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Digital Memory is Shaping our Future


Painting from the Chauvet cave shaping the Paleolithic memory (and now ours). via Wikimedia commons

I have borrowed the title for this blog from the sub-title of a great book When We Are No More by Abby Smith Rumsey. And the subtitle is the critical part of her book’s message. Because we are entering an age of digital culture and digital society, the digital archives and memories that we are now creating will be crucial sign-posts and tent-pegs for our digital future. We often think about archives as guides to the past, but Rumsey’s claim is that they are even more pointers to our future. This is especially the case for digital culture because it is the digital objects, the digital resources and memories that survive from one year to the next, from one generation to the next, that will shape the next generation’s view of itself and its place.

Abby Smith Rumsey writes very clearly but she is also a great presenter, so I recommend her Google talk on the subject of her book. She emphasises how digital archiving is still a neglected field, and that we are quite beholden to the work of public bodies, private enthusiasts or charitable undertakings some of them making crucial investments: for example, Carl Haber saving music and ethnographic voices, the Internet Archive, or Europeana.


The camera used with IRENE software by Carl Haber to reconstitute Alexander Graham Bell’s voice from physical traces too fragile for contact recovery

There are many private efforts and individuals working to save stuff and it was good to see, a few days ago, a mention of the Hyman magazine archive in the New York Times. This is very much a solo effort and a collection that now exceeds any reasonable attic — since it now occupies a south London warehouse with its 120,000 issues from 5,000 titles. Hyman’s open-armed effort is admirable, but as a private venture it is not easy to see how it will evolve towards a model for widespread access. The team are gradually digitising their collection, but with copyrights largely in place it is unlikely that the archive will be able to provide full scale access to scholars and enthusiasts. Of course, Exact Editions welcomes such a private initiative, but our interest in preserving and making digital archives accessible has a different model. We are showing that digital archives can make money for the publishers who are sitting on them. We believe that the archive should grow and move into the future along with the magazine, issue by issue. New issues become back issues, and the future is shaped by issues that came before.

We take seriously Abby Smith Rumsey’s claim that digital memory is shaping our future. The future for magazines is certainly going to be digital — and the back issues and the coming front issues are also digital. Very few of today’s magazine editors, publishers and designers can tell us what the shape of this digital future is. But it is coming. Putting a magazine’s print archive into a digital format is one obvious step towards defining and shaping what that future will be. This was something that almost all magazine publishers missed 10 and then 8 years ago when the iPhone and then the iPad was launched. Even now we sometimes have to persuade publishers that their archive is of great value (though many editors know that, but find it hard to express).

Exact Editions is helping publishers to make this step into the future by capturing the past and the evolving present, and odd as it may seem one of the strongest cases for making a magazine archive right now, is that archives sell. At his point the previously sceptical publisher shifts her gaze and clears her throat. Complete archives are especially important in an educational or research context. Not every magazine is of use to scholars, students and researchers (yet, and here our publisher reaches for a glass of water) but for those that are, the institutional library market is a promising source of additional revenue and brand visibility. Digital magazines can be easily searched and they are more accessible and so more valuable, and much more useful, than the print copies that are still important and carefully stored on library shelves and stacked in off-site repositories. Magazines are obviously full of data, not just stories, pictures and advertisements, but data about subjects and arts that we find perpetually interesting. Digital data has value. Making magazines digital and complete is a way of enriching the past and the future. As Rumsey says “Today we see magazines as natural facts. We do not see them as memory machines with lives of their own, though that is exactly what they are. As soon as we began to print our thoughts in those hard-copy memory machines they began circulating and pursuing their own destinies. Over time we learned how to manage them and share them, and ensure that they carried humanity’s conversations to future generations. We can develop the same skills to manage and take responsibility for digital memory machines” (Rumsey When We Are No More p. 177, marginally edited — where she says ‘books’ I have put ‘magazines’). Magazine archives are digital memory machines stuffed full of data and art that we can project into the future and that can become more widely available and useful.


