Artifactual and Informational Value

I had a wonderfully illuminating conversation with N., a fellow librarian, about an extensively marked library book. (I wrote about the book yesterday. Check out the pictures!) N. described the marginalia — the underlining, circling, doodling, and gratuitous notes that I found terribly detrimental to my reading experience — in the most surprising way. She saw the marginalia as part of the makeup of the book’s “artifactual value”. The marginalia, in N.’s eyes, is now an intrinsic part of this physical print object, and as such even if it is not our place as stewards of a common collection to encourage such a deposit of value to the artifact, it is still incumbent upon us to not remove such value after the fact.

Artifactual value, as you may recall, is defined by the Society of American Archivists as “the usefulness or significance of an object based on its physical or aesthetic characteristics, rather than its intellectual content.” I do not argue with the prima facie case that marginalia differentiate one copy of a book from another. Marginalia are data, and a marked-up book, therefore, contains more data — more information — than a book in pristine condition. Furthermore, I recognize that whether such data have value may be subjective: N. finds the marginalia interesting, a window into the thoughts of an-otherwise-completely unknown person. That I do not is besides the point — the point is that such value may well exist.

N.’s view of the value of user’s add-on to communal property is also bound up with the conservation principle that conservation treatment should be reversible. That is, a conservator should not attempt any work on an object that cannot later be undone. This is a response to the growing realization that best practices within the conservation field have changed dramatically over the past 40 years and, by extrapolation, likely to change further in the future. Coupled with this realization is the horror upon discovering that many conservation treatments done in the past have actually damaged the items, in many cases irreversibly. The conclusion some conservators draw from this history is that conservation should henceforth seek to be reversible so that any treatment done today that is deemed unsuitable tomorrow can be reversed without damaging the underlying object. Within this school of thought, removal of markings from a book through either erasure or the replacement of the book is not reversible and thus should not be pursued.

N.’s arguments, as I have understood them, are both valid and reasonable. I simply disagree with them. Books are not mere objects; their function and value are not only as artifacts. Books have intellectual content and so carry informational value. When I checked out Paul Goldstein’s Copyright’s Highway, I am not looking for a window into the soul of stranger who may be a compassionate blood donor. I’m looking to see what Goldstein has to say about the history of copyright. Unfortunately, that history was substantially more difficult to learn because of the previous user’s distracting and obscuring marginalia.

The stranger’s doodles — whatever artifactual value they have — interfere with the exchange of information between Goldstein and the readers of his book. They diminish the book’s informational value. They frustrate the book’s primary purpose to facilitate the communication of ideas. They do great harm to the greatest number of people, those who pick up Goldstein’s book to read Goldstein — that is, just about everybody who picks up the book. In short, even if one sees marginalia as adding artifactual value, one cannot discount that it also detracts, and in the case of the extensive marginalia in a book with serious intellectual content, far more than it adds.

Last, I do not see “artifactual value”, or the uniqueness that renders a particular copy of a book an artifact, as an unqualified good. I see books as tools of learning. And learning is not meant to further only a particular person’s knowledge but that of society as a whole. We read not only so that we alone may know; we read to know what others have read; we read to partake in the common knowledge, just as we write to further that common store of wisdom. If books are valuable insofar as they contain unique data — markings on a page, doodles on the next — then they can be valued only by those who had experienced those special copies. By the very nature of the specialness of the copies, the group that can have such experiences must be in very small number. Knowledge as conferred by unique artifacts, by necessity then, must be restricted to only a special few. In other words, if artifactual value to be given primacy over that of informational value, then we will have undone the Gutenberg printing revolution. Artifactual value relies on rarity; the progress of civilization, on widespread knowledge & common information.

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One Response to Artifactual and Informational Value

  1. Esa says:

    I don’t like finding any kind of ‘marginalia’ in books I read. I consider it to be on par with coffee stains and other marks of a dubious origin. I buy a lot of used books, and even if I find one that I have been searching for, if it is poor condition, I will return it to the shelf. I also regularily borrow from libraries, and I consider the damage done to those books even more disturbing. If one owns a book, they have the right to treat it as they please. But I draw the line at disrespect of library materials. Reading is a very personal endeavour, and though some of this ‘marginalia’ could be interesting, I find it intrusive.

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