Umberto Eco Explains Why We Make Lists

eco-list-e1537159909816.pngCreative Commons image by Rob Bogaerts, via the National Archives in Holland

We hate lists, which have told us what to do since at least the days Leonardo da Vinci, and which now, as “listicles,” constitute one of the lowest strata of internet content. But we also love lists: a great many of us click on those listicles, after all, and one might argue that the list, as a form, represents the beginning of written texts. “The list is the origin of culture,” said Umberto Eco in a 2009 Der Spiegel interview about the exhibition on the history of the list he curated at the Louvre. “It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order  — not always, but often.”

How, as mere human beings, do we impose order when we gaze up into infinity, down into the abyss — pick your metaphor of the sublimely, incomprehensibly vast? We do it, Eco thought, “through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.” The breadth as well as depth of the knowledge he accumulated throughout his 84 years — which itself could seem sublimely and incomprehensibly vast, as anyone who has read one of his list-filled novels knows — placed him well to explain the origins, functions, and importance of the list. In the Spiegelinterview he names Don Giovanni’s 2,063 lovers, the contents of Leopold Bloom’s drawers, and the many ships and generals specified in the Iliad as just a few of the classic lists and enumerations of Western culture.

Eco’s research into and/or obsession with lists produced not just the exhibition at the Louvre but also a book, The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay. Did it also lead him to any other answers about why, whether in the Middle Ages with its “very clear image of the universe,” the Renaissance and Baroque eras with their “worldview based on astronomy,” the “postmodern age” in which we live today, or any other time, “the list has prevailed over and over again?” Ultimately, we make lists whenever we experience a “deficiency of language,” such as when lovers describe one another (“Your eyes are so beautiful, and so is your mouth, and your collarbone”) or when we remember the “very discouraging, humiliating limit” of death. Making lists of things that seem infinite is “a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.”

Having died in 2016 himself, Eco left behind an immense personal library (his walkthrough of which we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture). “It might actually be 50,000 books,” he said to the Spiegel interviewer, but he refused to put them on a list and find out for sure: “When my secretary wanted to catalogue them, I asked her not to. My interests change constantly, and so does my library.” If he were to try to list his interests, he would have had to keep scrapping the list and drawing up a new one; more than providing abundant material for his writing, this constant and lifelong circulation of fascinations (he mentioned first loving Chopin at 16, and again in his seventies) confirmed his engagement with the infinite world around him: “If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you’re an idiot.” [source:]

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Posted in Cataloging, Classification, Knowledge Structures

Google AMP: New Governance Model

In 2016, Google invented and published Accelerate Mobile Page (AMP), an open-source website publishing technology to improve the performance of web content on mobile devices. According to Google, if people cannot access the website immediately, they tend to close the window. To make the pages faster, the AMP use caches of pages on the content delivery network (CDN), which are hosted by Google. AMP would show the search results directly to the AMP pages host by Google but the original websites. This method caused it a controversial project.

On 2018/09/18, Google announced that it intends to give up some control about how the code behind the management. The project is going to become a “new governance model,” which means that decisions about the code will start to be made by a committee that includes non-Googlers.

For more details on the motivation, please see this blog post. Here is an excerpt from that post mentioning the goals:

  • Encourage a wider variety of voices at all levels of contribution, including code contributions, setting the future direction of AMP and deciding which features and bug fixes should be worked on. This also means ensuring that the voices of those who do not contribute with code, but are nonetheless impacted by AMP, get heard.
  • Make it more clear how an individual and a company can have a voice in AMP, from approving code changes to setting AMP’s technical and product roadmap.
  • Avoid slowing down day-to-day work on AMP due to the governance model. The net effect of changes to the way people work on AMP should be neutral to positive in terms of productivity.
  • Learn from what’s worked and what hasn’t worked for other open source projects. To this end the AMP team talked to people from projects such as Node.js and Kubernetes, looked at governance philosophies from places like the JS Foundation and reviewed a wide variety of other open source and web standards governance documents.

From a technical perspective, the easiest way to set up an AMP system is to compromise some control of pages to Google by allowing Google’s caching servers to send your content to users. People used to have to fit in the format — the standard which has been decided by Google to get one’s AMP in Google search. The plan is,  puts the decisions into the hands of a group instead of a single company.  The plan would create Committees and working groups. Google has already signed up non-Google people for the Advisory Committee, which will include representatives from eBay, Cloudflare, and Automattic etc. More transparency and community involvement should help to improve AMP, and also help to deal with the issue it has been faced since its debut.

posted by WenLin Pan,Fall 2018,LIS 653-02


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Digitizing Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks at The Victoria and Albert Museum


I believe sketchbooks and notebooks can be an even greater reflection of an artist’s mind than their finished works of art. Yet, people do not normally get the chance to take a peek at these types of documents. I ran into this Smithsonian article by Jason Daley that reported two notebooks that belonged to Leonardo da Vinci has been recently digitized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. You can access the digital collection here.


