There will be no GLAM 3017, because we will all be dead

I try not to think about where humanity might be in a thousand years. Based on our current trajectory, the most likely answer is ‘extinct’. Our current rate of consumption and pollution is not sustainable for anywhere near that length of time. When resources run out, there will inevitably be fierce wars over what little is left. Civilisation will end one of two ways: with a bang, or a whimper.

When we are all gone, we will leave behind an unfathomable amount of stuff. Priceless treasures representing the pinnacle of humanity, through personal possessions and records of ordinary people, to mountains of rubbish and items of no assigned value. All of this stuff will begin to degrade. Bespoke climate-controlled environments will no longer protect precious materials; our natural environment will likely not be conducive to long-term preservation, either. It is inevitable great works will be lost.

I’ve had Abby Smith Rumsey’s When We Are No More on my to-read pile for several months. I won’t get it read anytime soon, sadly, but her book touches on similar themes. Rumsey appears more optimistic than me; her book explores how people a thousand years from now will remember the early 21st century. I can’t help but admire her belief that humanity will exist at all.

This is a pessimistic worldview, to be sure. After all, modern capitalism is predicated on people buying stuff, which is in turn predicated on the constant production of stuff. Increasingly this ‘stuff’ is made from non-renewable materials, and sooner or later those materials will run out. Capitalism presents no incentive to preserve our scarce resources, because if a resource remains in the ground then less (or no) money can be made from it. The only real hope of changing this state of affairs lies in revolution, and that won’t be popular.

If, by some miracle, homo sapiens survives to 3017, it will not be a pleasant world. With the exhaustion of mineral resources will come a need to recycle or perish. If our choice becomes book-burning or starvation (we’ve all seen that scene in The Day After Tomorrow, right?), I doubt many would pick the latter. Technology will not save us. Our electronic memory will be irretrievable, our physical memory decayed if not destroyed. Perhaps our surviving collective descendants will despair at our modern habits of storing vast amounts of information on fragile pieces of metal and plastic, which require significant infrastructure to be accessed and read. A book (which, to be fair, we are also producing plenty of) requires nothing but a pair of functioning eyeballs.

I’d really like to believe that our species will survive, but nothing so far has convinced me. Knowledge and memory—and the externalisation thereof—are uniquely human traits. Without people to inhabit library buildings, without people to read books, without people to create and disseminate knowledge… our planet will be truly devoid.

Then again, we live in a time of information abundance, and look where it’s gotten us. Perhaps we’re reaping what we sow.

I’m a document hipster. I only write in sustainable plaintext

No-one really needs three different word processing programs.

Yet that’s the situation I’m currently in. My six-year-old MacBook Pro is on its last legs and I’m desperately trying to eke out as much free storage space and processing power as possible, meaning a bit of spring cleaning is in order. Unfortunately for me, I’ve amassed text-based documents in (among others) .docx, .pages and .odt formats. Office for Mac has only recently added support for Open Document formats and I’m reluctant to get rid of LibreOffice, the originating program.

From a digital preservation perspective, my Documents folder is a mess. Converting all of these into more sustainable formats will, I’ve decided, be Future Alissa’s problem. But that doesn’t mean I need to keep living an unhealthy document lifestyle.

Instead, I’ve decided to try out one of the more intriguing lessons on The Programming Historian: ‘Sustainable Authorship in Plain Text using Pandoc and Markdown’. Any document that I would normally write in Pages will instead be written in a plaintext editor using Markdown and typeset in .docx or .pdf using Pandoc. I’ve been using Markdown for a while to write these blog posts, but Pandoc is a new experience.

Briefly, Markdown is a text markup language that is intended to be human-readable in a way HTML isn’t. Pandoc is a command-line program to convert one markup format into another, such as HTML to .docx (which at heart is an XML format). The primary benefit is that the manuscript (which is a plaintext .md file), will never need specialised word processing software to read and will remain intelligible to human eyes. Additional information that would otherwise be incorporated into a .docx or .pages file, such as bibliographic data and footnote stylesheets, is saved separately. These are also plaintext and easily human-readable.

There are plenty of reasons to kick the word processor habit (neatly summarised in this blog post by W. Caleb McDaniel). Personally, I spend way too much time mucking around with formatting before I even begin to type. A plain-text typing environment has no such distractions, allowing me to concentrate on content. If I need to bold or italicise something, for example, I can do that in Markdown without interrupting my sentence flow.

You’d be forgiven for asking, ‘Why bother with all this, when there are easier options?’ Certainly it’s a challenge for those unfamiliar with the command line. There’s also a lot this method won’t include–complex tables, mail merge, interactive elements, et cetera. And yes, there are plenty of other distraction-free apps out there. In the long run, however, I’m looking forward to three things:
1) a more fruitful and painless typing experience
2) not wasting hours of my life converting documents from one format to another (yes, this has been known to take me hours) and
3) improving my command-line and markup skills.

What I did, briefly

After installing Pandoc, and following the Programming Historian’s instructions (though I chose to forego LaTeX and hence .pdf conversion for want of disk space), I created a nice little test .md file, incorporating images, links and footnotes, in a nice desktop plaintext editor called Atom.

