Reflections on the Cities, Embodiments and Technologies Conference

A brief account of my attendance at the University of Malta’s annual performing arts conference in March 2018.


The University of Malta’s fifth annual School of Performing Arts Conference was held on 7th-9th March. The title of this year’s conference was Cities, Embodiments and Technologies. The conference sought to generate debate on the how the relationship between performance (in its broadest sense) and culture can be articulated. Cities, Embodiments and Technologies were treated as frames through which speakers were invited to reflect and debate on how identities can manifest in the context of globalisation, and what impact our interconnected world has on the ways we understand history to intersect with the politics of the present.

I was part of the Performance Documentation and Intertextuality panel and presented a paper on the DocPerform Project. My goal was to explain the origins of the project and its goal to address the language barrier that exists between information professionals and performance scholar practitioners. I couched my paper in the context of digital culture, with its attendant themes of participation, technological connectivity, and open-ended art works. I also discussed the opportunities for knowledge innovation and models of practice research my role as artist in residence at CityLIS presents.

The other speakers on my panel were Marc Kosciejew and Marta Botana. Marc argued that performance and documentation enjoyed a symbiotic relationship whereby documentation can constitute a performance, a process creates a continuum of reality. Marta discussed her dance practice in the context of training one to feel connected to a site by treating the body as an intertextual phenomenon.

I couldn’t hope to try and precis all of the papers I heard, but I’d like to focus on a few key ideas and moments that really stood out for me.


Professor Maria Delgado opened the conference with her keynote paper ‘Performing Barcelona: Cultural Tourism, Geography and Identity’. Arguing that the iconography of Barcelona is bound up with theatricality, Professor Delgado cited the 1992 Olympic Games as an event that allowed the city to perform its identity on a world stage. The 1990s saw an unprecedented vogue for street art, a phenomena that was redolent of Barcelona’s strong traditional of performing outside of established arts venues in illegitimate spaces. This gives the city a porous identity. Tourists become readers when they visit Barcelona by inserting themselves in the topographical performance. Barcelona, in a sense, is a hypertext city that remains perpetually open to new formations.

The mutability of contested space was a theme picked up by Sophie Van der Bergh who addressed the tension between locationality and non-place in relation to the Iranian-Belgian artist Sachli Gholamalizad’s piece (Not) My Paradise. The performance concerns her grandparent’s migration rom Iran and the inability of any ethnic diaspora to completely leave behind the connection they feel with their home soil. Home becomes a fluid concept, one not necessarily rooted to a location but more akin to the preservation of memory and stories.

Babel Re-Play is a large scale practice research project based in cities across South Africa and Switzerland. The tower of the mythical Babel acts as a metaphor for the investigators to explore how the nomad, the figure who is forever wandering without a home, disrupts to hegemony of the cityscape by resisting becoming part of its textuality, which is to say it’s formal construction. In this sense, the nomad stands opposed to modernity by retaining their links with ancient myth. Using WhatsApp, Georges Pfruender, Cynthia Kros and David Peimar exchange images and films of the built environment in order to bring “the periphery to the centre”. The project uses WhatsApp as a cyberspuare, a digital environment that fulfils the function of a town square by allowing multiple actors to convene and share stories and experiences. The algorithm controls how much nomadic thinking can occur.

The final keynote was given by Professor Ann Cooper Albright who shared her research into the epistemologies of falling and its links with images and memories of 9/11. During her presentation, Ann showed us images of those who fell from the Twin Towers and reflected on the ways these pictures had come to symbolise a moment of global disorientation. The memorials erected in the days after the attacks can be read as an attempt to make sense of the incomprehensible atrocity the world witnessed that day.


I selected these moments because they have some resonance with the concerns and interests of those who work in the LIS field.

The gentrification Barcelona has undergone, for instance, has a powerful effect on how visitors and residents read the city. Delineating between legitimate and illegitimate forms of art runs the risk of making those artists who don’t fall within the former category invisible to the wider public. Documenting their practice becomes a necessity if they are to carve out spaces for themselves from where their art work can be encountered and experienced as part of Barcelona’s heterodox identity.

