It’s Items All the Way Down

Recursion, ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓, CC-BY-SA

Often folks in the world of Libraries, Archives and Museums are asked to give an account of how many items you have. At which point the person asked must come up with a way of taking account. It’s good to take account. Decisions about what constitutes an item and what constitutes a collection or a series of items is often presented as if it was a simple matter of fact when it’s actually based on a set of decisions in a given context.

The point being, items don’t exist as much as they are made by applying a set of judgement calls on things that exist. Item-ness isn’t innate as much at is the result of a process of making the world legible.

Item’s are made when we make judgement calls about the relative importance of these features:

  1. Physical distinct-ness (The item represents a physical whole, a discrete physical or digital object)
  2. Authorship/Creatorship (The item represents an intellectual whole, it comes from a particular author or creator or process)
  3. (Are there other things you would add?)

Items and their item parts: 

  • A book is an item, it is also a collection of pages which are themselves items, it might contain chapters, potentially written by different authors, each of those is an item, each of the figures printed in the book are items.
  • An archive is an item, each folder in an archive is an item, the individual letters in that folder are an item, the five letters that someone stapled together that are in that folder are an item too.
  • A videotape is an item, each of the individual recordings on that tape are items.
  • A web archive is an item, each URL in the web archive is an item, each file in the web archive is an item, each directory is a kind of item.
  • A newspaper is an item, the articles in the newspaper are items, a years worth of newspapers bound together are an item.
  • 24 hours of radio or television broadcast is an item, all of the individual shows are also items, each commercial is an item, each distinct block of air time with it’s individual commercials is an item.
  • A computer is an item, each of it’s hard-drives are items, the directories on the hard drive are items, the files in those directories are items, the sectors of the disk are items


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