Alex Joffe
May 9, 2016 · 12 min read

Archaeology’s Other Publication Problem

Alex Joffe

As it happens, I have a fairly large archaeology library. I started collecting books when I was still an undergraduate in the late 1970s and by the time I got my doctorate at the University of Arizona in 1991 I had an unusually large library. Somehow I had money to spend, and when I got married, since my wife Rachel is also an archaeologist, I got us a set of excavation reports on the famous site of Megiddo as a wedding present. Then there was the complete set of Byblos reports. And Jericho.

The list goes on. As a faculty member and later I reviewed over 100 books for various scholarly journals, and put them in the library. When we moved into our current house 16 years ago the movers estimated there were four tons of books, and upon delivery, refused to carry them to the third floor office. It took me an entire summer of schlepping to get some 200 boxes up the stairs. Since then, things have only gotten worse.

Having a library was necessary. At the University of Arizona there were scads of grad students in Near Eastern archaeology and the library, a good one that had belonged to Harald Ingholt, the Danish excavator of the Syria site of Hama, was in constant use. But too many things were checked out, and phone calls to arrange exchanges were frequently necessary. Having as much as possible in my apartment in the La Mirada complex, with the wishing well and the flagpole (from which, before I moved in, a lesbian coven flew their flag), seemed like the thing to do. Other grad students envied me and borrowed my books. The strange form of courtship unique to scholars also went on. Lady grad students, including Rachel, were impressed. It all seemed worth it.

The search, the hunt, these were part of the great fun, created a collecting mentality and a completeness mentality. We marched around London to bookstores, stopped in small California towns on our honeymoon to look for bookstores, and I perused numerous specialty catalogs as soon as they arrived in the mail, Eisenbrauns, Harrassowitz, and of course from used booksellers from around the world. I made middle of the night calls to Germany to order books, wrote numerous checks, and waited for packages. The number of books that were read, much less cover to cover, was of course small.

Then there were the journals, and the back issues of journals. How many people have the better part of the Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society? Why shouldn’t I get fifty years worth of Anatolian Studies? Extra duffel bags were purchased in Turkey, where I explained to an airline agent that the overweight bags were ok, since I was a student. At the annual visits to the Israel Exploration Society offices in Jerusalem, Mordechai the clerk would look up sadly from his desk and know that he had a live one. A visit to a warehouse at Boston’s Logan Airport was necessary to collect the bag filled with the Saudi Arabian journal Atlal. A series of Saudi archaeology posters had been thrown in for free.

Vanity was part of the process, but having everything, or a good sample of everything, enhanced my research abilities. There was also a sense of full immersion, as if the environment of books would itself be transformative, communicating by some form of osmosis and thus raising me to another level of skill and insight. Hubris plays a large role in any process of collection, the implicit faith that higher realities are being created through the aggregation and arrangement of sumptuous items. Collections of paper are no different. Collecting is a search for power.

But the idea of ‘everything’ also tempted fate, and fate is often a function of irony. I left academia in 2000 and moved through the non-profit world, writing the occasional article or review, but working professionally on issues from arms control to antisemitism. Interests changed and entirely new book collections on historiography, nationalism, and the British military have filled the shelves, and stairs, and corners, of this house. Built in 1909, the house already sags under its own weight. We haven’t helped.

Still, fate, again, edged me back towards archaeology, albeit sideways, as an editor. Therein lies a conundrum. How much of my family fortune, scant as it is these days, should we devote to books? Where would we put them? And just why are they so ridiculously, absurdly, and unsustainably expensive?

Why must I spend $150 for a bound sheaf of paper on the site of Hazor? For $150 I can buy a bicycle rack for my car or 1000 rounds of 9mm ammunition, or the family’s food for a week or so. The production costs involved in creating a $150 book are admittedly high (and Hazor is picked at random, $400 for a set of volumes on the site of Lachish is even more extraordinary, and corresponds almost precisely with the amount of a weekly unemployment check I once collected). But the number of times such a volume will be consulted will be minimal, the weight it will exert on my lower back and my house’s frame will be calculable, and it will pass in and ultimately out of my possession in a matter of years or decades. Costs palpably outweigh benefits.

Occasionally begging books for review on the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age periods seems good enough now, since these are areas where I am desultorily engaged. More remarkably, at a conference a few years ago, I actually bought a book, for eighty bucks, since I needed it for a book chapter I had been asked to write. Alas, the book project folded before the chapter was finished, thwarting the chance to create yet another book.

Today, collecting and completeness also have a different character. Thanks to countless drones slaving over hot scanners, and their Google taskmasters, it is now possible to download and possess books that were once only available in research libraries. Completeness of another sort has become possible.

