Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Sketchbooks in the archives

My dissertation, which explores how sketchbooks are collected and accessed, is, perhaps, at the midpoint – I have discovered much already and yet the real findings are still to come. But I have known for a long time how a sketchbook can be a revealing insight into the world of its creator.

Until now, though, this knowledge has come through being allowed to hold and look through the books of my peers, usually other friends who are artists. What is in a sketchbook can be intensely personal (the private/public element of them is an interesting area) and so we only get to see what its creator is prepared to reveal. And there is always the hint that what may be most enlightening is what isn't being shared.

But when the artist dies and the books find their way into an archive, what then? In the past few weeks I have been visiting institutions to see sketchbooks in their final home. From being the object left in dirty corners of the studio and stuffed into rucksacks for journeys around the globe, here they are, wrapped, supported and cared for, and viewed with lashings of hindsight.

The entry to the Prints and Drawings study room at the British Museum, the home of the nation's drawing collection, is hidden behind a big Michelangelo in Room 90. I have been reading Richard Knott's The Sketchbook War: Saving the Nation's Artists in World War II (The History Press, 2013), which tells the story of nine war artists, including the illustrator Edward Ardizzone. A sketchbook of his from the post-war years is in the museum's collection. Its pages, instead of containing drawings of bomb sites and Blitz scenes, includes pages of sunbathers from Ardizzone's more peaceful travels to the sun in south of France in the 1950s.

In this environment, the books are tangible – they can be held, and the pages turned – but they are fragile, worn in places, and there are signs of restoration in places. They have passed into another state from the time when they were live and incomplete and still in the hands of the artist. While Ardizzone's book contains little written content, another, by the British painter Roger Hilton, has. It starts in January 1946 with diary entries and new year resolutions alongside the drawings, and so the personal comes even more alive. In later years, when he was bedridden and alcoholic, the notes and drawings he left for his wife, the painter Rose Hilton, were published (Night Letters, Newlyn Orion Galleries, 1980) and make a sometimes painful read. The 1946 sketchbook is equally opinionated and direct, yet more sober, mercifully. And his drawings in biro reveal an informal attitude to capturing ideas.

Neither of the artists who filled these books appear to have had posterity in mind at the time of their making. Another visit, to the British Film Institute's archive, to see the filmmaker Derek Jarman's sketchbooks suggest that he recognised that he was making beautiful objects that would be of interest long after what turned into his much-too-early death. The books of notes, plans, sketches, collages and photographs are mainly the same brand and 30x30cm format so that they sit and look well together, and follow themes that relate to the projects he was working at any one time. (A surprising number of artists simply grab the sketchbook with blank pages that is nearest to them to draw in, so that eventually they may contain drawings that span decades.) Jarman's books were no doubt central to his work – he had them with him as filming proceeded – but he appears to have made them as beautiful objects that would be appreciated long after he had gone, and that isn't always the case with sketchbook users.

Meanwhile my survey, sent to UK institutions that hold sketchbooks to find out more about the way they are collected and accessed, is getting responses. It's hard to describe the satisfaction of getting each new completed questionnaire. Thanks to everyone who has responded to it.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Sketchbook research begins

Inside the British Library: pencils only in the reading rooms

Term 2 has ended, and the second set of assignments has been handed in, graded and (nearly all) returned. Things are going well. Attention turns to the dissertation, which first calls for a 2,000-3,000 word proposal. I mentioned in my last post about a moment of realisation I experienced midway through the Radical Collections conference in March. Hearing Siobhan Britton (University of Brighton) talking about her research into zine collections made me think about the idea of a dissertation on a document type that means a lot to me: the sketchbook.

Sketchbooks have been a constant for me since I was at art school. I've sold drawings and paintings over time, but all the sketchbooks are still with me now, because that is the usual story of sketchbooks: they aren't for sale and are still in the corner of the studio when the artist drops dead. The sketchbooks often end up in an archive as a group, bequeathed, or perhaps donated by the artist's family. What happens then? How are they collected, found and accessed? They fall somewhere between book and work of art, demanding to have their pages tangibly turned. How easy is it, or is it even possible, to actually hold them in your hands at different archives? How often are they accessible digitally?

So research is now underway. Lyn, my supervisor, has read and OKed the proposal. There isn't much previous research into this aspect of sketchbooks and I'm not sure where it will take me. Tomorrow I'm heading to meet other artists who use sketchbooks at the Rabley Drawing Centre in Wiltshire, where I have had a couple of books selected for the Sketch 2017 group exhibition.

If you have experience of accessing sketchbooks in galleries, libraries, archives or museums, either physically or digitally, I'd be very happy for you to get in touch. Or follow me @jameshobbsart.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

When librarians and archivists get radical
Radicalism and the drive for change can take on many forms in the world of libraries and archives, and the packed room for the Radical Collections: Radicalism and Libraries and Archives conference, which took place at the Institute of Historical Research at Senate House Library on 3 March, heard arguments that covered some ground.

Across four panels, the themes tackled included how collections are being developed, catalogued and organised, and who works in them and uses them. These were interspersed with not one, but two fire alarms to keep us on our toes, which led to impromptu networking sessions on the street outside, resumed at the end of the day with wine and nibbles in the Institute of Historical Research common room.

