On a good day I’m surrounded by cartons of reel-to-reels, cassettes, DAT tapes, DVCAMs, and MiniDVs. Last year we rescued our broken and mistreated CDs, sorted everything, gave each one a unique identifier, and moved the disks into Tyvek sleeves.
These boxes of loved and unloved formats are here for a simple reason: digitize or transfer. At the Yiddish Book Center, as at most digital libraries, content matters more than the container. Our goal is to transform these “tapes” into a digital collection, to present scattered media as a usable record of the center’s mission—the lectures on Yiddish culture it sponsored, the concerts it held, the recordings of native speakers it captured. Soon we will add them to the center’s holdings of digital stuff.
Digitization is the correct choice. It improves access to materials. It preserves the original recordings (temporarily). It enables a small memory institution in a midsized state to have a global impact. But more than a decade into the era of digital libraries, it’s past time to admit that digital objects are boring.
What we’ve gained in access, we’ve lost in tactility. The books at the Yiddish Book Center bear inscriptions, stamps, signatures, library records, doodles. There could be ten to fifteen copies of a single volume by Sholem Asch on the shelves, each slightly different, each potentially appealing to a different reader, each with a unique texture. Because scanning is practical, only one copy of a book is digitized. Beautiful, variable, sensorial artifacts become flat JPEGs.
The media scholar Florian Cramer has written about postdigital movements in arts and design. Although the term is multivalent, one notion is to choose the technology most suited to the job rather than default to the bleeding edge. If access is the goal, new media will always be the most suitable. Yet access is only one part of the mission of cultural heritage institutions. Consider member engagement. Every summer the Book Center sponsors a music festival, Yidstock. How would members respond to receiving a “best of” cassette? Would they appreciate its bootleg feel? Physical media also serves a pedagogical purpose: as objects marked in time, they illuminate a disappearing world.
Memory institutions like ours should embrace the challenge of making new media more meaningful. We need to adopt postdigital logic, accept that the experience of old media was more engaging, and inject our cool digital spaces with a sense of play.
Eitan Kensky is director of the Collections Initiatives at the Yiddish Book Center. Before coming to the Book Center, he was the preceptor in Yiddish at Harvard. He is a cofounder of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies. He received his PhD from Harvard in Jewish Studies.