The following short story is excerpted from The Sovereignties of Invention by Matthew Battles. Battles will be appearing at McNally-Jackson Books in New York City on August 16th, interviewed by Rhizome editor Joanne McNeil.
BEFORE THE TURN of the millennium when the Web was new, I worked in the bowels of Harvard’s Widener Library. There was as yet no Twitter, no Facebook, no YouTube; blogs and wikis were the glamorous spells of a whispering cognoscenti. But a web there was—enough of one to encourage the library to send many books off to storage in dark, refrigerated warehouses, never to be read again. This was my work in the Widener deeps. I was one of Bradbury’s firemen, almost—though instead of heat and flame, we used the cool buzz of networked catalogs to put the books out of reach.
Among the duties with which I had been charged was clearing out the “X-cage.” I wish I had made up this name; I wish I had made it up and then discarded it in embarrassment—alas, the X-cage was real. It was the repository of books, sheaves of paper, and artifacts in odd sizes and formats, of paper too fragile or content too salacious for the open stacks. Some of these I sent away to be stored elsewhere, while others I tried to place in more suitable libraries or museums. And some, frankly, I didn’t know what to do with. My fascination with one such item has lingered through the years. Although it never was listed in the online system, I found it recorded in the card catalog while it still could be browsed in the library’s attic. The card reads as follows:
Benjamin, Walter. Übersetzung Maschine. 1946. Gift of le bibliothèque Orléans, Fr.
The device was ...