What Gets Preserved?

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The library of Alexandria was the largest and most comprehensive repository of knowledge in the ancient world. In 46 AD (according to some sources) it burned. Countless scrolls went up in flames, in some cases the only copies of famous texts were lost to history.

MDJackson_preserved_1The destruction of the library at Alexamdria is considered to be one of the greatest tragedies of history and points up the real need to preserve the works of art and literature that our various cultures produce.

However, the question then becomes; what do we preserve? What amongst the countless cultural artifacts produced by civilization do we deem worthy of being preserved?

That’s a hard question. Like the song says; “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”. But, of course, by then it’s too late.

For science fiction and fantasy fans there are many lost treasures. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, for instance, has not been seen in its original form for many decades, despite numerous restoration attempts. Neither is there a surviving print of Lon Chaney’s 1927 film London After Midnight.

And then there`s Doctor Who. The British television series has been airing since 1963. Of those early episodes 106 are missing because of the BBC`s policy of erasing the videotape the shows were recorded on so it could be re-used for other shows. Today among Doctor Who fans that is an outrage, but at the time it was just another show. The value was not seen or recognized.

MDJackson_preserved_3In publishing, much of the science fiction and fantasy literature we enjoy had its roots in the pulp magazines. The pulps were intended to be throw-away items. The printing was sub standard and the paper was of a lower grade. If one fell apart… oh well. There will be a new issue next month. At the time the worth of the pulps was not recognized, not, at least, by the companies that produced them.

Now, of course, pulps and, in particular, pulp art is a sought after commodity. Original art painted to be printed on pulp covers, throw-away images, lurid and much maligned in their day, get snapped up at auctions for outrageous prices. Interior artwork, much of it done on the fly by artists with limited time, questionable talent and for very little money, is in danger of disappearing altogether. Originals are  almost impossible to find.

MDJackson_preserved_4There is a movement to try to preserve that artwork, however. Save Pulp Art is a group of NASA scientists, of all things, who are trying to preserve the artwork that accompanied these pulp tales. They have a Facebook page and a Twitter feed and a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to help with the preservation effort. The group is intent on preserving cover and interior artwork from pulp magazines from the 1920s-1960s, scanning and in many cases restoring the original artwork. So far they have close to 20,000 images digitized, but there is still so much more work to be done, hence the Kickstarter campaign.

Efforts like these are admirable, but for every small group that is passionate about preserving something from the past there is an onslaught of new images, writing, movies and television shows. some may become popular, but that popularity may be fleeting. Think of the thousands of pictures, words and moving images that inundate you throughout a single day. how much of that is worth preserving and who decides?

Also, why should some literature or imagery not be preserved? I have heard it argued that the works of Robert E. Howard should be allowed to fade out of memory because of accusations that he was racist (an accusation against which he has been ably defended). Do we disregard someone’s work because their political or social views are repugnant? Many, if not all of America’s founding fathers were slave owners. Should Americans disregard the constitution because it was written by racist, sexist white men?

Or, more currently, do we disregard the work produced by Orson Scott Card (or boycott the movie version of Ender’s Game) because of his views on same-sex marriage? Do we consign his output of work — important novels in the science fiction ouvre — because of his personal views?

This is a big topic, obviously, with a lot of questions for which I have no answers. It is a tragedy when something is lost to history. How do we preserve our culture? Do we digitize everything and put it online? Will that preserve all of our thoughts, feelings and dreams?

What if something happens. though? What if, after we have digitized everything, the web — the electronic world — stops? what then?

Then we will have the digital equivalent of the library of Alexandria and that would be a tragedy far, far worse.

I’m very interested in your thoughts on these issues. Please do leave a comment.

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