Unpacking My Digital Library
Rebecca A. Walker

Recently, about a year after the death of a dear friend and fellow academic, I received a hard drive he owned in the mail from a family member. The family requested that I sort through my friend’s files and help make sense of them, so they could be of use to other academics interested in similar research topics, as well as more intelligible for family members looking through them in the future. Much of my friend’s research centered on archives and their creation, so I was both touched and daunted by such an important task.

Sorting through my friend’s files reminded me of the multitude of issues unique to archival creation and maintenance in a digital age, as well as how the modern scholar’s research library often exists more on a screen than a shelf. This particular reality of the digital archive is especially relevant to my own research, which focuses on performances created, staged, and often catalogued in both digital and physical spaces, such as flash mobs and other events similar to what Steve Benford and Gabriella Giannachi deem “mixed reality performances” (1) [note: Benford and Giannachi specifically define mixed reality performances as experiences that mix both the real and the virtual as well as combining live performance with interactivity]. Just as I must find a way to organize and create a narrative of my friend’s digital files, so too must I find a way of organizing and structuring all the materials that makeup my own digital research library. As I do so, I realize that my choices inevitably limit those scholars who may follow my trail, yet my choices also act as productive spaces for further work – work that extends, questions, and critiques my own [note: By “trail”, I refer to the historical narrative of particular performance events offered in my own research products]. Thus I try to mark my choices, so that such work, when it happens, is easier for those who follow me.

Yet, despite all this marking a problem emerges, one I encountered throughout the last ten years, as I studied the growing flash mob performance phenomenon and tried to keep track of the various sources I found – personal accounts, photographs, videos, newspaper coverage, interviews, and more – How? How do I construct an archive out of so much information, especially when archiving isn’t really what I set out to do? How do I mark my choices in creating that archive as choices, even as I am making them? How do I deal with vanishing, slippery artifacts – digital files whose authorship is sometimes uncertain and whose existence is unreliable in nature? How do I perform the traces of those artifacts, once vanished, as part of my scholarship? How do I perform, on the page, my own failure to capture items, to back up my own work?

What follows is an initial attempt to do just that, based on my work with flash mob performances, particularly the original eight flash mobs that occurred in New York City in 2003, and the various documents, discussions, and artifacts that exist (or have existed) about them. I frame this attempt through the work of Walter Benjamin, whose Unpacking My Library essay serves as the foundation for my initial attempts to discuss and document my archival process of a digital collection. Like Benjamin, I focus on the process, seeking to re-animate my experience of archiving, and interacting with my own archive of flash mobs. In an attempt to pay performative homage to Benjamin’s work, I copy his style and often even his syntax as displayed in “Unpacking My Library,” hopefully capturing the same conversational tone Benjamin uses in the piece (59). I also draw upon the ideas of Rebecca Schneider in her essay “Archives: Performance Remains”, agreeing that archives perform disappearance and that archiving is a ritualized process performed by a live body, one that I seek to share with the reader in this article (100-108).

As I discuss the collection, creation, and maintenance of a digital archive, I try to focus on the unique circumstances of archiving in a digital age by dividing the body of my essay into three categories that highlight the exceptional challenges faced by today’s scholars of digital culture and digital archivists - acquiring, losing, and sustaining artifacts (or files). I also offer the reader examples of my own process and experiences with digital archiving through the use of embedded images and hyperlinks. I hope that the juxtaposition of these digital formats alongside a highly stylized and somewhat antiquated vernacular creates an experience for the reader that is both playful and provocative, one that reminds her of the common joys and frustrations shared by all archivists, while also forcing consideration of the unique struggles facing archivists in a digital age. As our libraries move from bookshelves to bookmarked computer pages, I hope that work such as this continues to document, discuss, and perform the particular challenges faced by twenty-first century scholars.


Fig. 1. Screenshot of a portion of author’s digital library.

I am unpacking my library (see fig. 1). Yes, I am. The files are not yet in folders, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot scroll up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of laptops that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the smell of machines, the desktop covered with tabs, to join me among piles of files that are seeing daylight again after two or more years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood – it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation – which these files arouse in a genuine collector. For such a woman is speaking to you, and on closer scrutiny she proves to be speaking only about herself. What I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a file finder to her possessions, into collecting rather than a collection. If I do this by elaborating on the various ways of acquiring, losing, and sustaining files this is something entirely arbitrary.