Starting out, Wendy Russell from the British Film Institute archive explored the barriers faced by the director Ken Loach in the 1980s when his TV series for the new Channel 4 about trade unionism, Questions of Leadership, was commissioned and then scrapped, and considered the archive's significance beyond the fields of TV and film. Lisa Redlinski and John Wrighton of the University of Brighton spoke about the remit of HE libraries with particular relation to the library's digitisation of Brighton's rich history of underground and alternative press. And historian Lucas Richert (University of Strathclyde), in his paper about radical psychiatry, LSD and MDMA, raised issues (among others) about how funding from private and public sources can affect the consumption and "selling" of archives.

Panel 1: Chair Richard Espley, Lucas Richert,
Lisa Redlinski, John Wrighton and Wendy Russell

Julio Cazzasa talked about the problems faced by the Senate House Library's collection (the Heisler collection of 50,000 items tracing labour and progressive political movements, for instance, is a mixed library and archive collection). Alycia Sellie (CUNY) raised questions of the whiteness of librarians and how collection practices should strive to be radical in relation to the Wisconsin Historical Society's newspaper and periodicals collection. And the discriminative nature of library classifications (it took the Library of Congress 18 years to remove the subject heading "yellow peril") and the need for a focus on critical theory in LIS studies were just some of the issues picked up by Gregory Toth of the Senate House Library.

After a lunch interrupted by the fire alarm, Mairéad Mooney (University College Cork) looked at British imperialist influences on libraries in the early days of the Irish Free State, and Amy Todman (National Library of Scotland) spoke about the archiving of Engender, the Scottish feminist organisation, since the 1990s. Siobhan Britton (University of Brighton) explored issues surrounding the collection, preservation and accessibility of zines in libraries. (My thanks to her about a lightbulb moment I had midway through her talk when I had an idea regarding my own dissertation.)

Tamsin Bookey (Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives), who navigated the rude interruption mid-presentation by the second fire alarm, described moves in Tower Hamlets to widen participation and attract hard-to-reach potential users (respect people who are hostile, use marketing, get non-gender specific toilets). Katherine Quinn (University of Warwick) spoke about the challenge of radical librarianship in the HE context (the audit culture, and how LIS is drawing on management culture), and, finally, Kirsty Fife (National Media Museum) and Hannah Henthorn (University of Dundee) described the issues they, as marginalised people, faced as they negotiated their way into the archive sector and how the expense of qualifications restrict diversification.

Just how radical some of the ideas discussed really are is debatable. In a point raised by our own Thomas Ash, the non-discriminatory nature of classification terminology, for instance, is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. It's simply how things should be. A theme running through the day, it seems to me, was that obstacles put in the way of opening up access and information to all – and that really does mean people who currently wouldn't dream of setting foot in a library or archive – need dismantling, and that means they won't be the quiet, safe places they are generally perceived to be now. White western patriarchy has had its day. That change seems more sensible and representative of the UK as it is than radical. But the conference provided a great variety of voices that asked questions and offered solutions that deserve deeper and longer consideration – and action.

You can track Radical Voices on Storify for much more insight and detail on the day's events than I can manage here. And for more about the Radical Voices series of events at the Senate House Library, see

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Attention, not quality

A Wordle word cloud from the article below
Things come and go so quickly online, and it is still hard to keep up. Reading something interesting on a blog, article or tweet that soon after becomes so vital that I have to retrace my steps to unearth it to ensure it isn't lost to me forever is a familiar one. There are still times when it feels like sand slipping through the fingers. We rate as we read, but as the most recent sessions in the #citylis DITA module have shown, there are ways to find out which research is getting the most attention.

Altmetrics picks up on the impact of scholarly communication through social media and blogs long before citation counts take effect, perhaps years later. Altmetrics is, perhaps, like the thermometer in the mouth of research, picking up on just how hot (or not) open-source published material is. But altmetrics is an indication of attention, not quality, as I seem to have written in my notes more than once. Attention, not quality.

With the rise of digital come opportunities to analyse and explore, to corral datasets into useful ways of finding insights and unearthing what has been overlooked or unrecognised. Coding with Python is an area for me yet to explore fully. Word clouds, while simple and engaging to experiment with, do not analyse text in a way that is particularly revealing. (The one above has been created from this blog post, and reflects the way that I keep repeating the words attention, not quality.) Digital humanities, although typically unwilling to be precisely defined, is an interesting arena where digital media and scholarly research meet.

And should we be afraid of AI? Am I a Singularatarian or AItheist? It is hard to come to a categorical decision with Floridi's argument without oversimplifying the argument. Much of AI seems to me to be promising and romanticised, or as prosaic as Amazon's recommendations and fraud detection. Useful and largely unrecognised by most of perhaps, but yet to really find its greatest moments.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

The hunt for data

Our most recent sessions in the always intriguing Digital Information and Technologies (DITA) module have continued our study of how the outpouring of digital information in our society today is stored, described, structured, managed and shared. What is usually the natural, unthinking act of hunting for that simple something online – presidential election coverage, latest cricket scores, the location of that particular book – has been taken apart piece by piece.

