Semantic Capital and Magazine Archives

Luciano Floridi, an Italian Professor at Oxford, is one of the leading philosophers of information. He is also interested in libraries and archives and has recently proposed a valuable use for the concept of “semantic capital” in relation to archives. His explanation was given as a lecture to the National Archives at Kew, and is available from their site.

I propose to summarise and simplify his explanation of “semantic capital” and apply it to the topic of digital magazine archives (very close to our heart at Exact Editions). For our purposes semantic capital is:

  • a stock of content growing and extended through time (a sequence of magazine issues published on paper monthly and held in library stacks would be a perfect example)
Chicago stacks By Ndshankar
  • the stock of content is held in a stable form where it can be subjected to new readings and new interpretations (a contemporary digital database of a magazine issue by issue, with new issues appearing as they are published, for example)
Art Monthly archive (early years)
  • the content should be held in a canonical form so that new readings or interpretations can be compared with previous readings (so it is rather important that the content should be complete and searchable. It would be inconvenient if the digital archive was different in different institutions. Leaving out the advertisements or the illustrations from a magazine archive will not do)
Advertisements in the magazine Dazed are semantic capital
  • finally the semantic capital, is truly “capital” to the extent that this stock of preserved stuff can be used for new and unexpected applications. The capital can appreciate in value or depreciate, through damage or obscurity. It can be hoped that the capital will grow and so creates more cultural value.

From our point of view it is this last point that is key. In a digital culture, usable semantic capital needs to be searchable, cite-able, re-uasable, and share-able. Our print culture survives but it is vulnerable and needs to be transformed into reliable digital resources. Magazine archives in fact exist in great profusion, they are usually to be found as bound volumes in the offices of the publisher, or sometimes in boxes ‘off site’. They are also found as print issues held in institutional libraries — but in this form they are almost useless to contemporary students or researchers who increasingly depend on digital access to library resources. The point is that in a digital culture, cultural resources and assets now need to be digital if they are to be truly useful. Cultural capital is simply much more valuable if it is digital. I am not sure that we have yet recognised — magazine publishers especially — how much long term value can be created by moving content to a digital archive. Magazines archived and digitised in an appropriate and intelligent way will become much more valuable than the print-only source, and this is where the third point is also vital. The digital version really should be canonical so that very little will have been lost in the transfer from paper to digital memory. This is a very important and urgent point because the magazines that are digitised and databased whilst they are still published in print form are much more likely to survive and to be used in our growing digital culture.

Print archives from magazines that have ceased publication or which have morphed into websites or where the ownership and provenance of content is unknown will very likely be lost. Archiving magazines is a way of preserving their value — not only for the long term, but now for the present, for the readers and the libraries who will be able to use and enjoy semantic capital that we have to an extent been ignoring whilst it is held only in paper formats. In a digital culture, semantic capital is of great potential value, for this reason we should be optimistic about the potential for digital culture, but it is also much more fragile so we should be careful not to neglect it. As Floridi points out ‘if semantic capital is not used productively it depreciates’.

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