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Bookmarkography: How Things Fall Apart

As a self-diagnosed typomaniac, I possess an affliction most graphic designers identify with: I am addicted to type. This affliction started at a young age as compulsive reading of children’s books, later it moved into compulsive collecting. I’ve amassed comic books, magazines, journals, and literature over the years, just to name a few. Later I would digitize some news articles and even blog writings as PDFs because who knows when those items will disappear from the net. It’s all been quite manageable until I started collecting bookmarks, and that’s when things went awry.

Having grown up with television, I was accustomed to watching something until it was finished. I assumed that as long as the book was there I should read it to the end. The idea of setting the book aside uncompleted just didn’t occur to me. This somewhat obsessive approach to reading manifested itself again during the summer after third grade.

When I read about Chris Van Allsburg, who wrote The Polar Express, admitting his own obsessive reading habits in these excerpts from his 1986 Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, I was relieved to find a like mind. Van Allsburg continues:

As years have passed, my taste in literature has changed. I do, however, still have obsessive reading habits. I pore over every word on the cereal box at breakfast, often more than once. You can ask me anything about shredded wheat. I also spend more time in the bathroom than necessary, determined to keep up with my New Yorker subscription.

Not everyone has this level of dedication, but I identified with Van Allsburg’s bathroom habit since that is one of the only places I can escape for a moment of silence to read. Before you jump at me with bathroom humor, understand that I have a one-year-old son who requires full-time attention. When I want to read it has to happen behind closed doors or after 8 p.m. when he’s asleep. I work hard to prevent these titles from piling up by reading them the moment I get them or soon thereafter at breakfast, lunch, dinner, or late nights. Not only do I digest the magazines, but I also read my students’ writing assignments, plus any academic books to help me prepare lectures, and finally a novel here or there. Print is the most tangible typographic experience I can have. I consume every single page: advertisements, headlines, mastheads, articles, indexes, contents, and folios. Once I get past typographic adoration and consumption, I will use a combination of fast-reading techniques by scanning, key word spotting, or skimming. After I browse through an article I will decide if it’s worth going back to critically read. After reading them, I will file them away in my archive.

I’ve tracked this habit back to my adolescence when I collected comic books, only now I collect nearly anything. Around 1999, I began to do this digitally by finding the articles I wanted to keep at the magazine’s website and then generating PDFs or full html copies (I have nearly 300mb of data stored and won’t run out of space anytime soon with 111.9GB left on my hard disk). While I would do this with articles only found online, I began to archive some of my print articles by tracking them down and making PDFs. From an archiving standpoint, this digital library saves me space, and when I acquired my Palm Pilot in 2002 it allowed me portability. I could place these documents on it and read on the go with a portable pull file. The entire process seems eerily similar to ripping audio CDs and then placing them in an iPod.

With mobile phones, PDAs, and Blackberry devices, portability reigns supreme, but it is an unusual way to consume information because of the tiny display sizes. I’ve grown tired of the dim screen and small type size with reading on my Palm, and when I was introduced to del.icio.us I felt a sigh of relief. When I’m on the run shuffling between my studio, office, or classroom, del.icio.us lets me save articles so I can access them from any computer on the campus where I teach. Not only can I save them, but I can also see if other users have saved related material, and also measure how popular they are. I use neither the networking nor popularity feature, but I do save the articles and then read most of them. I say most because at 753 bookmarks and counting, I can’t recall which I’ve read and which I’ve just saved for the sake of saving. Surely, people out there must have ten times my count from all the ‘research’ they do in order to be the water-cooler-know-it-all. A former manager of mine was renowned for getting his morning coffee in our office kitchen, eavesdropping on what we talked about, and then returning over lunch to have ‘found out more on the net.’ He probably has nearly 7,490 items in del.icio.us from all he studied up on.

