#CityLIS Student Perspectives: Who’s Afraid of Data? Dystopic Archives and Libraries

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

This post is written by current CityLIS student, Anna Gialdini. Anna explores science fiction imaginaries of libraries and archives. She considers the dangers of removing the human from information management systems.

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Over time, we have come to perceive access to information as a staple of human existence in society, or at least as fundamental to the democratic process. Once the privilege of the elites, access to knowledge and information are at unprecedented rates thanks to achievements such as the highest literacy rates in history (86.2%) and improved access to elementary education.
Of course, there are many information-related battles to fight, in areas from freedom of press to access to and affordability of education in all stages of life, but the trend is certainly an upward one.

Skepticism and Information

Many, however, are not as optimistic: dissatisfaction and lack of trust in sources of information are also on the rise. In the current ‘fake news’ debate, this is a hot topic: people seem to have less and less faith in official sources of information (governments, experts, and main information outlets); almost nobody trusts the internet, generally speaking, despite the diversity in the quality of the information that can be found there.

Some of this skepticism is born from a healthy place: a shift in society from acceptance that information and knowledge are a privilege for the few, who then re-distribute bits of it, conveniently, to the lower classes, to a right for everybody; this is very much a political and sociological issue. Some of it is the consequence of cognitive overload (Kirsch 2000) or information anxiety (Kennedy 2001). Another consequence of this mistrust is, however, an increase in the use of ‘alternative’ media outlets, many of them with the sole aim of monetising though clickbaiting, and a rise in phenomena such as anti-vaxx and cancer treatment scams. This is particularly true for individuals with low information literacy, who are less able to judge the quality of their sources. Rejecting ‘traditional’ sources of information, many turn to sources of information that feel less distant, more accessible, and more empathetic (Nichols 2017).

Fictional Libraries and Archives

This is no news in information theory – we already know how in today’s world, information can be associated with feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed (Bawden – Robinson 2008). Something that I find intriguing, however, is the ‘dystopic’ representation of archives and more in general, data are portrayed in fiction, especially in sci-fi movies and games.

In these media, repositories of data such as archives and libraries are often represented as imposing, dark, and impersonal. They are understood to contain huge amounts of knowledge (or all the knowledge: think of Neil Gaiman’s Dream Library, which contains every book that was ever written and every book that was not).

They are also inaccessible to anyone unless through the guidance of their guardians, such as the Chief Librarian in Star Wars’ Jedi Temple Library: a step away from the vision of information professionals ever since Cutter’s day, which puts the user at the centre of information systems. (And yes, I do understand Star Wars takes place “a long, long time ago” – but the dissonance between past and future is a constant theme of the franchise).

Forbidden Data

Ever darker are societies where individuals are deprived of information and books are banned, such as in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where people memorise books, or Pyre, a game set in a fantastic world where reading is prohibited, and the main character, who is a literate exile, is known as the Reader. In Matrix, access to surviving pockets of historical information is regulated by the ‘ruthless’ Archivists, and restricted to those who purchase a ‘key’ (in the form of a book).
In other worlds, data wrangling takes a more real connotation: in Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University Library from Discworld, books are chained, just like in some medieval libraries, although this is to protect readers from books rather than the other way around. Once again, the figure of the Librarian has a sacred connotation: fantasy fiction often plays around with the idea of ‘forbidden’ or ‘dangerous’ knowledge that has to be mediated by individuals with a higher understanding of it. (Incidentally, this also makes information professionals look really cool).

There are fewer examples of archives and libraries were information retrieval is done without human intervention: one I can think of is the library around which the battle in Star Wars: Rogue One takes place (the Scarif Vault)

(And yet this is not too far away from the truth: many large libraries nowadays operate through “robots“. In the British Library Boston Spa building, it’s robots that retrieve old newspapers, too delicate and brittle to be handled by human librarians – they are ephemera after all, not made to be preserved.)

