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Some thoughts on intellectual self-archiving

Anyone who has read my blog for a while will be aware that I use it to self-archive. As Cory Doctorow explains in this wonderful piece, it’s a mode of information storage suitable for those whose working lives revolve around the identification, evaluation and retrieval of information:

I consume, digest, and excrete information for a living. Whether I’m writing science fiction, editorials, columns, or tech books, whether I’m speaking from a podium or yammering down the phone at some poor reporter, my success depends on my ability to cite and connect disparate factoids at just the right moment.

As a committed infovore, I need to eat roughly six times my weight in information every day or my brain starts to starve and atrophy. I gather information from many sources: print, radio, television, conversation, the Web, RSS feeds, email, chance, and serendipity. I used to bookmark this stuff, but I just ended up with a million bookmarks that I never revisited and could never find anything in.

Theoretically, you can annotate your bookmarks, entering free-form reminders to yourself so that you can remember why you bookmarked this page or that one. I don’t know about you, but I never actually got around to doing this — it’s one of those get-to-it-later eat-your-vegetables best-practice housekeeping tasks like defragging your hard drive or squeegeeing your windshield that you know you should do but never get around to.

Until I started blogging. Blogging gave my knowledge-grazing direction and reward. Writing a blog entry about a useful and/or interesting subject forces me to extract the salient features of the link into a two- or three-sentence elevator pitch to my readers, whose decision to follow a link is predicated on my ability to convey its interestingness to them. This exercise fixes the subjects in my head the same way that taking notes at a lecture does, putting them in reliable and easily-accessible mentalregisters.

Blogs are far from the only way to produce what Doctorow describes as “a central repository of all of the fruits of my labors in the information fields”. The commonplace book is an obvious precursor to the research blog. Luhman used a terrifyingly intricate filecard system. C. Wright Mills advocated a file or journal to keep track of ‘fringe thoughts’. Any system will entail certain constraints and affordances for your self-archiving. However, the usefulness of an archiving system will depend as much on how you use it as on which system you choose.

It occurred to me recently that my self-archiving has become inconsistent. Whereas I went through a phase of putting everything on the blog, often leading to five or six posts per day, it’s now spread across a number of systems:

  1. Highlights and notes in Amazon Kindle
  2. Ideas grouped together in talks on Artefact cards
  3. Resources archived in a number of e-mail folders
  4. Points to explore archived in Notability
  5. Ideas placed directly into ongoing writing

The first point troubles me because I despise Amazon yet become more dependent upon them with each day I use this system. The latter one in particular troubles me because I tend to over-write. I find producing words relatively easy and it’s only in the few years since my PhD that I’ve learned to edit myself properly. Therefore ‘fringe-thoughts’ that immediately find expression might end up being lost.

The urge to capture everything might seem obsessive. However, there’s something genuinely exciting about the idea of building a living archive of your thought over a period of decades. This blog has been active since 2010, encompassing 3426 posts over almost 7 years. Looking back on it, I’m struck by how much my thought has changed in that time but also how many continuities there are. Things I struggled to express years ago are now clearly defined questions I’m addressing in my research.

Perhaps I need to put more effort into this, embracing intellectual self-archiving as a commitment rather than merely a habit. Though it seems possible that simply having written this post, articulating the issues and archiving it in my ‘outboard brain’, might be sufficient to change my practice. It often is and that’s one of many things which is so engrossing about intellectual self-archiving.

Categories: Becoming Who We Are Digital Universities Social Media for Academics Thinking

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Mark

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