Wednesday, March 09, 2005

How I Find Books to Read, Part 2: Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age by David Levy

David Levy is an interesting person. He got an advanced degree in computer science a couple of decades ago and then left the binary world to devote several years to calligraphy and illustrated manuscripts. After perfecting ancient arts, he joined Xerox as a documents guru. Now he is a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. His study is the changing meaning of documents.

At the Public Library Association Conference in Seattle in 2004, I attended his presentation, “Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age.” He began by showing photos from the aftermath of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. Each emotionally charged photo included the image of a document. The first was a scorched book in rubble. The next was a man staring at a stray sheet of paper that he had picked up from a littered street. A third was a wall of photos of missing friends and relatives. Another was an anthrax-laced envelope addressed to the U.S. Senate. Levy said that these photos were so powerful because we recognize these documents as symbols of human loss. When the documents survive the death of the people who created or used them, they become memorials. We think of these documents as stable.

Levy went on to discuss how through creating documents people have learned to make inanimate things speak. The first time our child leaves a written message to another person we should be quite proud, for he or she has grasped an advanced concept that is uniquely human.

We use documents to further human relations (letters, postcards), to control people (passports, licenses, work orders, grocery lists), or to further knowledge (books, newspapers). Digital documents serve the same purposes, but may or may not be as stable. When we look to the future, we should be asking not what kinds of technologies that we want, but what kinds of documents do we need to preserve.

When I came home from the conference I read his book Scrolling Forward. Levy writes as well as he speaks. I recognized some of the stories from the presentation in the book, which I thought about and enjoyed for days. Because the book was published in 2001 prior to the attack there was no discussion of the tragedy, but there were many other examples of how documents evolve and change. Each chapter is an essay. It is a thought provoking work for anyone in libraries, archives, museums, or any other record keeping field.

I also read books by two other speakers from the conference, novelist Anna Quindlen and poet Linda Bierds.

Levy, David. Scrolling Forward : Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age. New York : Arcade Pub. : Distributed by Time Warner Trade Pub., c2001. ISBN 1559705531


Dan Trabue said...

Is writing these reviews part of your job? Otherwise, how do you find time to do such a masterful job so regularly?

PS: As to the painting on my blog (paynehollow), that was there by mistake, it's now at our church's blog, jeffstreet.blogspot. It's not my artwork, but a churchmember friend of mine: Charlie Merrill. He does great work.

ricklibrarian said...


Thanks for the compliment. I do write at work and have adapted and expanded some of my reviews from there. I have a couple of years worth of one paragraph reviews and some reports from conferences. Some of the entries are completely new. I suspect I will slow down when I have reused what I want. I wanted to build a body of work quickly to get started. Thanks for asking.