It is also interesting to note how at the same time, once accessed, data seem to be very clean (partly for narrative purposes), as we rarely if ever see someone struggling with the form of the data, only with their location: only access and data retrieval are considered a challenge.

Information Without Us

The TV series Futurama, on the other hand, offers an image of Mars University Library as consisting entirely of two discs: fiction, and non-fiction, with reference to themes that were popular in the early 2000s such as the death of the book.

If libraries without (physical) books are an idea that, all considered, we are not too scared by, libraries with no human beings fully belong to the supernatural. In one episode of Doctor Who (“Silence in the Library”, s4e8), the Doctor and his companion Donna Noble find themselves in the 51st century, in a fully stocked library that is completely devoid of users or librarians, but inhabited by terrifying creatures, including “data ghosts”, i.e. the degraded data pattern of a dead person – an additional reference to the threatening, scary nature of information when out of human control. Another archive with no user appears in a Batman story (Morrison 2010; Jurgens 2010-2011), Batman takes up the role of the robotic Archivist, the custodian of Vanishing Point, an archive created “at the end of time” to preserve all knowledge: and yet, such knowledge is not preserved for the human race, as the archive is located within a black hole, whence it supposedly cannot be removed, as nothing can leave a black hole. (Extra coolness point for information professionals).

The data of the future is dark and out of reach, effectively mirroring the current anxiety towards the perceived unwieldiness of information and our inability to harness it: and indeed the process of mistrust and rejection of information as such, and especially from authority sources, has already started. The information profession has not lost its responsibility as facilitator of access to information: in fact, at a time when the future seems dark, its role is more important than ever.

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Bibliography (accessed 18 November 2017):

David Bawden and Lyn Robinson, ‘The dark side of information: overload, anxiety and other paradoxes and pathologies,’ Journal of Information Science 35.2 (2008), 180-191

Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html

Nicola Davis, ‘Not fade away… how robots are preserving our old newspapers’, The Guardian, 5 July 2015 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/05/british-library-digitising-newspapers-boston-spa

Kate Freeman, ‘98% of Americans Distrust the Internet’, Mashable, 19 July 2012 http://mashable.com/2012/07/19/americans-distrust-the-internet

Rob Johnson, ‘Information Management in the movies’, The National Archives Blog, 7 March 2012 http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/information-management-in-the-movies/

Dan Jurgens, Time Master: Vanishing Points, 2010-2011

Shirley Duglin Kennedy, ‘Finding a cure for information anxiety’, Information Today. Medford 18.5 (2001), 40-41.

David Kirsch, ‘A few thoughts on cognitive overload’, Intellectica 30 (2000), 19–51

Gabriel McKee, ‘Ancient Archives, Modern Libraries, and Star Wars: Rogue One‘, NYU ISAW Blog, 21 December 2016 http://isaw.nyu.edu/library/blog/star-wars-library

Grant Morrison, Batman: The return of Bruce Wayne, 2010

Kyle Neill, ‘An Archivist’s Night at the Movies – Revealing The Power Of Archival Records’, Archives @ PAMA, 30 August 2016 https://peelarchivesblog.com/2016/08/30/an-archivists-night-at-the-movies-revealing-the-power-of-archival-records/

Tom Nichols, The death of expertise : the campaign against established knowledge and why it matters, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017

Ben Rawson-Jones. ‘S04E08: ‘Silence in the Library”. Digital Spy, 31 May 2008 http://www.digitalspy.com/tv/doctor-who/review/a97170/s04e08-silence-in-the-library/

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Acknowledgments

Many thanks to all who suggested examples of dystopic libraries and archives and especially to Pietro and Matteo, who are bigger nerds than I can ever aspire to be.

About Joseph Dunne-Howrie

Joseph is a practitioner scholar in theatre and library information science. He teaches at several universities including City, Rose Bruford College, and UEL. His research interests include immersive performance, performative writing, digital culture, documenting and archiving, and audience participation. You can learn more about Joseph's work at www.josephjohndunne.com.
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