Lamprias

The Suda, the great tenth-century Byzantine encyclopaedia, contains an entry for Lamprias, supposed son of Plutarch, the Greek historian. Plutarch, who often wrote about his family, doesn’t mention a child by that name in any of his known works. He did have a brother called Lamprias, and a grandfather too, which may account for the confusion, though the Suda is acknowledged to be an unreliable source for classical literary history. It is incomparable, however, as a thousand-year-old mirror, held up to a lost world. It shows us the shape of the Byzantine mind, and the intellectual preoccupations of a civilization which believed itself to be (with some justification) a living inheritor of Greece and Rome.

“Lamprias”, according to the text, compiled a catalogue – in Greek, a list written in tabular form – of his father’s works. Surviving in manuscripts from the twelfth-century, but believed to be a much earlier text, it lists 227 titles, only 83 of which exist today. It omits 18 other complete works of Plutarch now extant, and 15 which we have in fragmentary form. Mysteriously, Aristotle’s Topics, which the Byzantines really ought to have been able to correctly describe, appears as entry no. 56. These peculiarities show how ancient catalogues, now matter how desirously we mine them for evidence of lost texts, cannot be trusted.

Was Lamprias, whoever he was, a careless cataloguer? Were his assumptions and methodologies fundamentally different to our own? Not really. Our catalogues are as much reflections of our own prejudices, politics, cosmologies and wishes as was the inventory of Lamprias, or the encyclopaedia of the pseudonymous “Suidas”, for that matter. Catalogues are, and always have been, constructs which help us make sense of collections of objects and ideas, negotiations between us and the things which are important to us.

[For an edition and translation of the “Catalogue of Lamprias,” see volume 15 of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Plutarch’s Moralia, edited by F.H. Sandbach, pp.3-29]

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Ferguson

I was lucky to hear (and then speak to) Meredith Evans, director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, at the annual Cambridge libraries conference yesterday. Prior to joining the Carter Library, Evans was head of special collections at Washington University, St Louis. Washington University’s campus lies seven miles from Ferguson, scene of America’s worse civil disturbance in a generation throughout August 2014.

Evans spoke powerfully, with both emotion and eloquence, about the death of Michael Brown, and the subsequent protests and rioting catalyzed by the blunt police response to his community’s anger. Moved by the popular uprising, and inspired by other digital archiving projects which had partnered universities with local communities (those, for example, which documented Hurricane Katrina and the Boston Marathon bombings), Evans and her colleagues created a resource to help preserve digital media captured by participants and witnesses to the unrest.

Documenting Ferguson uses a content management system, Omeka, which allows members of the public to directly contribute a variety of media to an online archive. Contributors create their own metadata too. I’ve written before about how bibliographic control was one of the great achievements of twentieth-century librarianship. But twenty-first century technologies make these levels of control unfeasible, as the democratization of mass communication makes the very idea of such regulation problematic.

Contributors to ‘Documenting Ferguson’ may add a title, creator, creator email, date, description, and geographical location to their photos, videos, and other media. All fields are public, but none are required. The resulting displays are variable, untidy, chaotic, unauthorized. The archive aims to provide ‘diverse perspectives on the events in Ferguson and the resulting social dialogue.’ Those user-generated descriptions are, of course, part of that perspective. The ways we create metadata are informed by the ways we look at the world. Allowing archive contributors to write their own descriptions might therefore help us better understand the marginalized communities we serve and, more importantly, empower them.