If you’ve ever politely averted your eyes from the unholy sight of a gangling, unshaved man wheezing his way across campus as he strains under the weight of an unreasonably large black portfolio, I’d like to explain myself.
I scan maps for Firestone Library Rare Books and Special Collections. The goal of my project—and I am fairly certain I am the only person employed in this capacity—is to create a digital image of each of the thousands of maps in Princeton’s vast collection that is available for use on the Library website, so that academics and students searching the maps out need not travel down to their storage place and disturb the delicate parchment. In a productive three-hour work session, I will scan, photoshop, and enter archival metadata for about twenty maps. I retrieve them from a big stack in the Rare Books office that my boss restocks with fresh material from the vault after I’ve processed a bunch. It’s a fairly mechanical procedure, until one stops to think of its implications.
A map is a two-dimensional representation of a section of the globe. Maps often incorporate an additional set of symbols to encode additional information, e.g. alphabetical letters spelling out the name of the illustrated region, a star indicating the location of a capital city, or a great serpent warning prospective seafarers of dangers abroad. A map is a simplification, a shorthand expression of a certain location at a certain time. A map reveals what its maker thought was important to remember about the place he drew. Two maps depicting the same location at the same time might vary as much as a pair of contemporary novels—each is a story told by an author with a unique perspective and agenda. A map, like a man, is a world unto itself.
Misinterpretations of Hindu mythology tell us that the Earth is a flat disc supported on the back of an elephant, which in turn rests upon a tortoise (which, in turn, rests on an infinite succession of additional turtles, all the way down). This stacked-universe schematic is a reality at my job: Twenty maps rest one atop the other, forming a gigantic, Mylar-coated sandwich of worlds. An almanac map of cycling routes in Oregon might lie above a 17th century outline of the Greek island of Milos, and below a full-color Rand McNally topographical illustration of Japan. A selection of worlds are plucked from the stack and reordered into a new universe within my large black portfolio, a crucible of time and space.
But these abstract meditations on cartographic cosmology immediately dissolve when the portfolio fills up and it’s time to go. Due to an unfortunate collision of library space scarcity and university bureaucracy, Princeton’s map scanners are not located in Firestone but in Lewis Library. The second floor of Lewis hosts the Digital Map and Geospatial Information Center, a pair of rooms hosting a dozen computers, two enormous printers, and, the object of my quest, two monster, state-of-the-art scanners. It’s a long way from Firestone to Lewis when you’re bearing a load of maps in a large black portfolio. When I make my pilgrimage, I feel like a modern-day Atlas, carrying the weight of the world—or, in fact, twenty worlds—on my back.
It doesn’t help that I don’t work out. Carrying maps along my semiweekly journey (roundtrip, let us recall) is as close as I get to lifting. Instead of pumping iron, I push paper. (Note: It is not the maps but their Mylar sheaths that really add on the pounds.) This does not, of course, measure up to real exercise, and I have not gained any muscle mass in my arms or anywhere else. What I have gained is a chronic anxiety that acts up right around the time I’m meant to go to work, and I brace myself for the inevitable soreness and pain in my biceps and shoulders. I live a coddled, intellectual life; lugging maps around is the most physically intensive activity I ever do. But it is so physical, so real, that when I’m doing it I cannot think of anything but my body.
Let me first clearly explain that the large black portfolio is extremely unwieldy. It is about three feet tall by four feet long. It is a beaten old thing, and its zippers are only just functioning. I don’t know if it ever was, but is now emphatically no longer waterproof, as I sadly discovered one rainy day; I spent most of that shift removing wet maps from their cases, drying up moisture with paper towels from the men’s, and hoping for the best (more on this later). It is carried via one of a pair of hard plastic handles; one is situated at the top for casual maneuvering, and the other, along the side, so you can tote it at your hip with your arm fully extended. The handles are rough and smarting, and I prefer to work on chilly days so I can wear protective gloves. When it’s windy though, the portfolio acts like a sail, catching the entire force of a breeze and swinging me about like it was a disobedient dog at the end of a very short leash.
Sometimes the arm strain is too much for me, and I’ll stop in an arch or at a street corner and change hands. In those transient moments of sweet respite, my inner monologue ceases its pain-induced prattle (ouch my arm ouch my shoulder ouch my arm) and I descend into deeper and deeper thoughts. I think: “Who needs maps anyway?” and “Can someone put some tape on this stupid handle?” and “Why can’t they get me a golf cart?” And then I slowly move beyond myself: “How do people without golf carts carry things?” and “How do people without gloves and sneakers carry things?” and “Is this the same pain third-world villagers feel when they walk miles carrying pots of water?” And then the guilt settles in: “Should I donate my salary to third-world villagers?” and “Should I sell a map on the black market to benefit third-world villagers?” and “Who needs maps anyway?”
