(hei there this is molly here)
In this post I’ll give you a little overview of my fellowship project designing a media studio at METRO’s new offices on 599 11th Avenue over the next nine months, as well as some background about my inspiration and motivation for this work. In the spirit of the studio, I am producing a podcast with audio stories from across the libraries and archives of New York City. Tune into Library Bytegeist and look out for updates here as studio construction continues:
My Fellowship Project: Designing a Media Studio
The purpose of the studio will be to provide a welcoming and inclusive space that is equipped with different kinds of media, old and new and in-between, analog and digital and virtual. This includes digital forensics equipment, a graphics station, and media for the production of audio, video, and web content. In an open loft space with huge windows overlooking the Hudson River on one side and the bustling streets of Hell’s Kitchen on the other, METRO’s Media Studio will be a physical space where the library, archive, and museum professionals from across METRO’s 250+ member organizations can gather, experiment, and create with tools we use to tell our stories and our histories in an increasingly media-saturated world.
As Erik Boekesteijn from the innovative Doklab at the Delft Public Library in the Netherlands put it, “librarians of today are the media guides of tomorrow.” With the proliferation of multimedia creation becoming ever-more accessible and diverse, librarians are faced with the task of becoming fluent users of and able guides to digital, analog, and virtual media that are constantly changing and evolving. Libraries and archives have always brought of level of institutionalized structure and mindful intention to the collection, organization, preservation, and access to the different media that tell our stories and document our pasts, and the studio will be a space to help them do so in the age of smartphones, virtual reality, and whatever comes next.
Analog ←→ Digital: it’s a spectrum
Although it might not seem obvious from my intention to design a tech-filled studio, my fellowship project was inspired by one reverse pitch in particular, submitted by the Art Resources Transfer. The title of this pitch was “Creating access through print collections: the role of books and print literacy today.” The pitch was calling for new ways to share the Art Resources Transfer’s amazing print collections with a public that seems increasingly occupied with new digital media. Even as excited as I get about the possibilities of new technologies, especially as they could be applied in the cultural sector (virtual reality trips to the museums of the past! open access to scanned books!), I came to library work due to my longtime love of books and print literature. Research in psychology and cognitive science has only come to confirm something that I have known for a long from my own experience: reading print literature does something to the brain that increases focus, attention, absorption, and relaxation in beneficial ways. That is part of why I like it so much. But similar brain states, characterized by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a state of flow, can also be activated by the participation in a wide range of activities, such as playing chess, going jogging, working on a puzzle, playing a musical instrument, or doing yoga. As Csikszentmihalyi outlines in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” this state of flow, when we lose our sense of self and feel deep senses of exhilaration and enjoyment in our human experience, is reached through experiences rather than through the elusive satisfaction of new material possessions.1 Which is why, in the design of our media studio, I would like to focus less on the characteristics of the cool new media that we buy and more on the types of experiences we create when we use the equipment in the studio to create media that tell the stories of the libraries, archives, and museums of New York City and Westchester County.
I was struck by the ways that discourses around media and technology oftentimes characterize the formats that we use to communicate information as being new or old, advanced or obsolete, an inevitable one-way street of technological process in which different types of media are seen as competitors vying for our attention. In such a zero-sum paradigm, the increasing popularity of video production is inherently threatening to print literature and the internet threatens the existence of libraries. While I think that time has proven such predictions to be mostly alarmist and unfounded, they hold powerful sway over how we view media in ways that I think limit the ways that experiment within and among different types of media. Let’s question and blur some of these false dichotomies by turning away from looking at media as pieces of technological equipment, and toward looking at media as human experiences.
Mindful Media + Intermediation
It is interesting to think about what we are actually seeking when we use media: are we discovering knowledge, forging human connections, understanding our past, escaping into an alternative reality? Thinking about media usage as an experience let’s us bring some awareness to how we use in our professional and personal lives, in a similar way that mindfulness practices help us bring awareness to our feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. This could open up new possibilities for more intentional, and potentially creative, usages of media. Therefore I had the idea: what if, instead of conceiving of our studio space as a new media lab, we conceive of it as a mindful media studio? Such a distinction gets more at the philosophy behind building a studio than what the space looks like in practice. Both types of spaces would probably have computers, cameras, printers, recorders, etc. But by focusing on the ultimate usage of the media, we can design a space that is more iterative, low-cost, low-stakes, high-impact, and flexible, such as our Executive Director Nate Hill described in his blog post. We want to create a space that allows for the creative reuse and appropriation of materials in a way that works for our member institutions as the technologies inevitably change over time.
To give an example of the type of I would like to turn to something that has been both a popular internet phenomenon and forms the subject of my research as a PhD student: ASMR videos.
ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response” and is used to describe a type of video that triggers relaxing tingles for the viewer through the use of aural and visual stimuli. ASMR videos have become incredibly popular on YouTube, the most watched ones garnering upwards of 2 million views. Here is an example of what one looks like (I strongly suggest putting on your headphones):
To come back to the question of how we can creatively think about the role of printed books and how we engage with them in an era when libraries are increasingly focused on digital technologies, these types of ASMR videos are extremely interesting. These are examples of print literature being used within videos purely for the relaxing effect of their materiality as human hands tap on the covers, flip the pages, and trace the words. Many ASMR videos feature other forms of media, things like keyboards, smartphones, and computer screens, but ASMR creators use them as purely material objects rather than as information-carrying materials. It is a classic example of remediation, in which a medium uses the format of other medium as its content, like the use of videos, pictures, and words as the content of much of the material found on the web, or the ornate decorated letters in medieval texts, or the icons on your computer shaped like paper files and floppy disks. Media scholars Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin as describe the way that old and new media are constantly blurring and interacting with each other, especially as digital media continues to disrupt the landscape:
Older electronic and print media are seeking to reaffirm their status within our culture as digital media challenge that status. Both new and old media are invoking the twin logics of immediacy and hypermediacy in their efforts to remake themselves and each other.2
The Mindful Media Studio will ideally be a playground for this kind of thinking and experimentation. Libraries, archives, and museums are unique in that they have rich stores of diverse materials that have been collected, organized, and preserved over decades. The possibilities for what we could do when we rethink, blend, and remix these materials across genres and sensory experiences is extremely exciting and will hopefully lead us to use new technologies as tools for mindfully engaging with our cultural histories.
Thanks for reading, listening, and everything you do,