Applying Webstamp the software Exact Editions uses to ‘proof’ and manage digital editions

Preservation of magazine content and its accessibility


Reading-Room of the Boston Public Library, 1871 Wikimedia Commons

Clifford Lynch has just published a thoughtful and carefully researched article on Stewardship in the “Age of Algorithms”. Lynch’s central claim is that the web, algorithm-based institutions and our contemporary social media are in practical terms impossible to archive and preserve via traditional approaches. The traditional approaches that he has in mind are ‘format migration’ and ‘emulation’, but he appears to suggest that these are alternative approaches when they are essentially complementary. In fact one cannot have format migration without emulation, and any software emulation requires appropriate file format inputs. Lynch gives us a handy explanation of the format migration strategy:

The traditional models of digital archiving are twofold: format migration and emulation. Both, of course, assume a substrate, which is now relatively well understood and implemented with a fairly high degree of confidence, assuming reasonably consistent and continuous funding, of bit-level preservation by migration from one storage technology to the next as necessary [19]. The first approach, format migration, is best suited to “document-like” objects: PDFs, Microsoft Word files, audio, video, XML, JPEG, TIFF, etc. Here the idea is that, as standards, or de facto standards, gradually evolve and the ecosystem to deal with those types of files shift, curators will migrate the file formats, but this strategy is not necessarily as simple as it seems. New file formats are often not isomorphic to older ones. Formats may be proprietary and/or undocumented, and even objects claiming to conform to well-known standards may not implement these standards correctly or may add proprietary extensions. Lynch:Stewardship in the “Age of Algorithms”

While this may be a small correction to Lynch’s overall argument, it points to an important consequence. In digital culture, preservation — even of traditional cultural objects — is not a closed process. Once we aim to preserve analog or primarily physical cultural objects (for example photographs or books or magazines) in digital repositories and databases we are implicitly committed to an ongoing task of enabling and facilitating new forms of access. Precisely because our digital culture and our innovative technological mix will be inventing new ways of interacting with and enjoying these traditional cultural objects. Nor is it a settled or obvious question how these improvements and developments should be pursued.

This need for an ongoing commitment to preservation struck at Exact Editions very early in our development. We firmly believe that magazines, books and newspapers are all becoming more digital, but we also took it as an article of faith that back issues and archives have important and valuable content that should be available to digital subscribers, so our solutions whether through web browsers or via apps on smartphones and tablets have always ensured that archives and back issues are accessible to the subscribers of current issues. Just as the software of a digital magazine has to welcome and display each new issue, so its database should reach back and awaken back issues that in a print culture are usually filed inertly and inaccessibly on shelves or forgotten heaps.

The digital transition is nevertheless very real. Although the magazines that users read on their branded apps, are in one way strictly equivalent to the printed versions that they might have read in the Boston Library public reading room or Viennese cafes in the 19th century (with those bamboo frames that we still sometimes see) yet the reading experience and the arrangement of the digital editions is very different. It is only with a digital app or a web browser that one could expect to see all the decades or years of a magazine’s issues tidily piled up on a virtual desk. This stacking of issues emulates in a virtual form the tidy arrangement which would be quite hard to achieve with printed issues: and from most points of view it is a much handier solution than the collection of previous issues in carton sorters.


Slightly Foxed — incomplete archive on a physical desktop

Digital archiving even of historic and contemporary print formats is not easy; but it is both obviously possible and culturally necessary. The 12 complete magazine archives which are showcased in celebration of International Digital Preservation Day #IDPD17 are all growing and their preservation needs in 5 or 10 years time may be unanticipated by their current formats and their existing software. By then we hope to have found out what it is that mixed reality, block chains and machine learning are surely going to teach us. And the archives may in one way look the same, but they may behave a little differently.


Preserving magazines


Stacks at Doe Memorial Library on the UC Berkeley campus via Wikimedia Commons

The Digital Preservation Coalition a group of mostly British institutions is organising the first International Digital Preservation day, for November 30, 2017. Exact Editions will be contributing to the festivities with a showcase of 12 of the magazines for which we have built and maintain complete digital archives.

The Coalition has wide objectives and supports a host of differing formats and objects worthy of digital preservation, video, sound, museum objects, data in all their myriad shapes and sizes including material that has been hitherto published mainly in print form: newspapers, books and magazines. Exact Editions’ expertise lies in the digitisation and the preservation of magazines. So we focus on this area. And it is quite large enough — we believe that there are tens of thousands of magazines that merit full archives. But we start by noting that all magazines, as with books and newspapers are willy-nilly becoming digital. It is not simply a matter of preserving a digital shadow of a print original.

A generation ago magazines were only digital in small areas of their production (in the 1970s computerised typesetting and a few years later layout), whereas now the process may be thoroughly computerised and some magazines (not yet many) are purely digital from writer to reader. This process has not closely followed the same tracks as newspapers and books. Newspapers as they become digital are aiming to be more multi-edition, much more real-time, and they are embracing video, so becoming more multi-media. Books, on the other hand, have if anything become more author-focused (self-publishing is now the fastest growing part of the market) with strong emphasis on blogs, media events, revenues from audio-books and of course from ebooks. The ebook format has not had much success with magazines and video is seen as an area of major interest for relatively few types of magazine (cuisine and fashion more than literature, sport or politics). So magazines are different. Digital magazines are not behaving like digital newspapers or digital books and yet they have one huge advantage when it comes to making a digital transition.

