Preserving the Zeitgeist?

Iris Jastram posted “Preserving the Zeitgeist” on Sunday, February 15, over at Pegasus librarian. I encountered it when I was working on “Thinking about blogging 1” for Cites & Insights (the “1” is because, after doing the first two of five sections, it’s already over 8,000 words, probably editable to 7,000–so I clearly need to continue the discussion later, something that’s happening a lot) and going to another Pegasus librarian post to pick up relevant excerpts.

It’s an interesting post, one that’s made me think about the situation. Here’s most of the post (leaving out the beginning, about other forms of internet data loss), although you really should read the whole thing (it’s short):

[W]hile actually losing content is the stuff of librarianish nightmares, it seems to me that there’s another aspect of internet life that we are continually losing without even realizing that we had it, and that’s the thread public conversation that holds all the individual streams of blog posts and news feeds together.

In other words, even though my blog and my friends’ blogs haven’t disappeared off the face of the internet, it would take a lot of work to recreate the moment in time in which any given post was written and see the broader environment of posts and discussions that make up any given posts’ context. Even this post is part of a conversational environment that includes the post I linked to above (and the posts to which it links), one other blog post that I can’t find any more, a couple of conversations on FriendFeed, the simple fact that an issue of Walt Crawford’s Cites & Insights came out recently, Greg Schwartz’s weekly requests for “newsworthy” content to talk about on Uncontrolled Vocabulary, and an IM conversation with Steve Lawson. That’s a lot of conversational context, each piece of which will be preserved in its own space (each blog’s archives, the Cites & Insights archives, the Uncontrolled Vocabulary audio, blog, and wiki archives, FriendFeed, and chat logs). But the moment that brought them all together, that asynchronous conversation, that zeitgeist, will probably melt into the cloud and render each piece of the conversation less rich for those coming back to them later. In fact, this post’s context is already melting since there’s one piece of if that I can no longer remember well enough to find.

There are a few vehicles that I know of that preserve these conversational contexts to varying degrees. Cites & Insights is one of them (and the one that I think defines the genre I’m imagining), Uncontrolled Vocabulary is another, This Week In LibraryBlogLand will be a third if it ever resurrects, and the now-defunct Carnival of the InfoSciences was often a fourth. Each of these gathers together the posts of others and strings them into some sort of narrative about contemporary issues in librarianship. But each also has its weakness as a Preserver of Zeitgeist. Cites & Insights preserves the issues that interested Walt, for example, and Uncontrolled Vocabulary preserves issues that Greg deems newsworthy. These foci are necessary and by no means a fault, but it leaves me wishing that more people had the time, energy, inclination, and ability to take on the task of this kind of preservation so that more pieces of the intenet conversation would get named, recorded, and preserved.

My immediate response was to note the coincidence (although I wrongly used “serendipity”) and to note one probable reason that two of the four examples Iris notes are moribund or defunct:

Weaving these things together is actual work, and unless you’re a little strange (like the proprietor of Cites & Insights), it may not be particularly rewarding work. The group of half a dozen library ezine/newsletter publishers that was briefly COWLZ is now down to…well, one.

Greg Schwartz, who does UV and used to spearhead the Carnival, added:

I do ask for newsworthiness, because that seems the most straightforward, but what I’m really seeking are topical conversation starters. Actual newsworthiness is only one piece of that, albeit an important one.

Walt highlights the reason that Cites & Insights works and the Carnival didn’t. C&I is the work of one truly impassioned (and perhaps strange, but likely not much stranger than me) individual.

A blog carnival is, by design, a community effort. Our community might not have been right for the kind of self-promotional instincts one has to have to submit to a blog carnival. Or perhaps I didn’t try hard enough.

We never had a problem finding someone willing to do the editorial legwork on a weekly basis. The idea was to distribute that time and energy commitment, so that we didn’t have to worry about people tiring of it. But it was the lack of wider community participation that killed it.

Uncontrolled Vocabulary survives because of a small group of people who make me feel like I’m not alone in my interest in the conversation. If it was just me, as it was with the original Open Stacks podcast, it would be an unsustainable model of loneliness for all but the strongest of wills (such as Walt’s).

Point being that folks like Walt are few and far between and that, if our goal is to preserve zeitgeist, what we really need is a dedicated collaborative effort. People working on the problem in isolation just creates a deepening of the same problem of fragmented conversational context.