Today, it’s not enough that I get piles of magazines in the mail along with all of my other print media, will then proceed to save them via del.iocio.us, but I also contend with links I get via email, the television, or magazines themselves. Content gets pushed at me daily. Some of it looks ‘interesting’, so I save it. God, I hate that word, interesting. It’s so loose and vague, but when I find something that peaks my interest and looks ‘interesting’, I’ll tag it in del.icio.us, as if ‘he with the most links wins.’ Typically, one worries about space when collecting volumes of books, but that’s not the case with stored URLs because they have a small footprint: they point to content elsewhere. This handy del.icio.us tool has become hard to handle. Now the problem is I don’t need to worry about storage, so I may as well collect all the links I can. The number of links grows daily, making it truly impossible to remember what I have and why I saved it. If I had 700 volumes of books and/or magazines, I would have a library, but with del.icio.us I have information anxiety.

An argument could be made that del.icio.us represents a virtual space with no metaphoric connection to the shelving and filing system in my office. It’s not visually associative the way that color, position, and categorization help me find books on shelves or in filing cabinets. Nor does it have any connection to the folder, icon, and viewing metaphors that my Apple Finder delivers. It’s all text. Goddamn this Web 2.0 business. I want my taxonomy back, to hell with this folksonomy bologna. Great, a folksonomy innovation like del.icio.us is great for sharing links amongst users, but why do my actions now mimic that of web browsers themselves?

I have been archiving the archive to the point of losing focus. I bet this is what Gordon Bell feels like. As a 72-year-old computer scientist with Microsoft, Gordon records everything. Everything. MyLifeBits is an experiment in lifetime storage. Everything he comes in contact with goes onto a hard disc. Creating massive storage archives in your hard disc or tagging bookmarks endlessly through del.icio.us may cut down on the amount of space you need and allow you to save items for later. But it’s more like save them for never. Is this the future?

My compulsion to read print from start to finish has not changed, and I could care less about archiving everything, and I especially don’t care about some of my bookmarks. Honestly, when will I take time out of my day to learn about paper making techniques? So there’s a blogger who wrote about the gentle art of saying no, will I really use that at the office? Bookmarking has gotten out of hand because I don’t always read the articles completely, moreover, I have created too much to read and keep track of. Unlike my office library, I don’t have to worry about running out of space with del.icio.us. In the end, I feel like it all comes down to crap. Like junk television and junk foods, there are junk bookmarks in my collection. My physical, digital, and virtual library has become unmanageable during a time when I feel like less is certainly more.

Suggested reading from my archive:
Living the Simple Life by Elaine St. James: scale back to enjoy more
Technopoly by Neil Postman: how technology allows for more doing and undoing
Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte: debunking all of the digital hype
Future Shock by Alvin Toffler: forecasted the technology tsunami overloading us

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PUBLISHED ON May.04.2007 BY Jason A. Tselentis
Christina W’s comment is:

ME TOO!! I once had to re-type an entire manual for a product used to remove odor from pig manure (this was before OCR) and I'm sorry to admit I didn't mind because I started to find the material interesting. And, though I loathe watching sports on TV, I will read Sports Illustrated cover to cover.

I haven't started using del.icio.us yet though.... actually, I kind of lost interest halfway down the article, into the del.icio.us stuff, but I had to finish anyway :) And what's worse, with less time to read these days, I'm starting to get a build-up of books that I own but have not yet read... that used to be simply non-existent. God, I must be getting old...

On May.04.2007 at 01:31 PM
Jason A. Tselentis’s comment is:

Since you bring up age, Christina, I wonder if you can share your own comment relative to Van Allsburg's statement about reading from start to finish. Did your commitment start like his: with television? Or is it something else? You strike me as somewhat of a polymath. Why else would you find reading about pig manure cleaning products interesting?

On May.04.2007 at 01:50 PM
Michelle French’s comment is:

I am also compulsive about reading. I am not sure it began with television, as I can wander away from the TV mid-program to do something else.

I will avoid starting a big novel unless it is a holiday, due to my tendency to keep going once I start. I even finished reading a novel I didn't care for recently, because I had started it.

Don't we all amass "odd lots" of knowledge based on the range of clients we have? I've learned massive amounts about cancer, conveyor belts, consulting services, cellular service, carpets, etc. And those are just a few from the category "C."

As for simplifying life, check out (former graphic designer) Bill Jensen's books.

I have to admit that I prefer being surrounded by actual books that I can absorb at leisure. It's almost like building a fort to protect from ignorance.