On my computer there is, for example, a full set of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, as well as full sets of all the Nuremberg Trials (both the red and black series). Such juxtapositions may not be common on home computers but in the era of mass storage devices it makes little difference. At the same time these books are effectively indexed and made searchable by the computer itself, making it possible to search for words like “Himmler” or “bit hilani,” or their unlikely coincidence.

Books are thrown into a virtual wood chipper and atomized into key words or strings, stripped of logic, order, and authorial intent. And curses upon those pdfs that aren’t searchable (why they’re searchable on the Google Books web site, I don’t know), because I’m so overwhelmed with files and projects that I have no time to actually read through the books themselves. But the books are all here, and they’re mine.

To be honest, digital files not even books, just strings of bits, both literal and figurative, which I mine like a telephone directory. I need mere sentences or words. In this way I have found many references to the British general I am researching (“Galloway”) as well as phrases from early 18th century British sermons like “people without a country.” This is frankly revolutionary and downright splendid. Vast amounts of territory can be searched quickly and efficiently, as if standing on a tower with a powerful searchlight. Was it ever really different? Most books are lists of stuff and a few ideas, at best. Not every book is a whole, possessed of a coherence that transforms the reader. I read Crime and Punishment on my iPhone while commuting back and forth to Manhattan. It took a few years, but it was still Dostoevsky.

But possession, too, has a different meaning. The Nuremberg Trials, to take only one example, comprise dozens of volumes stretching out over many feet. It cost me nothing to obtain an invisible copy, which, though radically different in terms of reading and using, is now my property. I own it, but ownership has been stripped of much meaning, certainly tactile satisfaction or the reassurance of display, and is elided with ‘storage.’ There is no possibly of feeling or displaying this copy, and anyway, the likelihood of actually using it for anything besides a very specific project is tiny. I’m even less likely to use the Chicago Hittite Dictionary, or any of the Loeb Classical Library volumes that I’ve downloaded. Maybe.

There is also a sad redundancy; the number of books and journals that were lovingly collected in physical form and which are now filed as downloads is nearly overwhelming, measurable in dollars and pounds (or kilos). Grails like Megiddo, or Excavations in the Plain of Antioch I (given to us by Ann Esse, widow of Rachel’s graduate advisor Doug Esse), these were downloaded in a fraction of a second. Suddenly paper became redundant, obsolete, and antique.

These books — or more properly, files — are no closer to me by virtue of being on my hard drive than they are on the Internet. Should the Internet disappear there will be bigger problems than accessing the Google Books or Project Gutenberg. So why download them at all? Ownership, possession, power, are part of the reason. But the other is a hope, that in possession it will be possible to recapture a kind of journey.

In the Olin Library at Cornell University, in the 1970s at least, one had to walk through the stacks past German history (Subclass DD) to get to the Ancient Near East (Subclass DS, especially DS 41 through 154). Out of the corner of one’s eye a title, a binding, a series would be distracting, the head would be tilted sideways and there would be a pause, followed by a standing examination of one book, then another, and then a slow sinking onto the linoleum floor, interrupted by periodic treks to the end of the shelves to turn the lights back on.

It was, as Rod Serling might have put it, a journey of space and mind. Knowledge had a specific geography, as well as density, texture and smell, through which you moved physically, on specific quests or open-ended voyages of exploration.

Discovery, free association, randomness, all these are now lost, as we drill down through data, pdfs, stored invisibly on our own hard drives or remotely. We go directly to information, rather than an experience from which we hope to extract knowledge, from the comfort of our desk chairs, or park benches, acquiring other tactile sensations (the smell of coffee, leather chairs, or industrial disinfectants, for example). There are few if any aesthetic or physical considerations, no sights of other books, no dark recesses, reaching or crouching, or rising from the floor to turn the lights back on as they click themselves off.

The intellectual costs of this transformation from dynamic exploration to static collection and data mining are vast and incalculable. All we can say is that an age of exploration is gone. Indeed, as university libraries ship more of their books off site to be ordered up as specific items, making more space for Starbucks, climbing walls and other required amenities, the physical and intellectual journey inherent in the term library is rapidly conforming to that of the computer itself.

Perhaps this is why I download copies of articles and books across all sorts of disciplines in which I work or where I have interests or hopes to learn more, from library computers and individual web sites, from and Google Books, a faint effort to recapture that spirit of exploration. I am unlikely to read many of them, and it is a colossal pain to rename the files, put them into folders, and later to find individual items for a project. They pile up and once a week or so I go on a filing binge, stopping to read bits and pieces, here and there. It is a little like putting your books on a shelf, but not really. Maybe this is all I ever did with books in the first place, in libraries or at home. After all, it’s not like I sat there on the floor for months reading the Nuremberg Trials from cover to cover.