Atom code

I then ran a Pandoc command in Terminal to convert the .md file to a .docx file. Disappointingly, the program did not return anything to suggest it had been successful. A quick $ ls, however, revealed the new file.

Terminal

I also converted the .md manuscript into .odt and .html, just to see what might happen and if there were any differences.

How it ended up

As it turned out, the .docx and .odt conversions were missing the footnotes and .html was missing the header (which is not standard Markdown, but rather a Pandoc extension), meaning that none of the target formats included 100% of the Markdown content. Considering I had done absolutely no styling, the .docx was surprisingly eye-catching.

MS Word output

I don’t know why parts were missing from each target file, but I plan to investigate why before using Pandoc more extensively for research work. Despite not quite getting all the output I was promised, I wasn’t dissuaded from using Markdown and Pandoc for my long-form writing. The tutorial goes into some depth on footnotes and bibliographies, which I didn’t have time to test and which might well solve my problem.

Ironically, a copy of Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Tracked Changes, a history of word processors and their effect on the art of writing, arrived at the post office while I was compiling this article. In a way, adopting Markdown and Pandoc is an effort to get back to those, uh, halcyon days of formatting-free word processing. Hopefully when I re-examine my Documents folder in a few years’ time, it will be full of plaintext files!

Dear five-year-old me: you’ll never leave school

When I was five, my teacher went around my kindergarten class asking each of us what we wanted to be when we grew up. Most of the girls, as I recall, wanted to be hairdressers. Instead I proudly proclaimed that I wanted to be the first woman on the moon. Never mind the fact my eyesight is terrible and I get motion sickness on everything that moves. I was obsessed with space and I wanted to be an astronaut.

I’m pretty sure I got laughed out of class. My mum believed in me, though.

Twenty years later, I’m comfortable with my decision not to pursue a career in astronomy. Instead, I’m a few short months away from a professional qualification in librarianship. Yet I’m increasingly pessimistic about what that qualification will do for my career prospects. Sure, an MIS will adequately prepare me for a career in cataloguing or other technical services (in the library sense of the term). But recently I’ve found my interests heading more in the direction of systems librarianship, online information provision and digital preservation. And I’m no longer convinced an MIS alone will get me a job in those fields.

Undoubtedly some of this pessimism springs from the fact I’m currently between jobs. I’m in no position to be picky about what I accept, and I’m very aware that as a new professional I’m expected to spend some time in bottom-rung jobs, grinding, until someone retires and everyone levels up. Plenty of people have their degrees and work in non-LIS fields. At least I still have a few months before I graduate.

Recently I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading Bill LeFurgy’s insightful 2011 blog post ‘What skills does a digital librarian or archivist need?‘ and browsing the websites of various digital preservation thinktanks. Combined with some valuable insight from followers on Twitter (for which many thanks!), I’ve begun mulling over what sorts of attributes I ought to have in order to make it in the digital GLAM sphere.

  • Appreciation of library and archival principles — I’m looking at my copy of Laura Millar’s ‘Archives: principles and practices‘ right now and I know I’d never be a good archivist without it. With a solid grounding in theory and framework I know that digital archiving still adheres to many of the ground rules for paper or physical archiving. This kind of thing is library school bread and butter.

  • Quickly learn new skills — this is a given in a profession fighting for its very existence. Every year more workflows move online, more material is added to (and removed from) the web, more file formats and media types are created. As new ways of research, outreach and preservation are invented, staff need to not just ‘keep up’ but actively be on top of new developments in the field. Perhaps even doing the developing themselves!

  • Be able to code in Python/PHP/Ruby/HTML/SQL/etc etc — this is where LIS programs on their own tend to fall down. Countless job adverts note their preference for a candidate who can code, but LIS students from non-STEM backgrounds (of which I am one) are likely to graduate with an awareness of current technology but no concrete coding skills. Web development is an elective at CSU, which I opted not to take on account of I can already write HTML and CSS reasonably well, but students are left to develop more technical skills on their own. I’m thrilled to have recently discovered The Programming Historian, which blends programming skills with cultural heritage corpora to make digital humanities accessible to all. People don’t go to library school to learn to code, but the world is increasingly expecting library students to acquire these skills.

  • Bridge the digital divide — by which I mean digital archivists need to be able not just to immerse themselves in this strange new digital world, but relate it back to archive users and researchers who may not be technologically literate. Self-service information provision will not be the answer for all users; some people will still need the assistance of a professional to find what they need. Sustaining the human face of digital memory institutions is essential if we still want to have jobs in ten years.

While writing this post I came across A Snapshot of a 21st-Century Librarian, a fascinating account of a research librarian’s work in an academic library. Pointedly, she mentioned taking graduate classes even as a tenure-track librarian to keep up with the changes in her field. I can easily see myself taking a similar path — whatever the MIS hasn’t taught me, I’ll need to learn elsewhere. I do, however, feel like I have a lot of catching-up to do. Five-year-old me would have been aghast at the idea of never leaving school, but then again, five-year-old me had no conception of what a digital archivist is, much less the idea that I could one day become one. Being an astronaut would have looked like a pretty safe bet.