Proffering the city as text has wider implications for the ways non-text documents can be made to construct national identities for a public who may want to resist the conformity of the topography they traverse in their everyday lives. The figure of the nomad carries their home inside of them. Drifting through cyberspace makes nomads of all of us; we all create temporary homes and identities that possess a presence not contingent on the presence of the body to effectuate change in the environment we inhabit. The digital nomad can disrupt the homogeneity of cyberspace by giving the outside world a temporary home in the highly ordered and regulated environment. The outside brings new readings and knowledge to bear on how the web constitutes a home and a site where futures of our global future can be imagined and brought into being.

The commentary that an event with such a global scale as 9/11 possesses can sometimes obfuscate the experience of the individuals who experience such events first hand. The unofficial memorials that follow episodes of trauma and grief give a voice to the personal, which when erected in public spaces act as an attempt to keep living memory in a dialogue with official narratives and pronouncements. As documents, they function as the first attempt to formalise memories of the dead using public spaces as a site of collective contemplation.

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Guest Views: Focus groups with CityLIS students by Alex Asman and Diane Bell

This Guest Post by CityLibrary Librarians Diane Bell and Alex Asman looks back at a session they ran for CityLIS students earlier this year.


LibGuides is an easy to use content management system which is used by City, University of London Library Services and  libraries across the world to create small websites which are called ‘guides’.  LibGuides is owned by a company called Springshare and is part of a suite of products called LibApps, this includes LibCal (used to manage workshop, room and computer bookings) and LibWizard which is used to create quizzes, tutorials and other interactive content.

Within Library Services at City, we have a number of cross-team operational and project groups which enable us to work with colleagues from other teams and sites within the library.  We have found this approach to be successful, for example in the area of employability

One of these groups is our Library Guides group. An aim of this group is to lead on the future direction and development of Library guides. We were aware of the excellent potential of us collaborating with students from CityLIS,  our internationally renowned Library School.  User-centred design is useful to identify with users and include their ideas into service development (German, 2017).

We decided this year to offer workshops to CityLIS students to make them aware of our innovative use of Library Guides  and other Springshare products and our use of technologies but also to obtain their insights and feedback.  We felt that a knowledge of these tools would an advantage to students because they are so prevalent in many organisations.

We introduced a new Library guides home page in the summer of 2017 and the students gave us feedback on the design and clarity of this. We also looked at examples of some of our guides and those from other institutions.

Some aspects we discussed were:

  • It is key to consider the audience, purpose and objectives.
  • Front loading of important content in a prominent place on the guide.
  • The benefits of clear guide design and navigation.
  • Using bullet points or small paragraphs of text and having some white space on the page.
  • Incorporate accessibility features and consider ease of use eg. clicking/ scrolling.
  • Use of language and avoidance of jargon/terminology or acronyms providing a glossary.
  • Students highlighted the inter-disciplinary nature of LIS and the fact that is a postgraduate course.

Our Information Literacy Group has developed a new, introductory online guide (City, University of London Library Services, 2017) and a workshop series called Library Essentials and we also took the  opportunity to produce short videos on using the library (see slides on some of our use of technologies).

Our workshop presentation is below:

We have collated student feedback from our workshops and will be trying to incorporate it into some of our guide design and content and will also look for opportunities for collaboration and discussion and the sharing of expertise with CityLIS students. One thing we are looking to do is to develop learning objectives for our guides and to consider tailoring them to a specific audiences.

German, E. (2017). ‘LibGuides for instruction: a service design point of view from an academic library’, Reference and User Services Quarterly, 56(3), p. 162-167. Available at:

Alex Asman (Subject Librarian, Arts)  and Diane Bell (Research Librarian)

City, University of London.

Reblogged from: Citylibresearchers and CityLibrary’s Staff Development Blog.


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CityLIS Focus on Alumni: The Post-Apocalypse Librarian

This post is by CityLIS alumna Adelaide Robinson. Adelaide graduated in January 2018. The work first appeared on her personal blog “the digital shoebox” on April 12th 2018.


“Where do you see yourself in 15 years?” someone asks.

Cynically, I reply: “a post-apocalypse librarian.”

“A what?