I would be sad if my copy of the Nuremberg Trials were lost, since there is no assurance that it will still be available in the future, although it probably will be (a number of files like the Militarily Critical Technologies List, which I used when I wrote on environmental security, did indeed disappear after 9/11). Disappearance from a hard drive is less sad than loss of a paper copy of the Nuremberg Trials, since the set is both vital and informative and has become an artifact, a relic with value separate from its content. But I have at least four backups of all my files, including one on a hard drive that sits discretely, even humbly, on a high shelf, just like a book. I should be ok.

My attitude towards books — what my then teenage son once waggishly called the Internet made of paper — is irrevocably changed. Books still come into the house for work, school and pleasure but at a far slower pace. Completeness no longer means the same to me, and collecting certainly doesn’t.

A thrill is gone. A dividing line between a fine scholarly library and big data has been breeched, and it is a one-way street. And I no longer know what to do with the books we have, and as I have lurched into later middle age, I certainly don’t know what I will do with them in the future. Our cellulose-based retirement account has taken a dramatic hit in the past decade. Perhaps a library or bookseller is out there willing to make us an offer, but will it still be there in ten or twenty years when I’m ready to part ways with a thing, an entity — our library — that was once alive, growing and meaningful? Maybe I should have taken the couple of grand a bookseller offered me a few years back for the seals and sealing books. On the other hand, I’d sort of like to do more work on seals and sealings. And they’re pretty to look through.

Libraries are memory devices, and inefficient ones at that. They’re heavy, they fade, they smell when they get wet, rather like dogs, and they take over and make impossible demands (well, we imagine those demands, as a way of alleviating our guilt about having all those books around and as excuses to get more). Exercise us, provide us with companionship, keep us updated with new friends. Their spines stare out at you, lonely and still. It’s not fair, really, to hold onto books you don’t use except that, well, they’re yours, and who knows, you might need them.

Perhaps that’s the most pernicious part. Maybe books are actually like cats, complete with that virus cats carry that gets into your brain and makes you all docile and stupid. Having books that cohere into a library makes you soft and sentimental. Get more of us, they tell you, through their pernicious, subliminal ways. People probably end up with tons of books for the same reasons they end up with dozens of cats — no one wants to be alone. It wouldn’t be that way of course if each book wasn’t also a memory, a thing acquired in a particular and unique circumstance, mundane or wonderful, individual transactions, life events.

What download could possibly compare with Rachel and I finding the once famous French Jewish archaeologist Pierre Delougaz’s own copy of The Temple Oval at Khafajeh at a tiny bookseller in Bnei Brak outside of Tel Aviv, denominated in Israeli shekels, with the Israel Book Week discount? We didn’t even realize that it was Delougaz’s copy until we got home and opened the cover and saw the thin, penciled writing. What invisible file could evoke the emotions of seeing Doug Esse’s name inside a grand volume, the pride in having known him and our sense of loss, renewed?

Maybe excessive downloading is overcompensation for such memories, long filed but no longer produced, a mass that is testament, to what? Times spent in a chair, in front of a screen. The very character of memory is changed. At least when our kids were young we’d throw a ball after school, grounders, pop ups, creating real memories, properly intangible now, but shared.

Someone, was it the publisher Salman Schocken, said that a library is a person’s biography. Who wants to be cut off from themselves before their time? Who wants their biography to simply stop at a given point? My regret is having stopped collecting so widely, a withering of the library that corresponded to the withering of my archaeological career. The books look lonely. What younger people who never started collecting books will do is their problem. What will their memories be? How will they be inscribed? Maybe that’s why they get tattoos.

So perhaps the thrill isn’t completely gone, but the practical problems remain. One of these days, we’ll move, which means boxing up and getting all the stuff down the stairs (not to mention whatever happens in a new house). Also, someday, we’ll be dead, and our children will have to contend with several tons of by then nearly worthless paper. Between the first and second occurrences, however, is the problem. In the meantime, I have two books for review, and a recent reorganization has made room on some shelves that were previously afflicted with scoliosis. Anatolian Studies and Atlal are in boxes in the basement but damn me if I really gave away my copy of the apparently rare Revolt into Style, which my daughter could suddenly use for a school project.

Space is indeed the final frontier, although money counts for something too. Still, if I moved the nationalism section upstairs, then I’d have more room for British generals in the bedroom, but I’d like to get back to that project some day and it’s nice having those books around. And I really don’t know what to do with a set of Atlal. I’d sell it, but hey, you never know, you might need them.

Postscript, May 2016. Lots of things have changed since this essay was first written in 2012. The Atlals are gone. The most painful thing was carrying the box up from the basement and taping it shut.

Anatolian Studies, anyone? Excavations at Nessana? Reports on Maadi? Abu Salabikh? Just ask.

At a certain stage life becomes a long goodbye to yourself, or to who you thought you were. If only I were better at marketing.

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