Magazines are periodicals. Periodicals are published in issues and the issues tend to appear on a predictable regularity. This periodical, recurrent emergence of magazine issues has one terrific advantage for the digital format that magazines now invariably assume. A suitably organised digital magazine can carry its back issues with it. It can grow and it should be refreshed as new issues appear. Digital magazines can be much deeper and they can be much more permanent and continually available than print issues. A digital magazine can, and perhaps should, provide its readers with access to all the available back issues as well as the current number and, as they appear, the forthcoming issues.

Exact Editions has always been driven with the belief that the printed magazine has a strong format, and that the design and layout of the printed and illustrated magazine has to be captured digitally if the reader is to get an acceptable version of the print issues. The company also took an early (and at the time an unusual) decision that subscriptions should be viewed as including access to all available back issues. For this reason searching and arranging back issues in usable layouts and arrays has been part of our basic approach. It was this decision of building a database from earlier issues, forward to the present issue, that gradually encouraged us to build complete archives and to make them available to current subscribers. Since 2012, when with the help of the publisher we completed the archive of Gramophone (90+ years of back issues), we have been on the look out for publishers who want to provide a complete archive for an ongoing publication.

Because Exact Editions is working with publishers who are trying to build a digital audience for issues that are forthcoming, we are highly focussed on making the reading and searching process as attractive and as intuitive as possible. It would not be meeting this challenge simply to archive PDF issues of every issue (though we do encourage our publishing partners to make sure that they do indeed retain PDFs of every issue). We also work with Portico for those magazines that wish to offer Perpetual Access. PDFs are excellent as a solution for simple archival preservation, but an aggregation of 1000+ PDFs is not a user-friendly resource. For this reason the task of preserving a magazine in its entirety, with a complete archive that continues to grow, puts an extra challenge on the goal of preservation. Even when the first issue is enormously different from the current issue, compare the first issue of Gramophone with its current issue (no colour, few illustrations or ads, no links, much shorter), it is vitally important that the reader should be able to search them and approach them in the same way, within a common framework. So preservation is emphatically not just a matter of dealing with the past and with ‘back issues’. We have learned in our work with magazines that front issues become back issues and old formats need to be preserved for new readers. Building the databases and the software that does this efficiently is an ongoing challenge and one which creates an opportunity for new subscribers, and unknown readers.


The first issue of Gramophone – 1935


The latest issue of Gramophone

The International Digital Preservation day will understandably have a focus on preservation. But ‘preservation’ has to be pursued in a cultural and an educational context, this is not simply a matter of placing PDF files in digital aspic, secure formaldehyde and verified cotton wool. Exact Editions, as our name suggests, cares deeply about getting the format, the look and feel, the layout and high design all preserved as accurately as possible. But useful preservation is forward looking and has to enable and encourage, reading and research, citation and analysis. At this digital moment and for the foreseeable future this will at least mean making magazines archives available and usable through web browsers and apps for mobile devices, but the task of digital preservation moves forward. The content and the past must be preserved but it should also be useful and readable.  It is perhaps obvious that magazines written by experts such as: Prospect or Art Monthly will be of continuing scholarly interest, but it is even more probable that the back issues and the advertisements of Dazed and the Creative Review will be of great cultural and historical interest to researchers and students of fashion, culture, commerce and design.

The Philosopher’s Magazine: an appreciation


The Philosopher’s Magazine now has its complete archive available for institutions on the Exact Editions platform with access via the web, iOS and android phones and tablets. The first issue was published in 1997 and the 80th issue of the quarterly publication will appear early in 2018. The magazine publishes articles of deep philosophical interest in an accessible and non-technical way. James Garvey is the current editor and Julian Baggini the founding editor, their rubric is to publish “philosophy that’s clear, thought-provoking, and relevant. The contributors are mainly professional philosophers who care about good writing and about being understood”. The editors and the magazine has thus been a steady exemplar of public philosophy on matters of general interest in ways that are appealing both to specialists and students of philosophy as well as the general public.