So, little known fact about me: I love post-apocalypse fiction. From the incredibly bleak and extremely haunting hopelessness of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, to the hopeful and extremely fun antics of humans post-Earth in sci-fi stories like Becky Chambers’s ‘The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet’, I love reading about human ingenuity and resourcefulness in the face of the end of the world. I’m a sucker for all the tropes; crumbling famous landmarks, scary messages on walls scrawled by the long-dead, and… the post-apocalypse librarian?

While not a staple feature of most post-apocalypse/dystopian stories, the post-apocalypse librarian is one of my absolute favourite character tropes. I’m talking about the wizened old women and men holed up in bunkers with odd filing cabinets, who ‘remember the Internet’ and hoard Shakespeare plays instead of cans of food. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a specific name for this character. TVTropes, that wonderful encyclopedia of fictional plots and stereotypes, has a few entries that touch on the subject. There’s the ‘Wasteland Elder’, someone old enough to remember Earth-that-was, who occasionally enlightens the hero with stories and warnings. There’s ‘Lost Common Knowledge’ and ‘Lost Technology’, the rosy misremberance of ‘The Beforetimes’, and alien researchers who discover an Earth long-dead, which is also fun, but not quite what I’m on about.

The title of post-apocalypse librarian refers to any character whose first priority in a post-Earth-as-we-know-it situation is to try and document the world around them. People who are driven, like all of us in the field of LIS, to make some kind of sense out of chaotic information. Whether they’re recording events as they happen, preserving records of the past, or even just doing their best to find out anything about the world that once was, the post-apocalypse librarian values information above all else. I’m going to lay out these aforementioned examples of said librarians using some of my favourite books, and then talk about how I relate this to the world of LIS today and my personal experience with it.

A quick note on the terms apocalypse and post-apocalypse: many books mentioned here deal with a post-Earth narrative, rather than a post-apocalypse one. For ‘apocalypse’, read ‘end of an Earthen era’, as Megan Hunter explains below:

“Etymologically, the word apocalypse contains the meanings to uncover, to transform, and to reveal, rather than simply denoting the end of things. Its origins in Judeo-Christian religious traditions mean that the endings it originally described always contained a beginning: the destruction of the world heralded the arrival of a new—holy—era. Even in its modern usage, the term post-apocalyptic contains within it an implication that even in the worst of circumstances, some form of life continues. There is, perhaps surprisingly, an afterwards, a world for humans to inhabit, and books to be written about them.”

– Hunter, “Seeing the Hopeful Side of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction.”, 2017

First of all:

  1. Why does the apocalypse need a librarian?
    (The Road, Cormac McCarthy)

the road

Maybe he understood for the first time that to the boy he was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed. The tales of which were suspect. He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he.

– Cormac McCarthy, The Road, (London: Picador, 2009), 163.

The world of the post-apocalypse is typically one that exists without written records. Most technology, even the most basic, is rendered obsolete by a: nuclear fallout, b: deadly pathogens, c: zombies, d: all of the above. When you can’t find dog-eared children’s books in ransacked homes, the only writing you tend to see are old road signs and messages from the long dead – sometimes not even written in the kind of alphabet you’d expect.

They began to come upon from time to time small cairns of rock by the roadside. They were signs in gypsy language, lost patterans. The first he’d seen in some while, common in the north, leading out of the looted and exhausted cities, hopeless messages to loved ones lost and dead. (192)

Part of The Road’s appeal, unlike other post-apocalyptic narratives, is how little we are told about the world. There are almost no named characters in the story, hardly any punctuation, and only two main characters who we follow throughout the book: a man and a boy. The man, (the boy’s father), narrates most of the time. He gives us one vague, fascinating tidbit about how the end of the world came about:

The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didn’t answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What’s happening?
I don’t know.
Why are you taking a bath?
I’m not.

The boy in the story is entirely a child of the post-apocalypse world. He learns (haltingly) to read through the man’s insistence, but he lacks basic knowledge of so many pre-apocalypse things, demonstrated towards his fascination with trains, the ocean, and even a can of Coca-Cola which he cannot understand how to open. He is ‘carrying the fire’, as the man says, without really knowing where the fire came from. The apocalypse needs a librarian if you don’t want your world to be like the one in The Road. There needs to be someone preserving language, culture – hope, even.

