Robert K. Hoffman, the least-known of the troika that founded National Lampoon magazine, recently died of leukemia. His obituary in The New York Times described him as an obsessive collector of original artwork, and quoted Hoffman as once calling art "the only effective method to travel and connect across time and space." If Hoffman meant the tangible artifact as opposed to its representation, I heartily agree with him, which might brand me as hopelessly old school.
This summer has not been kind to marketers of old-school artifacts. The demise of institutions like Cody's Books in Berkeley, Calif., and Aron's Records in Los Angeles was followed by the Aug. 20 bankruptcy filing of Tower Records. Can Blockbuster be far behind?
Oddly enough, teenagers have rediscovered a love for those 12-inch slabs of polyvinyl with analog grooves. They may yet realize there's value in shiny digital mini-discs filled with audio and video content. Both camps in the high-definition DVD battle better hope so, lest consumers decide that no physical archived representation of digital data is necessary, at least in the home.
Smarter independent musicians have responded to digital music files not only by making music widely available, but also by adopting a strategy for archivable artifacts that mirrors the Renaissance-era painter: First, insist on implementing major works in 180-gram vinyl, not only to please analog snobs, but also to have a full-size reproduction of album art. Second, release CDs in "art patron" editions, with hand-painted covers. Rubens or Titian would have been proud of the modern indy musician finding an artifact market beyond the digital file.
If the e-book ever makes inroads into sales of the old-fashioned variety, authors might consider adopting a pre-Gutenberg model of the same patron-artifact concept. Perhaps we can find the equivalent of the Medieval "illuminator" to make special copies of major works. This December, artist Zak Smith will help writer Thomas Pynchon produce an illustrated edition of Gravity's Rainbow for just such an audience.
Those of us in trade or even daily journalism, upholding the print adjunct to transitory information resources, should be under no delusions of grandeur. No matter how pretty the cover art may be, there's little motivation save force of habit for indefinitely keeping hard copies of EE Times (or the New Yorker, for that matter), when unified information databases are available.
But it might be worth exploring a nondigitized Alexandria library to retain backups, even if Wikipedia and Google sites are mirrored everywhere. The skill to use a slide rule is valuable amid ubiquitous embedded calculators. Manually calculating f-stops is a worthy talent despite digital single-lens reflex cameras. And retaining an original physical artifact for every type of content that can be digitally preserved may have cultural value we've yet to recognize. Unfortunately for Tower and Blockbuster, the profitability model may be closer to a Sotheby's than a mass-market Best Buy.