NYTimes.com Article: Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of ItsTreasure

Mark Day markday at cisco.com
Tue Apr 15 01:58:59 PDT 2003


> The lesson I see is this: to achieve an archival mission, you
> must digitize,
> and you must replicate those bits. Atoms are too easy to steal,
> and to burn.

Hi Jim,

I appreciate the noble goal.  But I'm a little worried that this is the
start of a slippery slope in which only that which can be digitized is worth
saving.

The trouble with the "bits, not atoms" theory is that successive generations
of scholars learn different things from physical artifacts. And as
comfortable as we digital types are with our fungible bits and pixels, the
simple truth is that there are important artifacts that don't reproduce
well.  For example, I have yet to see a copy of Michelangelo's David or the
Sistine Chapel ceiling that produced anything like the experience of seeing
the real thing.

We already had a bad experience with the "bits, not atoms" theory in
libraries with microfilm.  I remember a researcher telling me of the
heartache of discovering that a huge collection of trade magazines had
"rationalized" their collection many years previously by cutting the spines
of their bound volumes, microfilming the text of the articles, and throwing
away the paper.  The tragedy for my colleague was that he was studying the
*ads*, which at the time of the microfilming were considered junk.  With the
passage of time, it became apparent that the most interesting and telling
parts of those magazines were the ads and that the articles were just so
much filler.  I understand that Nicholson Baker tells a related story about
newspaper collections in his book "Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on
Paper."

Any kind of "capture" from physical objects is a kind of low-pass filter
when viewed from the perspective of the future. We can record/measure
everything that we know how to record/measure right now, but of course we
don't have any way to know about the things that future generations will
invent or discover that would give new ways of understanding those
artifacts.

I don't see any way to avoid having archival missions involve physical
objects.  Accordingly, I expect that those physical objects will be subject
to destruction and/or looting in the wake of civil disorder.

Thinking that digitization changes anything about this seems like a hint
that one has spent too much time in front of a computer and needs to get out
into the Real World(tm) for a little fresh air. ;-)

--Mark


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