2. The apocalypse journalist
(Ghostwritten, David Mitchell)


“Uh… Is anyone listening to this? If you’re not busy setting cars ablaze or looting Tiffany’s then you’re probably wired to the television, watching the greatest drama mankind has ever staged. With Apocalypse Right Now, You Can Feel Your Eyeballs Melt As You Watch The Boom! But hey, remember, phone-in radio invented interactive. Night Train FM rolls on! Even by broadcasting we may be defying last week’s Emergency Media Advisory Act – cute name, huh? (…) Maybe the info police are too busy to kick our door down, or maybe some giant jamming signal is blanketing all frequencies, or maybe some plug has been pulled from some socket somewhere and I’m just talking to myself.

 David Mitchell, Ghostwritten, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1999), 404.

The apocalypse journalist is a character in the middle of these three examples; someone determined to make some kind of recorded sense out of the chaos, but without the long term goal of building a knowledge source. The journalist records events as they happen, and this could be for a multitude of reasons; for the benefit of others, for their own comfort, or simply to make sure that there’s some kind of voice out there in the dark. The example above is from David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, an episodic novel in ten parts that follows narrative threads through several different, seemingly unrelated characters and locations. The chapter the above quote is taking from, Night Train FM, features a character called Bat Segundo, a DJ for a late-night radio station. The threat of nuclear war looms heavy one night, and the world (shown through New York) is plunged into traditional pre-apocalypse looting and chaos. Segundo continues his radio show despite airwaves censorship, and unintentionally becomes the only ‘voice of the people’ still recording events as they happen. I like this example especially, because the apocalypse journalist is not simply creating a room full of nostalgic objects, but actively using their powers of documentation to bring people together.

“Where you calling from, Jolene?”
“Lower Manhattan. Bat, could I say a message?””
“Sure you could.”
“It’s to Alfonso, I ain’t seen him for three days now. He went out to get some supplies… Alfonso, if you’re listening, you just get yourself on home, y’hear? And Bat?”
“When the next song’s playing, will you make yourself a coffee and start sobering up some?”
“… Uh-huh. I’ll do that, Jolene.”
“And I’d sure be obliged if you’d stop talking ‘bout the end of the world, Bat. It don’t help none. Other than army buttheads telling us to stay calm, you’re the only voice on the dial, and most probably you’re propping up more people than you think.”
– p. 406

(I’ve made a playlist of all the songs that appear in this chapter – find it on Spotify.) This might be one of my very favourite settings in a novel. Bat Segundo is an apocalypse journalist without even particularly trying to or wanting to be: it just feels natural to him to try and make some sense out of his world by recording everything he witnesses. It’s a kind of labour of love that’s even better represented in our next trope, the apocalypse archivist.

3. The apocalypse archivist
(The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers)


“Rosemary was impressed. Archivists were passionate people, some of whom dedicated their whole lives to the pursuit of unbiased truth. Given the wealth of information that needed sorting through, professional archivists relied heavily on volunteers to help keep public files current. Rosemary had always imagined them like guardians from some fantasy vid, defending the galaxy from inaccuracies and questionable data.”

 Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015), 196-197.)

(By the way, if you read just one book from this blog post? Read this one. Trust me. And then read its sequel.)

Reference archivists in a post-Earth world have the duty of remembering Earth-that-was. The bit I particularly like from this quote is “the pursuit of unbiased truth”. In a post-Earth narrative, it’s usual for Earth and its former inhabitants to be mythologised. In TLWTASAP (henceforth referred to as Wayfarers, book 1), volunteer archivists make it their mission to make the records of their home planet as truthful and helpful as possible.

“You would not believe the amount of bogus, speciest submissions we have to deal with.”
“Examples,” Kizzy said.
Nib sighed and scratched his beard. “The best one I’ve seen in a while claimed that the Exodus Fleet could never have sustained that many people for so long, ergo, the Human race did not originate on Earth at all.”
Jenks raised his head. “So where are we from, then?”
Nib grinned. “We’re a genetweaked species the (aliens) cooked up.”
“That’s so dumb,” said Ember. “What about all the Earthen ruins and stuff? All those old cities?”
“I know, I know,” Nib said with a shrug. “But we still have to go through the process of objectively disproving the claim. That’s our job.” (196-197)

While the scenario in Wayfarers 1 is far more enjoyable and hopeful than that of The Road, (humans left Earth and can be found throughout the galaxy, making friends and flying spaceships,) the effects of an apocalypse on Earth can be keenly felt throughout the book. On the opposite end of the spectrum to reference file archivists, there are Gaiists – a kind of fundamentalist sect of humanity, who are only concerned with spreading the gospel of Earth-that-was and inticing as many (pure) humans as possible to return and help to make it habitable again.