On May.04.2007 at 03:25 PM
Armin’s comment is:

I still have, in this browser that I'm writing in, bookmarks from 1999 when I first moved to the U.S. (Here is a screen grab of such nonsense). This means that I have bookmarks from Internet Explorer 5.x I made at the office (since I didn't have a computer until later) that I then moved to my home computer that I then moved to my job in Chicago that I then moved to my laptop at home a good four years later that I still have today.

Going through that list every now and then is quite revealing. I have bookmarks for Surfstation, threeoh and Jennifer Sterling (her domain has expired apparently). This tells me about what I was interested in and what I found bookmarkworthy. I also enjoy going through the list and seeing what has changed and what has stayed the same.

In the past two years I have only added a dozen or so bookmarks. Probably as an exercise in avoiding behind-the-scenes clutter that I know I will access only a few times a year. And now with google, it's pretty easy to go back to something I vaguely remember. And sometimes that leads me to better things. One tool that I will begin toying with, that my dad turned me on to, and that you might like Jason (and others), is Notebook to see if I can snipe, organize and track with a mission.

On May.05.2007 at 10:13 AM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

I used to be extremely linear in my reading habits: not allowing myself to start one book until I'd finished the previous. This often caused reading blockages, however, as difficult or boring books would clog the flow of information. So I relaxed that law, and now half-read books and magazines proliferate. (Though I still make myself read magazines from front cover to back — it helps me to keep track of whether I've read them at all. The cartoon contest in the NY'r is my clue as to whether I've finished an issue, and often a clue as to whether I've finished or missed a previous issue.)

it's more like save them for never

I subscribed to Harper's Magazine for over 10 years (but stopped nearly 10 years ago), and I've kept all of the issues. My memory is so poor, I know I could spend a few years and read them all again and it would be as though for the first time, with only a fleeting sense of deja vu.

But I have recently been experiencing information overload to such an extent that I think my new motto is "ignore and divest." I'm completely freaked out by all the accessible mental material there is out there, with hundreds of years worth of great stuff I still haven't read being built upon and buried by new things every day and every second.

And I've started giving away books. Not reference books, but novels and books which I just know I won't return to. Soon my piles of unread books will outnumber the read books. With the exception of design books I've also put a moratorium on buying books. I am determined to start using the library.

I no longer seem to have time to read even 100th as much as I would like or even should. Let alone follow links or —goddamn!— keep track of the damned things. Well, having said that, I do; I do keep links, but the management of them is unsatisfactory to the point of being useless. Yes, I sometimes think of something relevant I saw on the web somewhere — some article or resource — and sometimes I can find it in my links, but more often I can't and resort to Google, which seems to have just about as much chance of finding things based on my snippets of memory.

With libraries and Google, why should I catalogue and archive? I share this love of the printed word, and I am very drawn to owning printed material, but I have to resist. I have better things to do than catalogue my clutter.

On May.05.2007 at 12:38 PM
Ricardo Cordoba’s comment is:

Wow. And I thought I was the only one who has piles of unread books and magazines lying about... I see that I am in good company. Living in New York forces me to throw stuff out every now and then, and I recently sold a bunch of books that I knew I would not get around to reading anytime soon -- besides, I can borrow them from the library. One thing I always ask myself when saving something is, yes, it's good/interesting/etc., but WHEN will I ever have time to re-read this? WHY am I saving it, then? Sometimes I save it anyway... It's a losing battle, I guess.

On May.06.2007 at 12:15 AM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

Marian, on this cataloging, I envy your self control; I cannot resist. With absolute sincerity, I wonder if it is really some form of neurosis which may or may not be

I log all of my books using Delicious Library so I can identify what's at home, what's at the studio, what's at school (no longer after this week), and what I've loaned to friends. This latter part is probably the most handy, as it also enters the data in iCal and reminds me to remind friends to return books.

I've found the Flock browser to be a friendly bookmarking tool as it unobtrusively allows me to add a link to del.icio.us with multiple tags and never leave the current page. I have made a rule of only bookmarking things I've "reasonably explored." That's the pair of words I repeat in my head before I click "star this page." Like Armin, I assume I can always find something similar or better later with a quick search.

My apologies for the technocentricity of this. It is sad and is not intended.

