The gift of being away for a week at an amazing seminar learning new things every minute of the day is that, then, you get to come back and figure out how to use what you’ve learned. This week has been a strange mixture of catching up and being uncertain where I actually was before leaving to go to Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. Mid-week, I felt myself swimming in the sea of “where exactly do I start?” and decided to make myself a map.
It started as a large piece of paper with all the things I currently do, how they relate to the core functions of the MWWC. Then I began to see that no paper could contain the chaos of my mind. I have sailed along like this successfully, doing what was in front of me, trying to make changes when they seemed necessary, and trying to maintain some consistency through it all, but coming back here reminded me that I cannot live life in the cloud. I must work with the data I have here, on my desk, on the shelves, in the manuscript room. I’ve got to make better order of my days.
Like many of us, leading a full digital life as well as a full analog life, sometimes I find myself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information to which I have access. I could spend entire days in a week simply answering email, and yet there is much more work to be done. I know that I am not alone.
I decided, since I started working as curator of the Maine Women Writers Collection, that I want us to be out in the world more–with a robust online presence as well as a broad reach within our community in Portland, Maine. There are so many fantastic women blogging and tweeting and interacting in ways that are not even possible in our on-the-ground-everyday-lives. It’s easy to get lost in it all because it is endlessly fascinating. Even the extremely mundane details are engrossing because of the ways that these interactions speak to our evolving relationship to information and data sharing, to our conception of privacy and the blending of public and private personae.
One of the most useful and clarifying exercises that we did on the first day of Born Digital Materials: Theory and Practice was to conduct an interview with a “potential donor” about their digital life. It was fascinating to see the ways that people related to computers, in general, and the social aspects of new media, specifically. I found myself describing my split digital personality–how I have two facebook pages, two twitter accounts, two blogs, with separate circles of friends, followers, and readers. Others in my class eschewed all social media. Some blended their personal and professional data fully.
This exercise was designed to get us to think about the ways that donors are creating information, and to consider how we want to approach collecting that data within our organization. So back to all of the women blogging and tweeting and collecting friends and followers… As an archivist, I am completely enthralled as I observe all of the ways that authors are using the web to build audience and market themselves. There are a lot of reasons for this–one being that most publishers don’t have much money for promotion these days. No one is out there printing broadsheets about your new book and hawking it to the reading public.
Just today, on twitter, I observed one author casually mentioning her book, another retweeting others’ tweets about the merits of her book. And you know what, it works. I looked up both books and plan to read, if not buy, both. This is why social media is an important practice for archivists to document–well, one of the many reasons. But it is why those dealing with literature need to be paying attention. To many, I know that twitter is a completely incomprehensible waste of time–I used to be one of those people–but I would argue that it is one of the many social tools that are reshaping the ways that we think, write, and do work.
So, thanks to Matthew Kirschenbaum and Naomi Nelson, I will be thinking about collecting differently. I feel equipped, too, even at a small institution with fragile IT infrastructure, to begin to deal with the digital media we currently own. I’m not sure exactly where I’ll get a machine to read 8 inch floppy disks, but I’ll talk to our IT staff to see if they have any legacy machines laying around. I’m starting small. I began a digital survey. I’m going to research web-harvesting services. I’m going to develop a donor interview form that will include questions about digital materials. I’m going to keep learning what I can, reading the literature that is coming out about digital preservation.
All that brings me back to the new map, which was warranted by the amount of new information that I’d just crammed into my already busy brain. It seemed like the way to proceed this week was to figure out what I really care about in my work, and try to build my daily schedule around those things so that they serve as my anchor in this sea of possibilities.
Now I have a new map, albeit a somewhat corny one, to follow. Let’s call it a map of love. One of my favorite quotes from our Rare Book School B-Dig class occurred toward the end of the week when Matt Kirschenbaum was talking about his work on the electronic literature/artist book/time bomb Agrippa. He said “love will find a way.” Meaning, that if you care about a project, you’ll find a way and the resources to get it done. I know that I’m going to have to hone in on that love in order to make things happen here, but I am feeling bolstered and hopeful about the possibilities. I’m especially grateful to have had a week at UVA to meet a room full of engaged, thoughtful people, and to think about priorities and possibilities. I am exceedingly lucky and full of all kinds of love.