harvard_depository_1

Descend into a labyrinth of archives in this interactive documentary

“Perhaps my old age and fearfulness deceive me, but I suspect that the human species — the unique species — is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.” – Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel

The archive: a seemingly simple concept of record keeping. Yet when put under the microscope, archives raise all kinds of unanswerable questions about information, memory, materiality, and impermanence.

The metaLAB, a teaching and research unit of Harvard focused on the intersection between the arts and sciences in a networked world, will explore these concepts in an upcoming experimental documentary Cold Storage. As a collaborative project-course which took place this past spring semester, Cold Storage allowed students to explore and create using the imposing Harvard Depository as a main inspiration. The Depository is described as “the dislocated heart of the Harvard University library system: invisible to patrons, situated twenty five miles from campus, atop a remote hill, within a guarded compound near Harvard’s primate labs.”

The teaser trailer takes you across its sprawling interior of 200,000 square footage, stacking three million shelves that house over nine million documents from the school’s collection. The footage recalls—almost too exactly—the orderly labyrinth of hexagons from Borges’ Library of Babel. In the short story, Borges imagines a surreal and oppressive world where “the universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.” The Library is supposedly comprised of every book that will ever or could ever exist, with pages that contain all possible variations of each twenty-five orthographic symbol.

The archive is humanity’s futile attempt to fight mortality through documentation.

As Borges was wont to do, this Library of Babel predicted a phenomenon we’ve been grappling with more recently. Because I don’t know about you, but a place of infinitely generated information where “for every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency” sounds an awful lot like the interwebs we’ve come to know and tolerate today. The internet, as a digital archive recording our every tweet and status update, raises some questions itself about humanity’s futile attempts to fight mortality through documentation. Only now, with digitalization removing the limitation of space, it seems more and more likely we really will eventually descend into some labyrinth of endless record-keeping.

Cold Storage explores this unique moment in the history of the archive, where the home of our most precious, ancient, and fragile documents are meeting the immateriality of digitization. The Harvard Depository is even described as “an analog server farm, […] comparable to and distinct from the actual server farms the university maintains in other off-site locations.” The Professor leading the project, Jeffrey Schnapp, does not however believe that digitization will replace these physical archives. He envisions instead the libraries of the future as “hybrid places that intermingle books and ebooks, analog and digital formats, paper and pixels.”

There’s no word yet on an exact release date, but the scheduled summer 2014 launch can’t be much further away.