By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
Consider, for starters, the late Marion Stokes. Born in 1929, Stokes was a Philadelphia librarian from the '40s through the '60s, hosted a local progressive Sunday morning talk show called Input from 1967 through 1969, and — by the time she died in 2012 — accumulated some 140,000 VHS tapes worth of local and national television news. Far from a simple hoarder, the one-time chair of the Philadelphia branch of the Fair Play for Cuba committee believed in the power of information.
Traditional libraries are terrified of people like Marion Stokes. The thought of having to cope with an archive that might take literally as many years to index as it took to create is both blood- and budget-curdling. Filling four shipping containers, Stokes's creation is scheduled for imminent delivery to Kahle's Internet Archive. In fact, the digitization would be covered in part by an even earlier fair use ruling, encoded in the 1976 Copyright Act to protect Vanderbilt University's Television News Archive, which charges $100 per half-hour to borrow tapes of old newscasts.
"I've got teenage kids and they're going through learning to write critical essays, being taught they need to be able to quote and compare and contrast," Kahle observes. With television news, by contrast, "there's no way to hold onto it, unless someone puts a short snippet on YouTube."
Again, it is the difference between the two sides of the looking glass. Collecting, in one of its most valuable senses, can remove an object from its natural context in a way that sometimes doesn't seem logical, maybe even to the collector. Sometimes, the very ability to capture an old medium with a new technology (or vice versa) is reason enough, even if the reasons might otherwise seem unclear. And sometimes, even if the reasons might seem perfectly clear, entirely new value might be discovered later.
Upon creating their earliest silent films in 1894, Thomas Edison and his assistant W.K.L. Dickson made a discovery: There was no legal mechanism to copyright their creations. They could, however, register the films as photographic works, and so provided the Copyright Office with nitrate contact sheets in addition to paper prints of each individual frame. This instituted an industry-wide practice that lasted through a 1912 revision to copyright law.
Owing to history's depradations and the subsequent disintegration of the contact sheets, these paper prints now provide the only remaining archive of many early silent films. "It is ironic that because of the Paper Print Collection, the film years before 1912 now seem better documented than the years immediately following," historian Erik Barnouw said in a recent Library of Congress report about the harsh reality of silent film preservation. The jewels of the Paper Print Collection are available to the public for permission-free duplication and distribution.
Think, then, of the massing, silent armies of Marion Stokeses out there in the weird 21st century mediascape, each with her or his own motives, each navigating IP landmines to preserve delicate analog and digital eco-systems for reasons they might only be dimly aware of, and what they might be collecting. And then think of the cyber wilds, with new ephemeral methods of content transmission springing forth daily, bringing potential archives far beyond the imagination (or usage) of even the most soulful NSA aggregator-spook.
More than ever, notions of contemporary collecting are being challenged — partially by Google and the NSA's implicit suggestions that it is a task better left to professionals, but just as much by the preceding half-decade of YouTube, Netflix, and Spotify, whose celestial streams separate consumers from the media they intake, offering soothing promise of never having to bother with all that messy metadata ever again. But in a state of ceaseless info-flood, creating a microcosmic, ship-in-a-bottle world of objects — collecting — is one way to surf the rapids. That's how Noah survived, and Stokes's Army surely knows it in their bones.
Whatever else their worth, collections are first and foremost works of the imagination, conscious or unconscious, conjuring a narrative thread to connect disparate objects. Collections reflect their collectors, from Ole Worm to Marion Stokes to the copyright-choked, password-protected JSTOR catalogue of academic papers that hacker and then-Harvard research fellow Aaron Swartz liberated some 70 gigabytes worth of precious, precious words from via a laptop hidden in a wiring closet — leading the Secret Service (among others) to persecute him, ending in Swartz's January 2012 suicide.
The techno-dystopian winter is shaping up to be long and cold. Thankfully, there's plenty to light on fire, and even more to read. But libraries and museums are nice places to hang out, too, public or private, online or off. There are usually some nice people involved with them. And if you can't find a friendly-looking one nearby, you could do worse than to start your own.