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Accessing Arrangement, Arranging Access: The Jeremy Blake (Born-digital) Papers

Today’s post comes to us courtesy of Fales intern Lawrence Giffin.
At the Fales Library and Special Collections, we are currently working on the arrangement and description of the born-digital ‘papers’ of the digital artist Jeremy Blake. Blake produced most of his work from 1997 until his death in 2007, but in that short time-span he went from a graphic designer for Rockstar Games to a leading figure in contemporary art.
blake.jpg Blake’s work ranged from oil paintings in his early career, to digital c-prints and looped animated sequences of digitally rendered images that he referred to as time-based paintings; the collection consists of the files from Blake’s MacBook and an external hard drive, both containing hundreds of thousands of files in various formats ranging from very complex Photoshop files to very simple text files. For his digital videos, Blake would create some 30 or 40 painstakingly rendered Photoshop files, each with up to 100 unique and detailed layers composed of hand-rendered and appropriated images, which would be animated to a soundtrack of music, voiceover, and abstract sound works.
Having just begun appraisal, we are now concerned with how to preserve the file structure of Blake’s computers while making files accessible through basic archival description. The sheer number of files necessitates a controlled point of access, which will be our finding aid. Further complicating matters, some folders contain files that fit into several different series, while some series will refer to several folders spread across Blake’s hard drives. As a born-digital collection, Blake’s collection came to us in a clear, predetermined arrangement. It’s not as if these were records accumulated in a basement over decades; Blake actively created folders and arranged them in a way that facilitated the work he did as a digital artist. At the same time, the complexity and idiosyncrasy of Blake’s arrangement makes research-focused description that much more difficult to implement.
Brian Hoffman of Bobst’s Digital Library Technology Services is working with a small team to develop an interface that would allow us archivists to apply series metadata to the collection via The Archivists’ Toolkit, and another to allow users to access the collection either through our series organization or via Blake’s own arrangement. So we have the task of constructing points of access not only through a traditional finding aid, but also through an interactive expandable representation of the folder structure that would allow users to browse the collection and to see the overall organizational structure of Blake’s hard drives. The possibility of having a collection that is both searchable at the file level and presents researchers with multiple ways of accessing the items in a collection is one of the more exciting possibilities of digital and born-digital collections.
A few weekends ago, I attended a symposium titled “The Past’s Digital Presence: Database, Archive, and Knowledge Work in the Humanities,” hosted by the Digital Humanities Working Group at Yale University. The symposium focused on the effect of the digital object on the future of scholarship in the humanities; questions ranged from how digital or “hypermediated” objects change the nature of scholarship based on static authorial texts, to how institutional biases are coded into the arrangement and display of digital collections (and what that tells us about the historical narrative of that collection being peddled by its repository), to what the new technological possibilities for interfacing with, linking together, and tagging digital objects are.
After the conference, I read Hillel Arnold’s posting on this blog about Emory University’s rare book library’s acquisition of Salman Rushdie’s papers, which include 18 gigabytes’ worth of digital objects. The article touches on some provocative issues relating to special collections and born-digital objects. With all the fascinating ideas from the Yale symposium still fresh in my mind, I was especially interested in the section of the Emory article that states:

As born-digital archives from authors become more commonplace, changing the way university archives are organized, scholarship around these materials is destined to change as well. Scholars will be able to search for themes across manuscripts and correspondence, for example, or compare and contrast different works in a much more expedient manner.

Erika Farr, the director of born-digital initiatives at Emory’s library heading up the Rushdie project, is also a researcher in seventeenth-century literature, so she is clearly excited by the new research potentials that digital technologies provide. A similar excitement was palpable at the Yale symposium, especially by presenters such as Julie Meloni of Washington State University, who presented on the possibilities of creating arrangement and markup interfaces that could bring about an “n-dimensional text,” and Rachael Sullivan of the University of Texas, who presented on the reading strategies needed for understanding hypermediated texts, such as poems on webpages and in-text ads.
I share Hillel’s enthusiasm for seeing “archivists and librarians thinking so creatively about the needs of current and future researchers, and so intentionally engaging the implications their actions have to shape scholarship and academic discourse.” But I am cautious about the possibility of subordinating basic archival principles to researchers’ desire to interface with collections more freely. With the Blake project, we are hoping we can fulfill both functions.
Lawrence Giffin is a student in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Queens College.
(Image: Guccinam, 2000. Sequence for DVD with sound for projection or plasma screen. 7.5 minute continuous loop – courtesy Kinz+Tillou Fine Art)

2 thoughts on “Accessing Arrangement, Arranging Access: The Jeremy Blake (Born-digital) Papers”

  1. Hillel Arnold says:

    Lawrence – I really enjoyed reading this post, and the project sounds absolutely fascinating. I wish I’d had the opportunity to work with collections like this when I was in library school…
    Just to be clear, I’m not advocating that archivists abandon the principles that have served us so well thus far. I think there’s a tendency to think that digital materials are a completely different animal and that all the fundamentals of archival practice just don’t apply because email wasn’t around when Muller, Feith and Fruin were writing their manual. I don’t agree with that, and I think the underlying principles are still valid. What I’m saying is simply that we need to consider what things like original order and provenance mean for digital archival materials.
    Thanks again for your post. I hope you’ll consider a follow-up post to let us know how the project progresses!

  2. Lawrence Giffin says:

    Hillel – Thanks for your comment and for clarifying your quote. I did not mean to imply that you favored one position or another. It was poor choice on my part to place your quote alongside my ‘excoriation’ of demands for new approaches to new kinds of records. I quoted your entry because I really do share your enthusiasm in the research potentials disclosed by the functionality specific to electronic records. I’m grateful that your comment brings up the debate between those who think that electronic records necessitate new principles of arrangement and those who are working to reconceptualize the Dutch Manual. That’s exactly what was in the back of my mind as I wrote that last paragraph, especially in regards to comments made by Erika Farr in the Emory-Rushdie article. Thanks again, and I hope I have more to report in the future.

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