There’s more to the comments (and may be more after this!), an exchange between Iris and Greg. Iris isn’t sure isolated efforts deepen the problem but agrees that isolated efforts “won’t do a whole lot to fix the problem”–which may not be a problem. Greg notes that someone creating another synthesis-oriented project actually creates “yet another contextual fragment that is then seen as something to be synthesized by the next person trying to synthesize the conversational context. And so on and so on in an endlessly recursive process.”

Delighted, honored…but that’s not why I do it

I am, to be sure, honored to be called an exemplar–and Iris names an aspect of C&I that I hadn’t necessarily thought about, but that’s certainly been a growing part of what I do for the past few years.

Impassioned? Strong-willed? I’m honored (and feel a nap coming on just reading those descriptions). I would hate to suggest that C&I continues because of inertia, and maybe that’s not true (if it was, C&I would settle back to the original scheme of 12 issues, 12 pages each, almost entirely composed of brief citations and the occasional comment).

It is true, however, that zeitgeist preservation is decidedly not why I do Cites & Insights–and that I’d need to do it very differently if that was the case. There would be more of you and less of me in those sections that are post-heavy. Even one notorious issue that will go unnamed here has a lot of my own comments and responses mixed in with the thoughts of others. If I don’t feel that I can add significant value, over and above selective quotations, I recycle the lead sheets I’ve printed off and abandon the essay.

I think of Cites & Insights as a creative work that involves but is not limited to synthesis. I know it’s an evolving project, one whose future outlines I’ve learned not to project too firmly. Two elements are constant: My desire to add value–and my need to find the stuff interesting.

Energy, rewards, sustainability

“Folks like Walt are few and far between.” That’s true enough, and for good reason. If certain folks like Walt had a better sense of how to apply energy in terms of likely rewards and compensation, there might not be any “folks like Walt.”

Oh, certainly, C&I and other writing do bring in a modest amount of money (thanks, YBP!), and have helped me establish some odd kind of reputation within the field. On the other hand, “modest” is the key term in that phrase, and the hot speaking engagements I get asked to do may say something about the reputation–as may the honors and other recognition I’ve received. (I’ve received three significant writing awards in my career–the LITA/Library Hi Tech Award in 1995, the Blackwell Scholarship Award in 1997, and the Excellence in Writing Information Authorship Award for Best Article in ONLINE Magazine in 1998. Cites & Insights had nothing to do with any of them, since it began in December 2000. As for paid speaking engagements, those seem to have settled down to one per year.)

I just deleted a paragraph about one particular issue of C&I and the extent of indirect rewards for doing it–or even recognition that the damn thing existed, from the “thought leaders” on that particular topic–but it’s too whiny for my taste. I figured out a long time ago that being The Guru on One Topic would serve me a lot better than being a “habitually probing generalist” (full credit to Mark Lindner)–but I never acted on that knowledge.

C&I takes a fair amount of energy. That energy would yield more compensation and probably more rewards if applied elsewhere. The zeitgeist preservation aspects of C&I score higher on the required-energy scale than most others–and, generally, lower on the rewards scale. I’ll probably keep doing them because I think they’re interesting and worthwhile, but with a frequent low-level frustration.

What this all boils down to? Preserving the zeitgeist isn’t sustainable for individual effort, especially since there aren’t that many fools like me. And that’s a shame. Based on the level of interest displayed in sponsoring some of my ongoing research, I think I can safely say that there’s no apparent institutional support for this sort of thing, and that’s not particularly surprising.

For that matter, I’m not sure it’s even preservation. The website for C&I has changed twice, and it will almost certainly disappear a year or two after I give up on the project. Thanks to OCLC, it appears that issues will be archived–the OCLC library has been archiving issues, and they’re all viewable from For that, I’m grateful–but it’s a fairly unusual situation.

I’m not sure that I have a conclusion here. I do know this: If I think too much about zeitgeist preservation, it will get in the way of doing a good job on C&I. So I’ll just say: If it happens, it happens–but barring some kind of institutional sponsorship, it just won’t (can’t) be a primary goal.

One Response to “Preserving the Zeitgeist?”

  1. Leigh Anne says:

    Hm. I’m not sure we’d WANT to preserve the zeitgeist. Sounds an awful lot like trying to keep a firefly for a pet, or play catch with a soap bubble.

    Or maybe it’s just that that’s a job for the archivists and historians. Maybe making history AND writing it all up is too much to ask of one group of bibliobloggers?

    Or not. Just pondering. Thanks for providing something to think about…