Forster Codex I, II and III. (Victoria and Albert Museum)

These notebooks contain da Vinci’s “notes and diagrams for projects,” sketches, doodles of various objects, and ideas. The ultra high-resolution of the digital images is a result using the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF). The article describes how the IIIF format gives researchers the ability to digitally piece together a manuscript, create digital collections, and abide by an international standard. I also liked the ease of navigating through the website and zooming in close on the images in order to study them in detail.


Catherine Yvard, the special collections curator at the Victoria and Albert National Art Library states that:

“If we want them to survive another five centuries and more, we need to make sure that we do not submit them to too much handling, while making their fascinating content accessible in different ways which will not harm them.”

In order to preserve the past, digitization is an important method through which people can access and inspect documents even if they cannot physically see it in person. It’s interesting to see museums, libraries, and other organizations use similar technology to organize their collections, as well as disseminate knowledge that would be difficult to obtain otherwise.

–Tami Chen (INFO 653-01)

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Posted in Archives

Blockchain Is Growing In The Art World, But How’s That Catalog?

Clueless about blockchain? Give CryptoKitties a look!

A press release that came out this week announced “first holistic blockchain-based system for cataloguing and securing fine art” from the Blockchain Art Collective. The unique bit here is that their process involves a physical connection to the vast blockchain universe — a near-field communications chip is affixed to the artwork (and is apparently tamper-proof), which contains all the info about the work that is stored on a blockchain.

I say unique because there are already several companies attempting to build registries for art utilizing blockchain: Codex, Verisart, and Arteïa, to name a few. The value of authentication has been the driving factor, in an attempt to stave off potential fraud. But in collecting data and creating informative listings that are associated with these artworks in these registries, they’re also compiling a catalog. Who, if anyone, is ensuring that catalog is accurate, consistent, fully formed, and, above all, useful?

One person who’s also wondering about that is Jason Bailey. As the man behind Artnome, a project that aims to create a database that includes all the known works of the most important 20th century artists, he thinks about cataloging a bit. And, perhaps because of his radical, approach to that project (he has said that since he couldn’t find a database with all this info, he decided he’d just create it himself), he has similar thoughts about how we should approach blockchain repositories of art:

“I envision a system where anyone can make additions, but their credibility is tracked in a manner similar to Reddit or Wikipedia. This leaves the door open for new experts to emerge while respecting the skills and knowledge of existing experts.”

It’s a field that’s moving quickly, but hopefully those who are exploring the use of blockchain for the art world will pause for a moment and consider asking those with cataloging expertise to join them at the development table.

–Mary Bakija, INFO-653-01

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Crowdsourcing efforts in aftermath of Brazil fire

photo credit.

With all the attention that has come from the massive fire that decimate the collection of the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro, there has been a lot of talk of what could have been done to save the collection.  Larger questions surrounding digitization and funding for arts organizations have arisen but the question of what comes next is still looming.  This is where Wikipedia steps in with a simple solution to this question: user donated photos.  Wikipedia wants to build a “digital archive” of the museum’s collection through user donated photos from before the fire.  I think Wikipedia’s idea to call for crowdsourcing of photographs in order to document the collection is an interesting idea, I am also impressed with the user response as thousands of images have already come into the website.  Now the burden lies on information professionals and art historians to sift through the raw data to create a functional AND factual archive.

Sources A and B.

-Charlotte India Eagle    Info653-02




Posted in Archives, Cataloging, Open Access, Preservation, Research Projects

Helen Keller Archives: A Lesson In Accessibility

By any of the several definitions I have seen in class so far, the purpose of any given archive of collection is to facilitate access and observation for future generations. That’s why I was intrigued when I came across a press release for the “First Fully Accessible Digital Archive of the Helen Keller Collection.” In this case, I could tell a special emphasis was placed on how the digital archive would be accessed by patrons with disabilities.


Each image also contains a detailed description, which can be read aloud

According to the article, Helen Selsdon, archivist at The American Foundation for the Blind said that digitization of the 160,000 artifacts the Archive holds was deemed important because the priority was “disseminating this amazing resource that was both underutilized and difficult to access.”


Looking closer at the American Foundation for the Blind’s website, I learned that the site is made accessible for those with auditory or visual disabilities with:

– alt-text for all images that thoroughly describe an image’s content
– described and captioned videos, along with transcripts for all video and audio files
– an HTML5 video player that recognizes keyboard commands
– the ability for visitors to change the site’s colors, contrast levels, and text size
– an accessible CAPTCHA
– a slideshow that does not change images automatically


Text provided below a letter in the Helen Keller Archive

I think digital archivists for any given collection should be focused on these principles. In the case of federal archives, it’s actually legally mandated, as per the Rehabilitation Act passed by Congress in 1973, which states: “No otherwise qualified disabled individual shall, solely by reason of his (or her) handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Reading more into the subject, I was intrigued by the fact that existing technology like the Kurzweil Reading Machine (a device that can transfer typed text into electronic speech) is not able to translate hand-written documents: the stuff of archives, quite commonly. For this reason, it seems to me especially important that archivists take great care to ensure that the needs of blind and deaf researchers are accommodated rather than simply assuming assistive technology will be able to do the work for them.