The Gaiist turned to Rosemary and Kizzy, the edge leaving his voice, a bit of desperation creeping in. “If you should have some time to yourselves during your stay here” – in other words, away from the alien – “please come see us again. We have many more Earthen wonders to share, and even more in the habitat tanks aboard our ship.” He switched the terrarium into his left hand and reached into his satchel. “Here,” he said, handing them each an info chip. “Take these as a gift. They contain videos of some of the magical places that await you on your homeworld. Just stick them in your scrib and enjoy.”  (103)

The Gaiists are apocalypse archivists to a fault – concerned only with preserving their particular narrative, and not learning or adapting in the process. If the reference file archivists pursue unbiased truth above all things, the Gaiists do the exact opposite: their archives are rose-tinted misrememberances of an Earth that clearly fell into chaos.

4. The apocalypse librarian
(Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel)


There seemed to be a limitless number of objects in the world that had no practical use but that people wanted to preserve: cell phones with their delicate buttons, iPads, Tyler’s Nintendo console, a selection of laptops. There were a number of impractical shoes, stilettos mostly, beautiful and strange. There were three car engines in a row, cleaned and polished, a motorcycle composed mostly of gleaming chrome. Traders brought things for Clark sometimes, objects of no real value that they knew he would like: magazines and newspapers, a stamp collection, coins. There were the passports or drivers licenses or sometimes the credit cards of people who had lived at the airport and then died. Clark kept impeccable records.

 Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven, (London: Picador, 2014), 259.

Our last example comes from Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, an Earth in which a swine flu pandemic decimated the population. A company of musicians and actors travel the wastelands performing concerts and Shakespeare plays to the small towns of survivors, with their motto, “because survival is insufficient.” It’s one of my absolute favourite post-apocalypse stories because it focuses on not just post-apocalypse survival, but also hope. What is the point of preserving Earth culture if you can’t still enjoy it? However, the best part of the book, for me, is the story of one character who found himself stranded at an airport the day the virus broke out. The airport citizens form a kind of village in the years that follow, and Clark, out of a desire to find both something to keep him occupied, and to preserve the memories of the airport village, creates a library.

The characters in the novel have conflicting opinions on the usefulness of the library. One character asks,

“Does it still make sense to teach kids about the way things were?” (269)

While another, more cynical character, poses this thought:

 “Artifacts from the old world,” he said. “Here’s the thing, kids, the entire world is a place where artifacts from the old world are preserved. When was the last time you saw a new car?” (146)

It’s a question that helps bring together this entire exploration of the trope – why bother? If the Earth as we know it in a post-apocalypse world is simply a silo of ancient artifacts, why bother putting a few of them in a room and calling it a library? It’s a concept I’ve struggled with when thinking about the end of the world, and also about the world I live in now. The Earth generates more information than we could possibly record, and this task gets more monumentous every minute. If the world does end in my lifetime (and frankly, it’s looking likely), do I think I’ll be able to muster up the energy to preserve what little of our previous lives that I can? Why would I bother?

In Year Fifteen people came to the museum to look at the past after their long days of work. A few of the original First-Class lounge armchairs were still here, and it was possible to sit and read the final newspapers, fifteen years old, turning brittle pages in gloves that Clark had sewn inexpertly from a hotel sheet. What happened here was something like prayer. (261 – 262)

I think that’s why.


