware maintenance are receiving ever more attention. Not surprisingly, with new gadgets and software arriving on the market daily. Just imagine the magnitude for a moment; last year Apple’s App store received more than a thousand submissions for new apps every day. Try to keep up! One of my current favourites, that allows a simple way to save notes, annotations and other ‘marginalia’ in the digital, is Git Version Control. This is a system that is commonly used in software development andthat allows you to record changes to a file or set of files over time so that you can recall specific versions later. There is a diaspora of different ways to use Git, some might create a Version Control very meticulously, others leave behind silly jokes and funny comments for the next programmer to decipher, or you might not get anything at all—and indeed this, I would say, is a closer attempt to ‘communicate’ through marginalia. Yet, its usefulness for writing, for example this text, is less obvious.
Of course there are counter-movements that print out the Internet. In some cases the digital world translates very well to paper, as can be seen in Erica Scourti’s The Outage and Katja Novitskova’s Post Internet Survival Guide 2010. It also shows the sheer volume of paper that is needed to actually print out the Internet: Michael Mandiberg printed Wikipedia in 7,473 books of 700 pages each, while the exhibition Printing Out the Internet by Kenneth Goldsmith emphasises the futility of the act—then again, its accompanying Tumblr is already offline.
To maintain a website requires labour, time and knowledge, or money if you don’t have the knowhow. To maintain digital marginalia adds to this challenge. Being slightly discouraged by the current proliferation of annotation tools with their defects and questionable durability, once again I plough my open tabs and realise that it is the line-up, the ordering and the barely decipherable tab-names that are my marginalia, and their sharing and distribution is what makes them thrive.
At that moment, I know, I remember—it’s about saving, organising, remembering and distributing: Delicious (or the earlier, and I believe, much better stylised name del.icio.us—the name for a social bookmarking service). Several ‘username or e-mail and password unknown’ messages later, I’m in. After about fourtakeovers since its inception in 2003 (according to Wikipedia), I’m reunited with the traces of my first two years of PhD research, neatly categorised, complete with headings, tags, tag bundles and short scribbles: my long-lost digital marginalia.
The index for this text is published as part of the 'Endnotes' printed publication, available during Edinburgh Art Festival 2016.
Annet Dekker is Assistant Professor Media Studies: Archival Science at the University of Amsterdam, visiting lecturer at the London South Bank University and co-director of the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image, LSBU/The Photographers' Gallery London. She is also a freelance curator, editor and writer of several publications on media art, preservation and archives.
Published as part of 'Endnotes', a series of online and printed commissions edited by Suzanne van der Lingen and Claire Walsh, MAP: Footnoting the Archive 2016. Contact email@example.com to receive a copy of the limited edition printed publication. Also available from Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop and the Edinburgh Art Festival Kiosk throughout Edinburgh Art Festival 2016.