Our look under the bonnet of information retrieval is taking us places one step (or more) back from what the average user in the modern digital environment would confront. Even this simple blog post, as I write it now, has a different interface from the one in which you are reading it. I can add the metadata through labels (listed below), see the coding around italicised fonts, and add details about location. In DITA we have looked at the ways data can be organised and made accessible online, and the rise of linked data and the semantic web through RDF, the resource description framework.

It is, it must be said, a world of many initialisms. The data file formats CSV (comma separated value) and TSV (tab separated value), DCMI (Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, a vocabulary of terms used to describe web resources making them easier to find), URIs (unique resource identifiers, which identify the name of a web resource), SQL (Structured Query Language, the standard language for relational database management systems), and APIs (Application Programming Interfaces, which hide the complexities of a system so that third parties can build on and develop applications). QEI: quite enough initialisms.

In the circular way that this course often throws up (the problems of getting information about getting information, to put it crudely), the session Searching for the Data was of immediate practical interest. Instead of the default course of action of resorting immediately to a simple Google search, it armed us with more focused and nuanced ways of revealing the data that we are looking for, and even what we didn't know we were looking for. With December approaching and four assessments to be completed by early in the new year, these are practical information retrieval skills that will be tried and tested in the weeks to come as we hunt for the books and journal articles that will help us on our way.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Left in Sehgal's darkness

When the Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal has a new exhibition, it can be hard to find out what is going to take place. He forbids any of the normal digital or paper trails of exhibition marketing and publicity: there are no videos of the work, no catalogues or wall texts. Even contracts with the exhibition organisers are verbal only.

Sehgal's name came was mentioned in The Future of Documents: Documenting Performance, a symposium at City, University of London on 31 October 2016. Yaron Shyldkrot, who is working on a PhD at the University of Surrey, was talking about documenting darkness in theatre and dance, and the disorientation and uncertainty it creates for viewers. "You can't be in the same picture as the dark," as the writer and performer Chris Goode puts it. Sehgal has used darkness in some past works, which usually involve performers interacting spontaneously with spectators, leaving no physical residue once they are finished.

The darkness of Sehgal's non-documentary approach shone out for me during the day. It is an approach that "minimises discourse to maximise the experience", the curator of his new show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris says. The question of just who performances are being documented for was a recurring question through the day of the symposium. While many performers, choreographers and archivists recognise the importance of retaining at least some tangible form of memory of a fleeting moment, Sehgal turns that on its head, leaving us, metaphorically and sometimes literally, in the dark.

This way of working, it seems to me, is less about the artist leaving documented legacy (his approach is very well documented, if not his work), and more about his anti-market views and myth constructing. (Would he be as well known if he did allow his work to be documented?) But even in our age of the ubiquitous camera, he encourages us to focus on the moment of the performance rather than see it through a lens or discuss it to oblivion. And it certainly frees up time for archivists to get on with other things.

It was a great thought-provoking day – thanks to Lyn Robinson and Joseph Dunne for organising it.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The first weeks of DITA

"I am aware that my efforts to capture the profound intellectual novelties that we are facing remain inadequate," writes Luciano Floridi in the preface to his book The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Humanity (2014). It is strangely comforting to know that if Floridi, who is immediately conspicuous as a central philosophical presence in information science within days of our course starting, struggles to keep up, then those for whom it is new territory may need a bit more time.

I have no difficulty at all in remembering a time when a computer was something worth travelling to see. My school mate Richard would get the bus to Exeter University to find out more about the room-sized computer there in the late 1970s. And now, a few decades on, we talk in Digital Information and Technologies and Architectures (DITA) sessions about exabytes of data being generated every day, while smartphones sit on the desks next to us. My own small contribution to this digital outpouring has been through blogs, tweets and other assorted social media, along with the data trail we naturally leave without even trying. The first sessions of this module have highlighted for me how we ride (or try to ride) the crest of this informational wave, informing and being informed in as coherent a way as we can manage.

Although we are engulfed with this deluge of information, much of it arrives in small chunks, and it is tempting to consume a lot of those chunks rather than tackle the larger view by reading to the bottom of fewer articles or chapters. (Perhaps you've even stopped reading this post before you reach this sentence.) Just setting up this new blog to reflect on the DITA module over the coming months is an exercise in looking closely at how I present myself online, and how information architecture can be best used so that people are more likely to read right to the bottom of what I write.

And it makes me consider how honest I am about myself in my online presence. We refine our channels of interest by choosing what we "follow" or "like", but that also has the inevitable effect of cutting off a stream of information that we could have found unexpectedly relevant and revealing to our own situation. Putting it another way, if we just turn on a radio, we may find ourselves interested and enlightened by something that happens to be on that we would never otherwise have heard. But if we only tune in to things we carefully select through the listen-again iPlayer, that element of chance and surprise is absent.

So what sticks with me for now, at least, is another line from Floridi: "The risk is that our digital technologies may easily become defining technologies rather than identifying ones" (Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Schirn Mag, 24 April 2016).

Follow me @jameshobbsart.