Who does need maps, anyway? Why do we keep the old things locked away in temperature-controlled rooms? Why does Princeton pay me to digitize them? What could they possibly gain? I hope for Princeton’s sake that they are not in it for profit. Princeton is a primarily undergraduate institution. There are not many students who are going out of their way to do independent work on cartographic material not accessible via Wikipedia. Our map collection is very safe where it is. Vault maintenance costs a fortune, I’m sure. If the thinking is that having me scan these maps now and put them online will prevent future students from mishandling precious material, I must admit that Firestone has made a terrible mistake. I have proven time and time again that around maps, I am a dangerous and unpredictable force. There was the rain fiasco. There are the innumerable creases and crinkles pressed into misstacked maps. My touch is not always gentle. I rip maps older than the Constitution routinely. The money Princeton might think it is saving by hiring to me to prevent future accidents is going straight into the map repairers’ pockets, if perhaps sooner than later.
I believe that there is another motive behind my employment, and that is the indomitable human desire for recordkeeping. History is the summation of human record. A people is considered prehistoric if it did not chronicle its life proceedings in writing. But writing is no longer enough—we rely ever-increasingly on digital data. Old memories within books, music, images, and films are transformed into series of zeroes and ones. New memories are uploaded to the Internet as quickly as they are experienced through blog posts, Youtube videos, and Flickr albums. Our media have converged into a single, faceless locus, where records from past and present transcend the circumstances of their creation and stand side by side as contemporaries within timelessness. If prehistory was the world before writing, the Internet has become a kind of post-history, a place and time where paper documents don’t decay and vinyl albums don’t warp, where all that has occurred is always still occurring.
My job is to take a secondary representation of the world and remove it one additional level. Maps are not life; they are impressions of life. Digital reproductions of maps are then impressions of impressions of life. Ceci n’est pas une pipe; images are treacherous. But Magritte and I are not the only ones to realize this. On February 8, 2008, Daniel Melia of gigwise.com reported, “Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong has urged fans not to record gigs and upload them to the internet.” At a concert in Los Angeles, Armstrong scolded audience members trying to capture the show on camera, saying, “YouTube can’t own everything. There’s also something called memories.” Was Armstrong celebrating the beauty of ephemerality? The aesthetics of memory? Would he be sorry to find out that I recovered his quote not from straight memory, but though a recording? I googled “billy joe armstrong memory not cameras” over three years after reading an article about him in Rolling Stone. From mouth to magazine to Internet, now into newspaper and Internet again. Impressions of impressions of impressions. Maps of maps of maps.
But is digitization a bad thing? Is post-history a sorry fate? For now, I will say one part “no” and two parts “yes.” I will admit that it is comfortable to know that most of my memory is stored away and easily accessible should I seek to revisit it. What was that one line Walter has in Big Lebowski? Where did I go on vacation freshman year? How long are you supposed to boil eggs for? The answers to all of these questions are only a few clicks away on Google or Facebook. But memory is selective, and when one uploads, he relinquishes his status as selector. See, for example, composer Alvin Lucier’s 1969 “I Am Sitting in a Room,” a Minimalist piece in which Lucier narrated a text, then played it back in a room and re-recorded it, repeating the process until the words of his speech became unintelligible. The recording became a representation not of the event initially chronicled, but of the process of taping itself. Certain frequencies resonate more clearly within certain rooms, and Lucier’s narration was smoothed out into pure, harmonious tones. The medium is no longer medial, but primal.
When we record, we cannot help but taint the event recorded. I found the Magritte quote through a Google search. I do not know if it is accurate. I recovered the Armstrong quote not from the online version of the original periodical that I read it in, but an entirely different source altogether. Apologies to Billie Joe. I discovered Lucier through a link to Wikipedia on the YouTube page of self-proclaimed Chicago musician and video artist-ontologist canzona’s 2009 take on “I Am Sitting in a Room,” in which he uploads, downloads, and re-uploads a sequence of one thousand videos until the words and images of the original fade into pure, harmonious sounds and colors. I recalled reading about canzona on Internet aggregator Urlesque some years ago, and relocated him by googling “urlesque youtube reposted 1000 times.” Our memories are informed and rewritten by endless chains of uploads, downloads, and re-uploads as we engage and disengage with the Internet. It’s maps all the way down.
This itself may not be inherently evil, but I think remapping takes its toll on our grounding in reality. My semiweekly Firestone-Lewis portfolio trek has taught me that maps are so cerebral in concept, but so heavy in reality. We abstract our experiences to incoherent noise, but at the base of the chain is real sentiment, real pain. Carrying a large black portfolio makes your shoulder ache. But even the word “ache” is a dilution of the true experience. Language, numbers, maps—these are all but approximations, impressions of life. To truly live, one must once in a while to look away from the screen, must rip a map, must lug.