Those of you who have made it this far may be concerned about how much time I devote to thinking about the end of the world. I say it’s practical! But on a less cynical note, researching for this blog post has made me think about why I like these kinds of stories so much. At first I thought it was a simple reaction to information anxiety. There is so much to record, and so little space – wouldn’t it be nice if we had a clean slate, and we got to start again? While I’ve written this, however, I’ve come to a different conclusion. These stories are comforting to me. My generation is possibly the most anxious in history, and for good reasons – we live our lives surrounded by uncertainty and a kind of despair. We may never be able to pay off our debts, or own a house. We’re getting married less, and having less children. We’ve grown up in the midst of rapid technological change, and even more rapid environmental decline. We’re the post-9/11 generation. Right now we live in fear of an orange idiot with access to nuclear codes. We accepted a long time ago that our world is on shaky foundations, which is why we record absolutely everything about our lives. Every blog post, every selfie, every Tweet, is also a way of saying, “we are here”. We were here.

So there’s something about these stories, and these characters, that is comforting. The idea that of course things may get worse, but there will always be a voice on the radio to get us through it. There will always be volunteers sifting through archives to make sure our story is told. And at the end of a long day, there will always be a library to sit in.


Chambers, B. (2015). The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Hunter, M. (2017, November). Seeing the Hopeful Side of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction. LitHub (via Grove Atlantic). Retrieved from

McCarthy, C. (2006). The Road. London: Picador.

Mitchell, D. (1999). Ghostwritten. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

St. John Mandel, E. (2014). Station Eleven. London: Picador.


You can follow Adelaide on Twitter @AdaFRobinson

If you would like to study with CityLIS, you can find links to our courses here.



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CityLIS News: Dr Deborah Lee wins E.T. Bryant Award for CityLIS doctoral thesis

Two-time IAML Uk&Irl E.T. Bryant Memorial Prize Winner, Deborah Lee

Two-time IAML Uk&Irl E.T. Bryant Memorial Prize Winner, Deborah Lee

Dr Deborah Lee, our visiting lecturer at CityLIS who is responsible for the Information Organisation module, has been awarded the 2017 IAML Uk&Irl E.T. Bryant Memorial Prize for her doctoral thesis “Modelling music: a theoretical approach to the classification of notated Western art music”. 

Her thesis provides an in-depth analysis of music classification, and develops a number of models for the organisation of music information.  She was supervised at CityLIS by Prof. David Bawden and Dr Lyn Robinson.

The E.T. Bryant prize is awarded by IAML Uk&Irl for a significant contribution to the literature of music information, for recent graduates or those within their first five years of professional employment.  Deborah is the first person to have been awarded this prize twice: she also won this award in 2008 for her master’s dissertation, “Classifying musical performance: the application of classification theories to concert programmes.


Debbie’s website can be found here. You can follow Debbie on Twitter @DebbieLeeCat.

If you would like to study for your PhD with CityLIS, please get in touch.


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Hacking the Pantheon – Immortality & the Rise of Digital Libraries

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current CityLIS students.

This post is written by Alexander Bell. He reflects on what ancient relics and iconography can teach us about the ways our informational landscape has changed over the centuries to reflect images of the self rather than deities.


Art and artefacts that span human history contain many elaborate depictions of Gods, Deities and Icons. From the shining grandeur of Egyptian Kings and Queens, the wild and indulgent furies of the Greek Gods, to the romantic drama of Ophelia and the Pre-Raphaelites. Gods, deities and icons, whatever their form or function, have served as projections of society, encapsulating hopes, dreams, values and fears. Our continued hacking and immortalising of such pantheons, can been traced through art history and demonstrates a human narrative of recording information. The digital age may now have ushered in the likes of robots and artificial intelligence as the new pantheon, but it is important to remember that technology is no more immortal or divine as the sun, the moon or a blade of grass. While technological advancements have improved how data is recorded, it is still the responsibility of us, bone and blood, not metal and machine, to ensure we actively regulate and dictate how we share information in modern life. (McMullam, 2018).

The information that surrounds us, and that is represented in visual culture, now more accurately portrays the self, rather than that of an exalted pantheon. This is in part due to the readily accessibility of technology, which enables us to take a more central part in the digitisation and documentation of society. Our current addiction to upload, depict and deposit our lives on Instagram for example, may seem like a new fad, but there is something considerably deeper and older at work here. Throughout history there have been paintings, the writings of myths, legends and deeds, and mapping of towns, temples and distant stars, serving as documents of humanity. The world wide web and digital media are simply continuations of this dialogue. (Benjamin, 2008). We seem to never quite learn to just let things be or let things go, instead holding onto to our love letters, photographs, books and all the flotsam and jetsam that drifts into our lives. Given the chance, we will hoard the universe, its secrets and knowledge, above and beyond the Gods. It is therefore a testament to our sentimentality that we still value and vitally need libraries, galleries and museums to house, regulate and manage such collections of human knowledge.