Source: American Foundation for the Blind Launches the First Fully Accessible Digital Archive of the Helen Keller Collection
Posted by Allee Manning, INFO 653-01

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Posted in Archives

Tragedy in Brazil

When doing readings and discussions for one of my other classes, someone shared this article that I thought would interest students in this class as well. It’s called, “What Was Lost in Brazil’s Devastating Museum Fire,” and it is very sad but relevant to issues of cataloging, archival processes, and what should be mandatory precautions.

People watch as a fire burns at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro

Brianna Martin LIS 653

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Posted in Archives, Museums, Preservation, Uncategorized

Digitizing Everything: Online Archives and Digital Collections

While researching topics for tomorrows “dorkshorts”, I came across a generous blogpost that gives an easy-to-understand run-down of archive digitization and it’s various difficulties. Written by Samantha Thompson, an archivist at Peel Art Gallery Museum + Archive in Ontario, Canada, Why Don’t archivists Digitize Everything? describes the massive amount of work that goes into an archive; including the physical processing, documentation and digitization (which, according to Thompson, can sadly be misconstrued by the layperson as a “permanent” act of preservation), producing metadata, and the human labor of maintaining a digital archive.

I find this topic fascinating as large institutions increasingly present their archives and collections to viewers online via accessible databases. One such example is the New Museum’s Digital Archive, which launched in 2017. Undoubtedly, decades of hard work by innumerable people and years of technical preparation went into the finished product of this website, but I think aspects of the design–it’s accessibility, informativeness, multiple entry-points for browsing, etc.–intended to improve user experience, can lead a user to take all of this hard work for granted. It’s so easy to use–it must have been easy to make! (Disclaimer: it’s not)

While the height of online digital collections–like those of the Met, MoMAFrick, and Whitney–are really useful and impressive, smaller entities–like university art museums, artist estates, and private collections have the need to digitize as well, even if it’s only for the purpose of increasing the value of their collection.

Here is one interesting free archiving resource by the Smithsonian (which also has a digital collection), boldly entitled “Digitizing Entire Collections”, and one more from the Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines Initiative.

– Posted by Meghan Lyon, Info 653_01

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Posted in Archives

The History of the Index Card

I’ve used index cards twice within the past six months alone. In one instance I used them for memorizing the different names and prices of similarly-themed products at the store where I work part-time. In the other, I was providing my boss with categorized questions to ask the people she was interviewing for a live panel discussion. The index card has long been a staple in my life, but I didn’t know the rich history behind this tool until I came across a recent Atlantic essay about it.

This essay delves into how Carl Linnaeus, the famous botanist and “father of modern taxonomy” created this tool, why he did it, and what the ramifications were.

The reason Linnaeus created the index card – roughly the same size and stock weight as what we use today – was to streamline information about the plants and animals he had studied throughout the course of his scientific career. This was in 1752, years after he had come up with the two-part naming system he created after organizing the world’s living organisms into the nested hierarchy of species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, and kingdom; perhaps one of the world’s most widely-used classification schemes. The author of the essay suggests the inspiration for Linnaeus’ index cards may have been playing cards.


Perhaps the most interesting thing about the article, in my mind, is its exploration of the later uses of Linnaeus’ work. In the centuries to come, both his taxonomical system and the index cards themselves would be used for racist and otherwise immoral purposes. For instance, Nazis used an index card database as the tool they used for classifying Jewish Germans.

Daniela Blei, the author of this essay, notes:

The act of organizing information—even notes about plants—is never neutral or objective. Anyone who has used index cards to plan a project, plot a story, or study for an exam knows that hierarchies are inevitable.

This article reminded me of the importance of reflecting on the power that catalogers hold and the principles that dictate their work. Knowing what not to catalogue is just as important as knowing how to catalogue.

Source: How the Index Card Cataloged the World
Posted by Allee Manning, INFO 653-01

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Posted in Cataloging, Classification

A Library’s Most Serendipitous Shelf?

I came across a New York Times Magazine “Letters of Recommendation” post written by Elisa Gabbert. In it, she talks about how she goes to the library and makes a point of going to the “Recently Returned” shelf. I found this to be a curious way of grouping books. While it is a seemingly random grouping or cataloging of books, it is a telling way of seeing what books people are currently looking at. She even goes as far as describing the experience as “looking at them is the readerly equivalent of gazing into the fridge, hungry but not sure what you’re hungry for.” That being said, she also describes this experience as being more telling than one would first assume because it is “an index of local interests, a record of your neighbors’ whims.” I really enjoyed this article not only because it was well-written but also because it gave me another perspective on how people navigate and utilize a library’s space.


Taylor Norton


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by Hugh McLeod

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