Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Wonderful post at A Working Library about libraries, ways of organizing information, and the varieties of metadata:

Aby Warburg’s library opened in Hamburg in 1926. In Manguel’s telling, Warburg incessantly arranged and rearranged his books, moving titles from shelf to shelf in an attempt to map the paths among them. Visitors spoke of books of literature shelved next to those on geography, art history leaning against philosophy. At one point, unable to move the books at the speed of his mind, Warburg resorted to tacking notecards to a cloth — each card relating a text or image, their placement on the cloth relating them to other texts. The cards could be lifted and moved around at will — a visualization of the ongoing, cacophonous conversation around them.

His was a library as creative act — it exchanged the rigor of a single taxonomy for one that was fluid, eccentric, human. In so doing he delayed the act of finding a text indefinitely. You didn’t so much as look for a book as look for the thread that linked it to its neighbor; you didn’t rest on a single title, but instead travelled through them all, assured that wherever you were going, you would never arrive.

I wonder, then, if the promise of an ebook isn’t the book but the library. And if, in all our attention to a new device for reading, we’re neglecting methods for shelving. A search engine cannot compete with Warburg’s delicate, personal library. The metadata of a book extends beyond the keywords held between its covers to the many hands the text has passed through; it’s not enough just to scan every page. We need to also scan the conversations, the notes left in the margins, the stains from coffee, tea, and drink. We need to eavesdrop on the readers, without whom every book is mute. That is the promise I seek.

For more on Warburg, see here. For a similar reflection on neglected metadata, see here.


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