Aura and digitization

Writing here about the digitization initiatives in the “Google 5” libraries a while ago I referred to aura:

Walter Benjamin famously asserted that “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art”. In his terms, the aura is that which is original or authentic about a work. Aura depends on the position of a work within a tradition and its uniqueness. Reproduction diminishes each, the argument goes. [Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog]

I was reminded of this while listening to Ken Hamma’s interesting presentation at the CNI Spring Taskforce meeting earlier this week.

Instead of asserting intellectual property rights in images of public domain works as nearly every art museum does now, it is argued here that publicly and pro-actively placing these images in the public domain and clearly removing all questions about their availability for use and reuse would likely cause no harm to the financial position or trustworthy reputation of any collecting institution and would demonstrably contribute to the public good. As those images have become digital assets and as the preferred delivery venue has become increasingly an electronic network, the ante has been raised to do so. The manner in which this might be done may require consultation with legal counsel. The fact of doing it, however, is not a legal decision but a business decision that can be evaluated by non-profits in measuring success against the mission. Project Briefing-Spring 2005 Task Force Meeting]

Ken referred to Benjamin’s essay in his talk. During discussion it was argued that the distribution of images of works of art – on posters, etc – translates into increased traffic to see the real artifacts, the works of art in situ in galleries or museums.
I wondered if one could think of this as the allure of aura. Exposure to the ‘mechanically reproduced’ copies, drained of aura, creates a demand to experience the work of art itself.
I also wondered whether this points to an important difference between museum and library collections, and hence in our experience of their digitization. Much of what is in libraries is already a ‘mechanical reproduction’; it is one of many copies in a publishing process. In digitizing it, we are translating it into another medium. We experience it differently: but we are not losing that aura of uniquencess. Of course, the exception is where an individual volume has some particular characteristics which make it special, because it is rare, or is annotated, or for some other reason.
Much of what is in a museum or gallery is unique. We do indeed diminish the aura in reproduction.

4 thoughts on “Aura and digitization”

  1. Bravo. Excellent post. Food for thought.

    But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice � politics.

    W. Benjamin

    I don’t think Benjamin meant “aura” as authenticity but rather a context that gives rise to art and gives it meaning. Mechanical reproduction strips the artwork in question of its original context and creates a new context for the artwork. Art becomes a commodity (at least in part).

    So to extend the discussion to libraries, digitization involves the work of art, the book, in a new set of economic/political relationships. And that is an extremely important set of relationships to explore. Who is the real beneficiary of digitzation etc. Is it the user, the vendor, the MLS Grad looking for a job? Are libraries fated to become information stores in the great digital shopping mall of the internet? Or do they have somthing different to offer? I dunno, but I am curious.

  2. JD raises some really interesting questions. I would hope the real beneficiary of digitization is always the users. If our users are benefiting from whatever is being done then those benefits should spill over to libraries, librarians, vendors and everyone else.
    So what are libraries “works of art” and what is that aura we can retain only in the library and use to lure in more people with mechanical reproductions? I suppose that depends on what kind of library you work in. If you’re at Dublin High School, Dublin Public, Ohio State, or a special library you may have vastly different missions.

  3. Thinking some more…

    I think the “aura” we lose in digitizing library materials is the library itself. A book in a library has a significantly different “aura” or context than the same book in the local big box book store.

    A Monet in the Louvre has a differnt aura than a poster of the same painting on a dorm room wall because it is (hopefully)presented as part of the larger context of history/ art-history. However, if the two images were swapped does that diminish the aura of the original?

    By extension the crux of the issue for digitization is what is the specific historical context that makes Library books unique and can that be reproduced in a digital context? If we assume the essence of “Libraryness” is accessibility, then digitization is right on track. But, if we define “Libraryness” as a librarys ability to provide books in the specific historical context of a local community or scholarly institution then digitization projects may be less successful

    All of this, of course, requires more thought than I can give it during coffee breaks and dull spots in a work day. Anybody looking for a thesis topic?

  4. I wonder if there has been study done on the “mechanical reproduction” driving interest back to the original? And at what point does the reproduction become so diluted that it loses connection to the original? Using the Mona Lisa in a toothpaste ad might make a few people curious enough to go see the original. But I am doubting that reading “The Dubliners” by James Joyce would prompt many to seek out the manuscript version. Paintings and museum objects do have a different aura in the original. Text does too but it seems to produced for other reasons–not its objectness.
    Benjamin wrote at a time when reproduction was considerably less facile than it is now.
    Text has for a very long time been reproduced mechanically. We’re not used to seeing the original texts and I am not sure consideration of digital reproduction of text is quite the same as the reproduction of paintings.
    A fascinating conversation, for sure.

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