Knowledge, Storage, and the History of Compression (RBS-Mellon Symposium)

Date: 3 May 2017
Time: 9:30 a.m.–6:15 p.m.
Location: Room 133, Barker Center, Harvard University
Presented by: The Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School; Critical Media Practice, Harvard University; Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University; History of the Book Seminar, Harvard University; Department of the History of Science, Harvard University

Does compression have a history?

Alongside a cognitive challenge of “too much to know,” information overload poses a physical challenge of “too much to store.” Indeed, the possibilities of “big data” today are predicated on technologies that compress data into ever “smaller” sizes. On the one hand, major libraries such as the NYPL, coping with spatial shortage, have increasingly emphasized the provision of digital resources—shifting physical collections offsite, and in the process sparking heated debates with researchers. On the other hand, the possibilities of digital compression have given rise to a new imagination of the universal library. In the twenty-first century, the promise of access to all knowledge presumes not a sprawling Borgesian architecture of rooms and shelves, nor the singular point of the Borgesian Aleph, but a physically discontinuous infrastructure of servers distributed worldwide.

This conference seeks to cast light on our contemporary struggles over spatial management of data and information by excavating diverse histories of compression technologies. We seek to understand not only the contexts in which compression and spatial shortage emerge as a conscious criterion of knowledge management, but also the shifting concepts of “source,” “document,” “material,” and “object” implied by differing compression technologies, as well as the relation of changing storage spaces to their broader environment, natural and built.

See the event website for full schedule and additional details.