Acquiring Files

Of course, there is nothing quite so wonderful as the joy of the hunt for a certain file, one you never even knew you wanted until you happened upon it in some strange, queer, uncommon nook of the world wide webspace. Why I remember one time I had begun my day surfing the various aisles and channels of the internet, looking more for celebrity gossip blogs than any sort of scholarly article, only to roll upon an article in the Los Angeles Weekly that was the exact sort of file I’d spent years looking for (see fig. 2)! This file, although unassuming in nature and happened upon through various weblinks on other blogs, contained a heretofore undocumented verification of my overall flash mob argument by their very own creator, a man who until that point had never uttered in print the very words I found within this file on that particular day! “I’ve got you!” I cried, fist pumping in the air and doing the happiest of dances alone, in front of my laptop with my cat and cup of coffee.

Fig. 2. Screenshot of author’s file with highlighted “I’ve got you!” passage.

Not only was the file vital to the importance of my overall argument, but it was from a somewhat reputable source, thus making it my most precious find of the year. No longer would I be stuck making arguments into the wind, citing questionable, anonymous sources like cheesebikini – whose surrealist nom de plume always brought a giggle to others’ lips – and Satan’s Laundromat, whose establishment, while perfectly clean, always brought a raised eyebrow from someone in the room (see fig. 3). No, at last I had a real name, a real source, from a real periodical, and all by nature of my interest in celebrity gossip-mongering!

Fig. 3. Screenshot of Satan’s Laundromat, a photolog website used by author in previous
research but no longer in operation on the internet.

But that is just one small example. What is most important about finding a new file is making sure to actually acquire said file. When acquiring digital files, you must always mark the time and date you first encountered or acquired the file, as well as the time and date at which the file was created (see fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Screenshot of author’s file with date/time highlighted.

If in fact, time and date accessed is possible to know, because as you my friend are surely well aware, digital files are tricky things and sometimes the time and date of creation is not necessarily marked. Still, the most important thing here is to pay attention to the date of encounter, which is always already assumed to be the date of acquisition in the digital world, for why would one encounter a file without also acquiring it? Well, you say, I can think of many reasons. So can I. However, the powers that be in the worlds of MLA, APA, Chicago style, and even certain types of archival software are always sticklers for such things, and failure to produce an accurate date of acquisition can lead to denial of the fact that you did, in fact, actually encounter and acquire such a file after all.

What is most helpful in such citational situations is acquiring not only the file but also the identity of the author who created it, whether it be text, photograph, or video clipping. As mentioned earlier, this can be most difficult due to the overall lack of real names found within the digital landscape, but not altogether impossible. For example, remember cheesebikini, mentioned earlier? When I initially encountered Mr. Bikini’s files I found no mention of his real identity, however after some artful digging I came upon an address at which Mr. Bikini agreed to be contacted by those interested in his real moniker [note: Savage’s blog now contains a link to a section titled, “Who ‘cheesebikini?’ “which offers information on the author. This section was added in March of 2006, two years after I first visited Savage’s page]. Upon doing so, I received a lovely e-mail from a Mr. Sean Savage, who turned out to be the man behind the cheesebikini mask, and who after a few polite exchanges and a request to see how his files were used in my manuscript, agreed to let me use both his files and his name when referencing his work within my own prose. Other times I have not been this lucky, such as in the case of Satan’s Laundromat, mentioned earlier, who although I put in a valiant effort never revealed more of his identity than that his name was “Mike” and while he didn’t mind me using his files would prefer I not contact him again (see fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Screenshot of “Mike’s” contact info on Satan’s Laundromat website,
no longer in operation.

In these instances, one should still celebrate the small victories. After all, Mike is still much more welcoming than Satan as a referential source, and although a surname is not available, one can always be creative when organizing and ordering one’s own filing system for such acquisitions.

Losing Files

From time to time, it is important to visit your files, to check on them and to make sure they are still alive and breathing, perhaps even to talk with them and see if any changes have been made while you were away like you would a houseplant or summer residence. This is important because often upon revisiting your files and traversing your digital library, you might discover that tomes you long took for granted have disappeared, seemingly overnight, and if so it will be necessary for you to mourn their loss and then begin to work on replacing them.

