Lemov 2015

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Rebecca Lemov, Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity (New Haven: Yale UP, 2015)

The Storage of the Very, Very Small


“Harvard- based bioengineers George Church and Sriram Kosuri used stand- alone DNA itself as their data- storage vehicle and found they could lodge seven hundred terabytes on a single gram. The binary pairs of DNA nucleotides function as “bits,” effectively 0 ’s and 1 ’s, so that they can treat “DNA as just another digital storage device.” 2 Merging medium and message in an unprecedented way, Church and Kosuri published their own book about DNA data banks on DNA, including images, text, formatting, and all. Imagine, they say, holding entire libraries in vats. To publish you can spray it on walls” (71)

“The all is packed away in the small” — earliest expression of desire to shrink archive to the size of a “snuff box” is 1859 (71)

“The fantasy of total information could be made manageable via technological tininess. Key to this fantasy, and what made it different from miniaturization per se, was that the small must be capable of becoming big again at will or whim.” (71-2)

Microphotography as “a shadow history of the photograph” (72)

John Benjamin Dancer, 1839 first microphotograph; later became business selling Lord’s Prayer, 10 commandments, celebrities etc. as microphotographs

1850s, field begins to grow

Took off in popularity once 1) collapsibility was joined to expandability and 2) they became reproducible (75)

“They were cute curios, but they augured something more than mere adorability. They opened up the possibility of long- term storage, and the microphoto now suggested itself to several onlookers as a template for future data capture and archiving” (75)

“A future in storage—libraries shrunk down to pocket size and blown up—came into public view only after Dancer added re- expandability to the microphoto.” (75)

Use of microscope, projecting flea, connection back to Hooke

Rene Dagron, attached souvenir slide to a reader

1870, Siege of Paris, balloons used to send messages out, pigeons to carry them back in — but microphotographs, since regular messages were too heavy

“Here entered microfilm in a new role: pigeons could carry high- density microphotographic messages rolled up in hollowed- out goose quills. A pigeon handler sewed each quill with silk thread into the carriers’ tails. Their wings, stamped with waterproof ink, specified their destination and other delivery information.” (79)

Dagron went out of Paris by balloon, evaded enemies, established a mass-reduction center

“note that Frederic Luther’s investigations of microphotography’s adventurous and illustrious history—he re- revealed Dancer’s and Dagron’s long- forgotten accomplishments in two well- placed articles in 1950 —themselves played a historical role in the mid- twentieth- century self- definition of the American documentation movement. The work of Dancer, Dagron, and their collaborators marks the inception of “microfilm in its modern sense and on the modern scale,” according to Luther. 24 Among latter- day aficionados of the “micro,” European roots and a longer- durée history were suitably grounding.” (81)

Check-O-Graph, 1926, rotary microfilm camera to copy and story canceled checks (81)

“By this time, the “micro” in microphotography no longer facilitated tiny delights or wartime heroism but staunchly accompanied burdensome tasks such as the storage of necessary but unwieldy amounts of paperwork among corporations, the military, government, and banks.” (82)

“Libraries, too, experienced challenges for which micrographics offered relief. The research library, emerging in the late nineteenth century, saw its librarians drawn to machine solutions and embracing the “efficiency movement” of the early twentieth century. By the 1930 s microfilming appeared as a technological sinecure to the problem of what a 1936 panel called the “two foes” of librarians: “brittleness and abrasion.” “ (82)

Problem of bulk and shelf space

“Microfilm became the chosen modern means of preservation and access by the 1930 s, touted especially by the documentation movement and even more especially by the American arm of that movement.” (82)

Europe -- Paul Otlet, Suzanne Briet, H. G. Wells; more pan-human and total archive, poetic questions

US -- more technical, practical; Vernon Tate, Eugene Power, Watson Davis -- "gadget-centered visionaries" (84)

Fiske reader, Fiskoscope 1930s many machines

"Worried librarians embraced microphotography apace. Styles of microphotography formats multiplied in the United States, Great Britain, and other parts of Europe. Reading machines proliferated. Engineers experimented to make various microforms searchable. Bush’s Comparator and Rapid Selector machines were only the most prominent of a number of failed attempts at searchability." (84)


"In the United States the microfilm reached national attention in the form of V- mail, a popular service by which twenty- seven bags’ worth of soldiers’ mail, microphotographed and spooled on 16 mm microfilm strips, could be sent overseas in a single mailbag. On arrival overseas, on- site printers expanded the condensed letters to make prints three- fifths of their original size, on special stationery. Machines folded them and put them into specially tailored envelopes." (86)

Interdepartmental Committee for the Acquisitoin of Foreign Materials (IDC), a rescue mission under Wild Bill Donovan's Office of Strategic Services (OSS) with a corps of 150 agents and libraries setting up "massive microfilming operation in neutral cities from Lisbon to Stockholm to New Delhi. Rigging together microfilm operations on the fly, interviewing refugees, interrogating prisoners of war, they sought out imperiled books and other forms of publications (such as rare single- run presses and underground newspapers). They funneled relevant information from on- the- ground texts—often literally on or in the ground, as they found stacks of books hidden by the enemy in caves and limestone pits, piled up haphazardly, or abandoned by fleeing Jewish families—and preserved them in tiny, tough format." (87)

microfilm was a savior during war but hard to search or catalog; "OSS staffers came up with “ingenious solutions, including extensive subject indexing, abstracts, and full- text translations, and hired a small army of women and emigrés for this purpose.”" (88)

Microcard, vogue from 1950-1963, invented by Fremont Rider; invention of bibliographic cards to carry microtext: "bibliographic “cards” that could store, on their very own back sides, the entire text to which they referred. The library itself would be collapsed. Moreover, each card itself represented a double precipitate, of the bibliographic system and of the text itself. Even the physical form of the book could be done away with eventually, he argued. For in Rider’s system, at least as it was originally envisioned, the reference was also the referent." (90)

microfiche, European technology, beat out Microcard

Rider was a "centralizer," Binkley was a "decentralizer"

"As it happened, the Microcard never developed the storage- and- bibliographic merger Rider imagined, and in practice, two- sided printing offered too many difficulties. The Microcard simply functioned as a pre- electronic data storage vehicle. Each of his trademarked Microcards was 3 ʺ × 5 ʺ and made of a pearly, fine- grain, high- contrast paper. Step- and- repeat cameras automatically photographed and placed sequential pages of text, reduced to the size of a thumbprint, onto the same piece of sheet film. When finished, rows of contact prints taken from the sheet film marched across the Microcard." (91)

"miniature books’ popularity peaked at the end of the manuscript era. Penned in tiny letters of gold or other inks on walnuts or grains of corn, such works trouble “the relation between materiality and meaning.” 56 In their small size they called attention to the closed nature of the book, exploding and potentially expanding it. They marked the end of the written- by- hand book as state of the art. They announced the new while expressing nostalgia for the old. They destroyed even as they mourned. In contrast, microphotographic texts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were not written by hand nor produced via movable type but photographically made through scalar technologies, thus suggesting the limits of the human hand to make things nano." (92)

3 changes between 19 and 20c:

  • "scalar became scalability" -- movement from small to large "speeded up and normalized"
  • "compressibility intensified"