On May.06.2007 at 01:33 AM
Christina W’s comment is:

Since you bring up age, Christina, I wonder if you can share your own comment relative to Van Allsburg's statement about reading from start to finish. Did your commitment start like his: with television? Or is it something else? You strike me as somewhat of a polymath. Why else would you find reading about pig manure cleaning products interesting?

Jason - I'm only 27, not in Van Allsburg's generation (though I love his work), I just feel it's one of those signs of aging that I can't devour reading material like I used to... or remember it all afterwards for that matter! I can relate to every part of his comment except the TV - I seldom watched TV when I was a kid, I was usually reading a book (you know, one of those weird kids). And, I'm not sure where the compulsion to finish a particular book came from, but I think I'm more likely to be critical these days and judge an author in the first chapter or two, rather than trying to absorb the whole thing in case there was something useful at the end. Now my reading habits are moving more in the direction of Marian's.

The pig manure stuff was similar to Michelle's odd bits of knowledge - it covered the whole aerobic vs anaerobic microbial breakdown cycle - kind of an environmental management thing, I guess. The polymath description is probably fairly accurate but I would think that applied to a lot of graphic designers.

Delicious Library... is one of those things that looks so useful I'm scared to try it ;)

On May.06.2007 at 01:40 PM
Su’s comment is:

I'm a little disturbed that people actually feel Google is a replacement for a working library.

With some rearranging, I could produce multiple shelves of books I have no intention of reading. I have them because other things I do plan to read will at some point make me go look at them to understand something. No, I'm not only talking about technical documents. And no, I'm not going to wait until the next day to (hopefully) check the copy at the library(Don't even get me started on Chicago's libraries, for that matter.)
The British Museum is Falling Down will stand an isolated reading just fine, but to really understand everything that goes on requires—yes, requires—access to at least ten other books, because there are as many extended scenes each riffing on some other writer's specific book or style. Possessing these "extended-family" books isn't an absolute; I'm disinterested enough in many of them to be satisfied with just a lookup at most. But Ulysses, for one, turned up so much in my reading over the years that I broke down and just bought a damn copy.

The same general concepts apply to bookmarks, with further complicating wrinkles. Search engines don't get everything, and are limited to what's published on-line and publicly before even that. Documents disappear; it's often useful to know where something was in order to find it again. Sometimes the older location's content is not identical to the new one. The list goes on.

It seems to me that at some point, the idea of a person's library went from being a tool to an accomplishment, the difference being something like buying a copy of Hamlet so you can say you've read Hamlet versus just grabbing a Shakespeare omnibus for ten bucks from the used book store and having done with it.

[Note all of this ignores the purely casual reader, which I don't think we're discussing anyway, and the person absolutely uninterested in Shakespeare but truly had a need for just Hamlet.]

On May.06.2007 at 09:05 PM
g’s comment is:

Hi, just read your comment in Design Observer and came here TO READ MORE :P

I just read your post, and ALL the comments, I also read all the comments in Design Observer, even Julio Cortazar's tale (love him by the way).

When I was younger I read A LOT, I devoured magazine after magazine after magazine, and that was every month. Once I finished reading all the magazines and still needed to read something, so I bought "Insólito", which can be translated like a cheap mag, full of things like Ripley's Believe it or Not (but bad taste)...

I think I'm a little OCD about reading and wanting to know it all, as if I needed to read to live!

I can't live without reading. I can live without internet, but not reading. A few weeks ago I had no internet = nothing to read online, so I went to a cybercafe and downloaded lots of articles :$

lots :$

On May.07.2007 at 03:47 AM
Just Mohit’s comment is:

I was brought up in a small town which started receiving television only when i was about 13-14 years old. So, sports & books were the only sources of entertainment that I had. I am a compulsive reader to this date. Although I do agree that once you start reading on the net, the ADD seems to increase by factors of 10 or more.

I have had to wean myself away from del.ici.ous, although I do send myself emails with up to 20 links at a time! I have had to set myself rules like, "if not read within 2 months, delete mail". I wish I could do that to my books though. They seem to take up all the space in the house. Sometimes i think my books do unspeakable things at night with each other, and multiply on their own...I certainly don't remember buying/borrowing THAT many...errr wait, i do actually! :(

On May.09.2007 at 06:20 AM