It continues to astound me on this MLIS course how many ideas, theories and practices blindly press ahead with the supposed ‘advancement’ of the industry without ever addressing important fundamental questions about the underlying nature, impact and value of the work being undertaken. It also amazes me at how information studies academics continue to theorise while passively ignoring the poststructuralist theory that has been informing many other disciplines uninterrupted for the last 50 years. Reading Helen Shenton’s work has left me no less bemused.
Digital curation and preservation takes as its starting point the mantra ‘we must preserve’ without ever asking whether or not it is right, or indeed valuable to preserve. Poststructuralism has worked hard to ensure that history and culture are not controlled as homogenous entities, but digital curation is now threatening to undo much of that good work. Poststructuralism is a theory of language that denies words as static culture building objects, and instead views language as a highly dispersive subjective heterogenous experience. It is the theory that underlies so much of our achievements in the last 50 years. It lead to the feminist movement, to the reconceptualisation of history as a discipline, and to the destruction of periodisation in literature. With real world artifacts we still have the potential to make new discoveries about the past. However, with born-digital objects which only have a lifespan of up to 25 years, we will not have the capacity to re-write the past through new discoveries. As a result, the digital curators of today are essentially the historians of tomorrow. The files that they choose to save will create a static history that cannot be questioned in the future. Howard Zinn, a postmodern historian argued that history has traditionally been written by those who win wars. Digital Curation, which is funded by governments or private organizations, is in danger of destroying the culture it is aiming to preserve in what could be become a Big Brother like scenario.
Helen Shenton’s work in ‘Virtual reunification, virtual preservation and enhanced conservation’ focuses on the digitisation of dispersed works. It is in many ways a hugely interesting project, but it needs to be taken to question about its real underlying value. It is disturbing that Shenton’s work has as its goal ‘reunification’. This word summons forth a whole litany of other terms like ’empire’, ‘colonisation’, ‘power’, ‘race’, ‘slavery’ and ‘control’ to name but a few. This word inherently references imperialism at a time when the breaking apart of the United kingdom has become a real possibility in the near future. The fact that some important texts exist in a dispersed format is in itself culturally significant because it is indicative of the breaking apart of empire itself. Bringing these texts together has the potential to create a false narrative and a homogenous cultural discourse, and in this sense Shenton, like many of her contemporary information professionals, uses an outmoded form of structuralism to inform her ideas. She argues, in relation to the Sinaiticus Project, that it requires ‘the production of an historical account of the document’ that needs to be objective. The very idea that a homogenous ‘objective’ narrative is being added to these documents is a regulating process that ignores the lessons learned in the arts through poststructuralism. Structuralism is also implicitly referenced in the layer of information in the form of digital links over the manuscripts, which again inherently asserts control and authority over the material. Shenton has not stopped to ask what is the cost of such a project. Nor has she asked why the British Library feel as though they have the right to oversee the reunification of material from different cultures around the world.
The British Library is not only collecting material, but they are seeking to play a role in culture building. I thought the function of a library was to provide non-judgemental access to information. Shenton talks about ‘enhancing’ culture through diplomacy insofar as cultural diplomacy can play a role in international relations. It shows that there is an implicit and dangerous politics behind these preservation projects. Questions need to be posed regarding for whom is the British Library attempting to play a role in international relations and to what end? This project seems to be going beyond simply collecting material, but is ‘using’ material to re-tell an old story of empire. It feeds into an attempt by governments to create and control fake grand narratives. Howard Zinn’s principle of postmodern history was a way of challenging power by telling history through dispersed narratives. Shenton’s digitisation project runs the risk of more easily cutting off avenues to the past for us here in the present, but more dangerously, for people in the future. It poses the danger of manipulating information in ways that reassert a new kind of imperialism, a new homogeny of information, and an oppressive future in which subjectivity is no longer valued.