But how, you say, have they disappeared? After all, were they not your possessions, acquisitions of the first order, your personal finds? Sadly, no. Like many things in this digital age, our libraries have become as transitory and ephemeral as our finances. No longer burdened by purse and coin but free to roam the world with debit cards or phones with banking apps happily in hand, we often find that money we thought was there is not, disappearing seemingly overnight. Alas, the money is not stolen but simply spent, unattended and ignored until it was no longer available and therefore resulted in a very real material loss of some particular purchase – food, drink, rent, etc. Our libraries are similar. Often upon further review we may forget to check in and see how they are doing, only to arrive at bookmarks leading to blank pages. These pages are not really blank, they have just been moved, often with a friendly or perhaps not so friendly note left behind marking their disappearance - “404 file not found” they say, or “page not found,” “item not found.” Sometimes these notes are apologetic in nature, taking the time to apologize first for their non-existence - “Sorry, but the page you are looking for does not exist” they say, confounding your very reason, because you yourself know that they did exist – after all you marked their existence, their author, their time and date of creation and of your encounter, and now you find it unimaginable that someone (and by the way, who is this apologetic yet annoying someone trying to convince you your file never existed?) is trying to rob your library and erase history – your history of encounter and connection with such an object as your precious file.

That kind of thing can be very annoying, frustrating in the highest degree. Other times, albeit rarely, these mysterious someones will admit their guilt, citing something along the lines of “500 internal server error” or “It’s not you. It's us.” While this does not fix the loss of your treasured acquisition, it is still nice to see them taking responsibility for a change. Often, you can find these files once again, if you employ the assistance of a search engine and use your previously recorded information about the file that has gone missing. I remember one such file, “Flash mobs: a new social phenomenon?”, that I particularly coveted for it’s inclusion of a few special quoted statements by flash mob founder Bill Wasik (Hewitt). The file itself wasn’t much to look at after all, a sort of run of the mill piece with general information on the subject, but this quote was rather spectacular, and it supported my growing thesis that flash mobs were transgressive acts. It was created in July of 2003, and I encountered/acquired it by myself in August of 2008. A few years ago, when I went to unpack my library upon a move to colder climates, I realized that this file was missing. The 500 internal server error message provided me with such a clue. I was distraught for a moment, but after employing the assistance of our good friend Google, I soon found another copy. The file was still there you see, it had only been moved, archived on its own to a new location. Relieved, I moved my old bookmark to this new locale and re-encountered what was previously lost to my collection.

Fig. 6. Screenshot of author’s file list. Lost files are highlighted in yellow.

All in all, I have lost at least 9 important files to these sorts of situations, and it’s led me to pay much more careful attention to my library, to check in on it regularly and make sure nothing is missing or has been moved around (see fig. 6). This amount of loss has left me academically embarrassed and professionally flustered. When someone comes to visit my library looking for a file I’ve mentioned to them before, or cited as part of a particularly important argument, and suddenly finds that the file is gone I try to explain it is only missing. However, as I begin to speak I often see my visitor’s eyes narrow, and realize they are judging me in silence as to whether I was simply too lazy to take good care of my library or lying about my collection in the first place.

Sustaining Files

It is this sort of encounter that has led me to new archival practices, new ways of unpacking, repacking, and reorganizing my library for any future reader who may wish to browse its volumes. The first such practice is the act of copying, in line with the traditional monastic scholar, who through reproduction makes sure that his subject lives on. The easiest way to do this is to simply print a page as soon as you encounter/acquire it, thereby keeping a record of not only the file but of the date of acquisition as well. Of course, this is a tedious process, and one prone to hurt the very trees my original digital file was created to protect. No matter, you can buy recyclable paper if you choose, and I have found that the extra space needed to store such copies, most easily found in the form of a file cabinet, cardboard box, or drawer of some sort, often serves as a helpful perch for other objects you might need to use in your archival process – coffee cups, pens, highlighters, post-it notes, and the like.

Of course a second option is to save the trees and simply cut and paste the original file’s content into another digital file of your own, one you safely store on your personal computer. Screen-capture works well for this sort of thing too. This is an environmentally sound idea, but one that necessitates a good online ordering and filing system, as well as an adequate form of backup should your personal computer go on the fritz. After all, as the saying goes, what profit a woman if she should gain publication in a top tier journal, only to have her computer crash and lose all her sources for the piece? Should you opt for this method, be sure to keep the room in which your computer and external hard drive are stored temperature-controlled and weather/child protected, as many a collector has been known to find her collection ruined by such external forces beyond her control.

Once you’ve ensured your collection is adequately protected, you want to begin working on some way of organizing it so that you can easily find those files you are looking for. I myself use a system that combines the use of bookmarks and folders within a general ordering structure based on date of acquisition, but others may find more suitable methods for their own collections (see fig. 7). I also find jump drives or USBs [note: The author is referring to data storage devices also referred to as “flash drives”, “data sticks”, or “thumb drives”] helpful in this capacity, as a way of separating groups of differently ordered materials in different sets – or bookshelves, as it were.

