On the importance of preservation
By Dante on November 8th, 2011
Preservation is as important to the arts as the artists who create the works in the first place. Whether it’s environmental conditions or mishandling or outside forces, works of art need protected to ensure our human heritage makes it to future generations.
As a film lover, I’m pretty passionate about preservation because of how ephemeral cinema is if not handled properly. Since the birth of the motion picture, our collective culture has lost thousands of films to fragile and inflammable film stocks, censorship, and shortsighted junking. (Early film studios churned out so much product that they took advantage of their close proximity to the Pacific and dumped films in the ocean to clear space in their vaults.)
I found myself thinking about the films we’ve lost — from early Chaplin shorts to the first adaptation of The Great Gatsby (made contemporaneously of the book) to Orson Welles’ cut of The Magnificent Ambersons — because of a story that ran recently in Smithsonian Magazine. The Top 10 Books Lost to Time highlights works written by no less than Homer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen “you’ll never have a chance to read.” It’s a fascinating list and absolutely worth sobbing over. I mean, how can we be denied a Shakespeare play with a link to Don Quixote!
It seems almost inconceivable today to think we could lose anything on the magnitude of a film or manuscript by a major figure, and there are certainly libraries, museums, universities, and studios working hard to preserve these things. But in 2011 we also need to be aware of preserving our digital legacy. And this includes books. If a book is only published for an e-reader, who’s responsibility is it to ensure the manuscript isn’t deleted? Or that the master file isn’t deleted? Or that some switch isn’t thrown to erase it off of every e-reader in the world?
This isn’t to advocate for print only, but instead to get us thinking about the steps we need to take to ensure our digital culture doesn’t end up in the digital ocean. Preservation is vital to the health of our shared culture, and it’s something we too often ignore because it’s so easy to do so. Which is what makes the Smithsonian Magazine list so worthwhile — as bittersweet as it is, it’s worth discovering just how much we’ve already lost to ensure we don’t lose anything else.
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