Reality Checks

Reality can be an interesting source of information. Or is it the other way round? I use the web all the time to find out about the real world. Don’t you? And what I find is “information.” If it isn’t, what is it? I use reality all the time too (in the form of a computer, a chair and the electrical grid) to find ——information. Defining information can seem like a silly word game, self-indulgent, like defining reality or god or love. It’s what undergrads do late at night after smoking a few beers. Well, call me sophomoric, but I’ve always wondered: how do you separate information from reality? Should you? Perhaps reality is to information what god is to religion.

Baba Ram Dass’ famous book title gave us a clue about how people can be real: Be Here Now. Reality, he means, is the attention we paid to what exists where we are in the present moment. Is that clear? It sounded pretty good in 1971, when LSD was still a major search engine. But what kind of criteria are these now for evaluating the “reality” of information on a website? Can information be as real as a person? Does a website have to refer to information that is “present,” or is being generated while you’re looking for it? Does it need to be verifiable or observable in an independent source, or can it be real simply because it was generated by a clever algorithm, and turned by software into a graphic display archived on the web? Is there such a thing as good information? When is information a “primary source” and when is it the content contained in that source? It might be interesting to examine a few websites with these questions in mind. Have you ever played “Where’s Waldo?” Find the reality in these websites.

The Voynich Manuscript site provides a great deal of information about this famous artifact, which currently resides at Yale. The images abound, along with the history. The manuscript is distinguished by the fact that no one understands a word of it, or can trace its complete provenance. All agree it is strikingly beautiful. Its language resembles a few other alphabets and some of its drawings resemble real plants from real places. The Voynich Manuscript, named after the antiquarian dealer who acquired it in 1912 from an undisclosed location in Europe, practically shouts for attention. It looks well put together. Possibly it was composed in an artificial language that had a meaning. It may be an herbal and cosmological codex. Its mystery has outlasted several deciphering hoaxes and well-reasoned attribution of authorship to Roger Bacon, the medieval scientist. But really, no one knows what it is. It is a real artifact with a real history. It has attracted real scholarship, and there is little doubt that it’s been around at least since the 15th century. But it may be meaningless all the same, or permanently unknowable. The web may extend its life forever. Observe a bibliographic freak: a famous, historical primary source waiting for its first citation.

But anyone can create a manuscript. Try creating a person who’s still alive after more than five human lifespans, yet who doesn’t even exist: Hamlet, the most celebrated literary nonentity of modern times. HamletWorks is a site devoted to this young man, about whom as much has been written as about his creator. Hamletworks uses a deliberately textual approach rather than a performance-oriented one, but then, Hamlet always was a man who needed to explain things. In addition to a line-by-line hyperlinked analysis of the play, Hamletworks, largely the outgrowth of work done by Professor Bernice W. Kliman, contains the full text of many different editions of the play, a link to the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, the complete run of Hamlet Studies, several concordances, critical and historical essays, illustrated versions of the play, The Enfolded Hamlet, and an extensive bibliography. All this for someone who didn’t exist. Do literary critics extract reality from textual information, or just use it as a gateway?

Making of America Chopin Early Editions African American Sheet Music

Information doesn’t begin as information. Thought has to be expressed, then formatted and recorded. If information is a recipe for action and discovery, its ingredients can be words, numbers, images, sounds, formulae, signals, the medium itself. Doesn’t all information come formatted? Sometimes information first appears as a primary source: being in the presence of the medium that first represented it lends it a special authority. It’s still quite thrilling to see actual words penned by Jane Austen in the original notebook in a display case at the Morgan Library; or to see Chopin’s notation; or the old illustrated song sheets written by the children of slaves – a century-old equivalent of a music download. Presumably, it will be just as thrilling for your child to see the same thing in a digitized version. And in 200 years? Maybe one of your teeth will contain the Library of Congress.

Librarians and researchers alike need to remember that many digitized documents are not available in proprietary databases, yet most library or catalog search engines don’t enable you to search among all available digitized resources at once, whether they were produced as marketable database, or produced as a labor of love. How many proprietary databases are put together with the imagination and painstaking care shown in the sites above, or in Library of Congress’ free American Memory collection? Libraries are starting to put websites in their catalog, but the descriptive terms are still problematic, and until it becomes routine, you’ll have to be resourceful.

What a welcome contrast to the Voynich Manuscript: digitized primary documents with origins no one doubts. They look so authentic, even though it’s now easy to create your own electronic documents – letters, news reports, handwriting, photos – in formats that look 100 or 300 years old. What reference librarian has not been tormented by an innocent request for primary source material? It should be easy to supply a patron with many, and the sites above make it so, for certain students. But wait. Isn’t most of what’s in a library a secondary source? Should a professor, or her students, ever settle for a digital version of a primary source? I’m not sure. Isn’t history authentic even if we didn’t witness it? Or are the physical qualities of the documentation as important as memory in verifying that what was recorded actually happened? In academia scholarship is meant to trump digitized evidence, but it’s still allowed to use it. If you treat a document like a photograph, and retouch the image of its text, who’s to say that that new Constitutional Amendment they’re talking about won’t be Photoshopped overnight! People love to manipulate images: it’s fun, and usually legal. Visit this site and see for yourself..

All the labor and love that go into most digitizing projects are wasted, however, if a teacher insists that a primary source for research can never be retrieved from digital holdings. Recently, I was told of a professor who insisted that her student photocopy an article from a journal, rather than download a simple text version. If the student had made copies from an online source of the same article, but digitized in its original format, the joke would have been on the professor. But then, can we be certain a manufactured image couldn’t be reproduced as a full page of text in a print journal? As usual, Walter Benjamin had it all figured out 70 years ago, in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Today, the ALA has a useful website that tries to make this all much clearer than I can, Using Primary Sources on the Web.

And now let’s change directions again. Here are two sites that let you create your own information, and then find a reality that matches it. That’s easy enough to do with a normal text-based search engine, where you can put in any text or number or string and fish for matches, but here it’s a little different. With Retrievr you can create shapes and images in different colors, using your mouse, within a small blank white rectangle, and then ask the search engine to match the general pattern and color against Flickrs huge databank of photos. Admittedly, compared to an infinity of possible designs it’s a small database to choose from, but it’s a start. What’s worth pondering is this: what possible use could finding this information serve? It’s easy to sense that there must be one. Tunespotting lets you do a very similar thing with sounds, using note and rhythmic patterns, and matches your input to a large but also limited database. Using your keyboard or mouse you can enter approximate musical note, phrase and rhythm sequences and the program matches it against similar general patterns of known compositions (like “Happy Birthday” or “The Moonlight Sonata”) that have already been encoded. It’s not terribly accurate at present, but think of the possibilities! Using very fuzzy search terms, both programs provide excellent examples of how fine and subtle are the elements that constitute an individual composition. And both allow you to see if reality measures up to information.

Paul B. Wiener

1 May 06

Janet Clarke

Janet Clarke

Associate Dean, Research & User Engagement at Stony Brook University Libraries
Janet Clarke
Posted in Library Science