Fig. 7. Screenshot of author’s bookmark folder system.

I recall quite vividly my own use of such jump drives when my collection of flash mob files was threatened by the most ominous of enemies in the digital age – the recurring blue screen of a particular Dell computer. I remember well the particular terror involved in my repeated and multiple attempts to transfer materials from my Dell to my jump drives, succeeding with the transfer only to crash the computer again each time, my body posed in a feline position, head down, shoulders raised and tensed, legs curled below me ready to jump forward and rescue the drive at any time should it prove necessary. I was living in a spare bedroom of my parents’ home at the time, and I remember well the frustrating interruptions of my family as they repeatedly barged into my room, worried about my seemingly obsessed condition and extensive amount of time spent alone and agitated. I would never want such things to happen to you, my friend. So, I suggest you take the proper precautions well ahead of time, rather than wait too long, as I did. Ultimately I managed to save them all, my precious files, and I smile now as I pass my hands over the five black and blue jump drives sitting in a small brown box on my desk in the office, reminders of that time, keepers of that trace.


Fig. 8. Screenshot of a portion of author’s digital library.

Now I am on the last half-emptied case and it is way past midnight (see fig. 8). Other thoughts fill me than the ones I am talking about – not thoughts but images, memories. Memories of the cities in which I found so many things - Lewisville, Denton, Baton Rouge, Carbondale; memories of Wasik’s sites, a Macy’s rug department in Astor Place, the Grand Hyatt hotel, the Times Square Toys ‘R Us; memories of my student’s den in Baton Rouge, of my room in Denton, of the solitude of Aunt Jo’s house and finally of my initial undergraduate student’s room in Denton, the former location of only four or five of the several hundred files that are piled up around me. O bliss of the collector, bliss of the woman of words and academic performative leisure! Of no one has less been expected, and no one has had a greater sense of well-being than the woman who has been able to carry on her disreputable existence in the mask of the performer, the archivist, the collector. For inside her there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector – and I mean a real collector, a performer as she ought to be – ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in her, but it is she who lives in them. So I have erected one of her dwellings with files, stories, and photographs as the building stones, before you, and now she is going to disappear inside them, as is only fitting.

Works Cited

“APA: Website.” EasyBib. ImagineEasy Solutions, n.d. 2001. Web. 3 Mar. 2016.

Bemis, Alec Hanley. “ ‘My Name is Bill . . .’: A Q&A with the Anonymous Founder of Flash Mobs.” LA Weekly. 5 Aug. 2004. Web. 4 April 2009.

Benford, Steve, and Gabriella Giannachi. Performing Mixed Reality. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. "Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting." 1931. In Benjamin, Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. 59-68. Print.

“CHICAGO: Website.” EasyBib. ImagineEasy Solutions, n.d. 2001. Web. 3 Mar. 2016.

Hewitt, Giles. “Flash Mobs: A New Social Phenomenon?” News in Science. Australian Broadcasting Company, 30 July 2003. Web. 5 Aug 2008.

“MLA: Website.” EasyBib. ImagineEasy Solutions, n.d. 2001. Web. 3 Mar. 2016. “Mob #3.”

Satan’s Laundromat (a photolog). n.p., 16 July 2003. Web. 19 Mar. 2009. *

Satan’s Laundromat (a photolog). n.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2009. *

Savage, Sean. “Upcoming flash mobs.” Cheesebikini? WordPress, July 2002. Web. 12 Jul. 2010.

Schneider, Rebecca. “Archives: Performance Remains.” Performance Research 6.2 (2001): 100-108. Print.

“Sean J. Savage.” LinkedIn. LinkedIn Corporation, n.d. Web. 3 Mar. 2016.

* - as noted in the article, this site no longer exists.

Rebecca A. Walker is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Southern Illinois University. Her primary research interests focus on the intersection(s) of performance, culture, and technology. Specifically, Dr. Walker is interested in how technology influences our culture and communicative practices, particularly our performative practices. Her recent work involved an examination of a series of recurring flash mobs following the death of Michael Jackson and considered how they might expand current conceptions of memorialization performances. Dr. Walker’s other areas of research interest include performance art, rhetoric and popular culture, visual rhetoric, culture jamming, feminist theory, and tourism as communication and performance.

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