Alongside the start of the Digital Libraries module led by Lyn Robinson, I visited Central Saint Martins to see the exhibition ‘Metadata: How We Relate to Images’. This revealed a correspondingly complex world of images, hacking, digitality and immortality. The exhibition, set in cool, smooth concrete, put together a floating world of art and objects, focusing on the role of metadata in contemporary art and art history. A highlight was the work of Nora Al-Badri and Nikolai Nelles, whose hack of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti is a great modern art heist, and a further example of the reproduction and immortality of ancient documents. The artists claimed to have scanned the Bust of Nefertiti, one of the masterpieces currently located in the Neues Museum, Berlin. They bravely made the resulting data publicly available, enabling anyone to use it for their own purpose. (Metadata: How we relate to images, 2018). While the heist raises many ethical questions around surrogate documents and authenticity, I could not help but marvel that the 3-D printed sculpture and digital prints on display, supposedly contained the exact data of an iconic piece of sculpture crafted thousands of years ago. Who would have thought that from sun blazoned Egypt, Nefertiti could be a tourist in the rain swept and slate skied city of London. The Bust of Nefertiti is also perfect example of the legacy of descriptive metadata. There is great power in standardising metadata and using text to describe the wordless. For non-textual items like paintings, artefacts and digital art, someone must create the metadata to tell us how to relate to and understand the documents meaning. Finding the words is another step in understanding and learning to see. (Gartner, 2016, p.41). A vase is simply a vase, but if metadata contextualises it and tells us it is a 400BC Greek Vase depicting Apollo, then the object suddenly has an ideology of history, appeal and value. It is in this, the careful nuance of accurate description, that the Gods live on and works of art have the potential to capture the imagination, entice spectators and impart the desire for further preservation and immortality.

The same impulse the Egyptians had to write information down, and create a visual language, is present today. 3000 years on and we are still scrawling words and images through the internet, which after all, is just a repurposing of scribes annotating on papyrus, acting as a sanctum where data and information can be shared and recorded. Now that the papyrus scrolls have moved into the archive and the machine moved into sight, there inhabits the perfect medium and incentive to digitise works of art, and practically everything else we can get our mortal hands on. Digital libraries having grown from the development of the web, are the next evolution in the lifecycle of the library and the provision of digital material. The idea of having one, singular repository of information is a lofty ideal, but there are the labyrinthine obstacles of interoperability of different digital formats and sustainability to contend with. (Bawden & Robinson, 2012, p. 154).

There is a common misconception that once a document has been digitised, like Al-Badri and Nelles have done so to Nefertiti, it can live immortally untarnished by the claws of entropy. Library and Information professionals must therefore work to standardise the construction and policies of preservation and metadata in digital libraries. The British Library are currently carrying out diligent work to set standards for metadata, so that both textual and non-textual documents continue to have a coherent structure, context and history. There are also digital ethics to consider, such as controlling and regulating linked data, distribution, stakeholders interests and open access. (Calhoun, 2014). Why should all this matter, I hear you ask? Knowledge! If we want to nurture future generations to exude knowledge as naturally as the sun gives out heat, then the information we leave behind has to be more sustainable, accessible, meaningful and truthful than just an echo, afterimage or footprint in the sand.


Bawden, D. & Robinson, L. (2012) Introduction to information science. London, UK: Facet Publishing.

Benjamin, W. (2008) The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. London, UK: Penguin Group.

Calhoun, K. (2014) Exploring digital libraries: foundations, practice, prospects. London, UK: Facet Publishing.

Gartner, R. (2016) Metadata: shaping knowledge from antiquity to the semantic web. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing. Available at: (Accessed: 08th Feb 2018).

McMullam, T (2018). ‘The word of god: how a.i is defined in the age of secularism.’ Medium. Available at: (Accessed: 03th Feb 2018).

Metadata: How We Relate to I

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