The quarterly issues are assembled around themes which can be controversial ‘Is it wrong to have children?’, ‘Must we do more: the west and global poverty’, ‘The gene genie’, ‘You ‘re being watched — surveillance and privacy’; but they can also bring us contemporary takes on classic issues: ‘Skepticism’, ‘Paradoxes’, ‘Facing death’, and ‘Serious sex’. Viewed as an educational resource, the complete archive to The Philosophers’ Magazine provides universities, colleges and schools with an accessible, serious and yet also entertaining window on philosophical research and contemporary work. The editors and contributors are for the most part from the analytic tradition, mainstream in English speaking universities, but with an open-ness to global culture, especially through art, science, sport and ideology. Every issue has reviews of books, films or exhibitions of philosophical interest. The magazine has regular forums where reader-generated questions are debated. Major thinkers: Bernard Williams, Gerald Cohen, Martha Nussbaum, Ronald Dworkin, Rae Langton, Timothy Williamson and Dan Dennett, have all been interviewed.

Since there is really quite a lot of philosophy in the complete archive, over 3 million words, and since the enthusiast might happily spend hours browsing through the back issues, it is helpful and even necessary that the Exact Editions platform provides some powerful browsing and searching tools. Browsing is easily and intuitively facilitated by the ‘stacking’ of quarterly issues, or even decades of issues into piles that the user selects and opens. The individual issues can be viewed as thumbnails whereby individual pages, especially those with illustrations seize the attention. Searching is accomplished using a simple and standard Google-style Boolean logic, one that connects search terms into logical expressions, so that a search across the whole archive for ‘Frege’ finds 63 hits, ‘Frege -Kant’ (ie Frege but not Kant) finds 48 hits , and ‘Frege +Kant’ (ie Frege with Kant) finds 15. Frege and Boole would surely have been pleased to see their logic being used to such accurate, mathematical and computational effect. Individual issues and groups of issues can also be searched separately.

In the educational context the digital magazine has several modes for sharing, commenting, referencing and printing content. The bottom line is that every digital page is exactly like the corresponding print page and so a persistent URL which guarantees that citation, sharing, printing and bookmarking all hits the same persisting target — a URL that corresponds to the print.


A double page spread. Note the menu beneath the page image with options for social sharing

Institutional licenses to The Philosophers’ Magazine are campus-wide and multi-user. Users of the college or school library system can access the resource through the network’s IP addresses. This connectivity also applies to the apps which run on iOS and android devices, so students can be encouraged to access the resource via the TPM app. Any committed honours student of philosophy should be encouraged to download and use the app, that way she will get off-campus access when she has synced issues to the device, and she will be prompted to take a look at the contents page when new issues are published. The Philosophers’ Magazine is primarily as a reference resource and a campus-wide asset but it is also a refreshing companion and thought provoker for the individual student of philosophy. The Philosophers’ Magazine also stays fully in touch with the latest and fascinating branches of philosophical speculation, and if you did not know why cephalopods are of deep philosophical interest you must read this review of a new book by the Australian philosopher Peter Godfrey Smith: Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness.



Philosophy in the library

CILIP — the leading British association for librarians — was yesterday holding its annual conference in Manchester. I noticed that one of the two keynote presentations was to be given by Luciano Floridi: the Oxford philosopher, (but of course he is deeply Italian!), who has for some years been developing an ambitious philosophy of information. Professor Floridi is a wide-ranging and well read philosopher and his The 4th Revolution: How the infosphere is reshaping human reality is particularly recommended. He also makes excellent presentations, and is prepared to say “boo” to an AI goose.


Floridi’s concluding slide —from @suszyredec

Although I follow Floridi on Twitter and read his stuff (some of it, not all of it, he writes a lot), I did not know that he was influential in Library and Information Science. After a quick check on Google and Twitter, it was clear that there is quite a stream of work in LIS building on his ideas. So I kept half an eye on the #cilipconf17 floridi stream on Twitter yesterday. There were hundreds of tweets about his presentation. Uniformly enthusiastic. Of course one cannot really get a full picture of a presentation from the tweet stream it occasions, but this was a very dense stream; and I am sure that CILIP’s organisers will feel that they made a good choice in inviting Floridi to their event.

I especially liked his concluding thought (see the photo of his slide above). Library and Information Science does not just take care of the past for the present, it takes care of the present for the future. Librarians, and cultural curators of all kinds, really do have a crucial role to play in preserving the present for the future. And we need to remember that, although much of what we do seems to be concerned with preserving the past for the present. He also reminded his audience that librarians have real power: they have power to the extent that they can help their users and their patrons to ask the right questions. Whoever controls the questions plays a big part in controlling the answers.



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