Containers may be used to store information—their structures bundle together our data in discrete, lightweight, and economical units. We know that physical containers like paper Hollinger boxes fill the shelves of our libraries and archives, but digital containers used by these institutions remain far less historicized. Containers are a type of logistical media (a term coined by John Durham Peters), which help us organize and orient, and to arrange people and property. In Kyle Bickoff’s presentation, he will present a history of digital storage containers—he begins with an early programmable storage medium: the punch card, following the unit’s acceleration as it is wrapped around cylindrical punch card drums to expedite the work of a human key punch operator. He then turns to the spinning surfaces of magnetic media, such as hard drives, which map new topologies onto their surfaces to arrange information efficiently and to lower latency. His argument circles to containers used in digital preservation, including the Library of Congress BagIt file structure and the open-source Matroska Multimedia Container. Finally, he addresses containers at scale, like Docker, used in the logistical movement and storage of information. In tracing this history, Kyle Bickoff follows the acceleration of containers in information systems and their role as logistical media technologies, speculating on the enduring legacy of containers in libraries and archives, and across our 21st century globally distributed networks of information communication and storage.
Kyle Bickoff is a PhD Candidate in English and the 2019 Winnemore Dissertation Fellow at MITH. His research sits at the intersection of critical information studies, the history of technology, and media studies. His dissertation follows the 20th century’s tendency toward containerization, focusing on historical storage practices at libraries, museums, and archives to track how storage containers organize information and shape our knowledge systems.