This has been reposted from the website for the Media Archaeology Lab.
I’m fascinated so far by the posts by James Ascher, Eric Izant, and Kyle Bickoff – all members of our Media Archaeology Lab working group dedicated to thinking through how to catalog the MAL’s holdings. All three propose similar but also slightly different approaches to cataloging the MAL’s holdings by drawing on a set of descriptive terms – most of which seem to overlap with metadata terms defined by Dublin Core Metadata Initiative.
Eric and Kyle suggest we use the following categories:
- date received
- publication date
- publication medium
- publication format
- identification number
- system of use
- operating description/instructions
- photograph of the item
- brief description of the item
- notations about whether and when the item has been tested
At first glance, all these descriptive categories seem like perfectly pragmatic and effective ways to describe many of the items in the MAL – from its manuals, books, magazines, to its collection of hardware, software, games, and digital literature/art. I couldn’t have come up with a more complete list myself. However, the moment I try to actually put this system into practice and describe any one item in the lab, I’m immediately confounded by this apparently straightforward system.
Take, for example, this 5.25″ floppy that was donated to the lab by Canadian poet Lionel Kearns.
Before donating them to the lab, Kearns had in his possession these two floppies which contain the Apple BASIC code for bpNichol’s famous, early digital poem, “FIRST SCREENING” from 1983-1984. However, Kearns included a letter with the donation in which he explains that these are something like “manuscript floppies” in that they pre-date the publication of “FIRST SCREENING” in 1984. It turns out that while the differences between this verion of “FIRST SCREENING” and the version that Jim Andrews et al have made available online are not immediately apparent, the code for the two versions is very different. Just one example is that the published version contains a work called “Off-screen Romance” that’s only visible if one looks at line 110 code, read that “110 REM FOR THE CURIOUS VIEWER/READER THERE’S AN ‘OFF-SCREEN ROMANCE’ AT 1749. YOU JUST HAVE TO TUNE IN THE PROGRAMME” after which one can type “RUN 1748” to make the poem appear on screen. In the earlier version housed in the lab, there is no “Off-screen Romance” at all (and neither is there “Reverie” or “Any of Your Lip”). Thus, just some of the questions this piece raises are:
- what is the title? is it what’s written on the label of the floppy by Kearns? or what the piece was later known as? but then how do we distinguish between this version and the published version?
- we can certainly say what date we received this item, but there is no publication date for these floppies and no publisher; in fact, we don’t even know when bpNichol was working on this earlier version of “FIRST SCREENING”
- while we can say that the medium is a 5.25″ floppy, that the system of use is Apple IIe and Apple BASIC, how do we indicate that this piece is generally known as a digital poem, OR as a work of electronic literature; that it contains 10 poems; that these poems are kinetic; that the published version contains 13 poems; that the Apple IIe had an 80 column display; that this was one of the first computers to have uppercase and lowercase – a fact which has a profound impact on the kind of digital literary art one was able to produce; that it comes with an explanatory letter by Lionel Kearns
- more, the foregoing questions mostly only attend to the floppy disks themselves. What about the machine we use in the MAL to access the floppy? How do we indicate that the machine we use right now is the Platinum Apple IIe that came out in 1987 whose case is now light grey instead of the beige of the original Apple IIe from 1984 which bpNichol would have used? How do we indicate that, for example, the keyboard layout for the Platinum Apple IIe comes with a numeric keypad and the Open and Solid Apple keys of the original have been replaced by Command and Option? Wouldn’t we say that our interactions with the work on the floppy are affected, changed, by the medium of interaction itself?
I think, then, that some of these questions might be the impetus for Jamess suggestions for the following categories to describe items in the lab might :
- Intrinsic (things written on or encoded in the object, not based on ANY external information):
- Identifying name(s) (most prominent words on the object- usually a model name)
- Other information- manufacturer, model, year, etc.
- Physical characteristics, size, color, appearance, distinguishing marks
- Socially constructed name(s)
- Explanation for name(s) (trade names? hobbyist names? what they are called on eBay?)
- Role(s) for various communities
- Related objects
And so while James’ suggestions might at first seem overly general and not specific enough, I wonder if our desire for categorical specificity isn’t actually driven by book culture – where there is a greater uniformity among objects than in the digital realm where, at least in the 1970s and 1980s, not only is nearly every object (whether hardware or software) unique, but even the notion of “object” is up for debate. What is the object we’re seeking to describe when we look at an Apple Lisa? Its outward appearance, dimensions, keyboard? It’s operating system? Icons? Graphical User Interface? Or what about the original owner’s files? Now the Apple Lisa starts to seem like its “object” all the way down and instead of coming up with a new schema to describe it, might we be better off using broad, flexible terms that allow us to provide pragmatic user-friendly descriptions within the terms?
3 thoughts on “notes on cataloging computer hardware and software”
Finally had a moment to look at this. It’s a fascinating (and important) set of issues which I would love to push forward with you in conjunction with the collections materials here at Maryland. We may have some resources to do that in the coming year. In the meantime, though, I would endorse the KISS principle. Indeed, it may be best to think of this as an iterative process and to do an initial first pass capturing only what you can at the most basic level and taking notes (like these) all the while about where the gaps and problems appear. Then do a second pass. But I think by this point you’ll also have expended the utility of Dublin Core and will be prepared to move on to EAD or some other more robust form of archival description–which is where a lot of the more granular detail you impart above would probably belong. But one reason I stress the iterative approach is that even a baseline inventory will be orders of magnitude more valuable to you and the Lab’s users than an incomplete one, however, granular and detailed the latter might be; so keep cataloging, keep learning what you didn’t know about your collections, and keep iterating!
One other thought: it may be that a free-form “dependencies” field could capture, at least provisionally and discursively, some of the constraints and limitations you note in these examples.
thanks so much for the comments Matt and the encouragement. I agree with what you say and right now I think the most important thing for us to do is exactly to catalog everything in the MAL, as best we can right now, to get the information out to the world. Hopefully we will have this done by the end of summer and hopefully too we can come up with a way to add in something like a crowd-source function to the descriptive categories under “user” so that people can share their knowledge about what computers were known as/by, commonly known hacks, and especially in the e-lit community, details on versions, updates etc.
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