The MetaLAB Drone

A white round creature with four arms and four legs, the Phantom drone II is differentiated from its cousins by the stabilized GoPro camera dangling from its belly. Its job is to help the metaLAB get their fancy aerial footage.
By Ege Yumusak

It was born with a mission. After completing its mission, worn out, it retired back to its home in the humble offices of the metaLAB, on the top floor of 42 Kirkland Street.

A white round creature with four arms and four legs, the Phantom drone II is differentiated from its cousins by the stabilized GoPro camera dangling from its belly. Its job is to help the metaLAB get their fancy aerial footage.

The Phantom drone was acquired by the metaLAB for their documentary project, “Cold Storage,” which tells the story of the cold stacks of the Harvard Depository. It’s been modified to land itself back at its point of departure–a useful feature for a robotic cameraman set loose in a collection of over ten million books.

Its owner, Cristoforo Magliozzi ’11, after graduating from Harvard as a literature concentrator, returned to campus by way of Ghana, New York City, and the White House, in order to work with professor of Romance Languages and Literature Jeffrey Schnapp on the video components of the metaLAB projects. He says what brought him back is the multitude of resources that allow for experimenting with modes of filmmaking, and with nonlinear narratives, which was once his thesis subject.

Cris found out very soon that the journey of a student’s order to the depository and the book’s retrieval was a story that couldn’t be told with a regular camera. To capture the geography of the storage, the Phantom drone was attached to the moving shelves, and to the staff’s chests, in order to capture the motion of the many minor processes that bring a book out of the depository and into a student’s hands.

The drone flew along pipes and aisles. It hung above the staff on cherry pickers as they pulled out books from rectangular boxes, where the books are sorted according to their sizes on shelves that run from the floor to the ceiling. The metallic storage and the overly mechanical workings of the process stand in stark contrast to the mahogany-marble constitution of the showcases of its sister collections across the campus. The Depository operates on the primary principle of space preservation; the contents of the book, its writer, and even the date of publication become irrelevant details.

The Harvard Depository appears like a xylophone amidst trees. The black and white shots recorded by the Phantom drone reveal the modular architecture of the storage. It was built in sections, as the collection kept growing and growing. Magliozzi says that Harvard is coming to terms with the fact that they cannot be the collectors of everything. Today new books acquired by the library cannot find a home in circulation, and are directly shipped to the Depository.

Cris lists Alain Resnais’s 1956 film Toute la mémoire du monde, and, especially, the conception of the library as a cathedral, as points of reference and allusion that inspired him. The grandeur of the Depository seems to match that of a Gothic cathedral in scale, but the books rise independently in a sky that doesn’t claim to reach for the heavens.

This is a remarkably different approach than the one employed by a 1993 documentary of the Depository, produced by Harvard, which was scripted around the service that the Depository provides to the intellectual community. Come 2014, the service aspect has become less interesting than the narratives and stories that a cold storage system holds inside its walls. It’s clear that despite the digitization of books, metal still decays, and hard-drives are not going to replace the Depository in the near future.

“Cold Storage,” now in the post-production phase, will run less than half an hour, and will be available with an online interface component. Last spring Schnapp taught the first Humanities Studio course under the same name, which created material for the documentary. Some videos generated by the students in the class are integrated into the online interface component of the film. The viewers will be able to enter the 3D space of the Depository, click on different items to explore the virtual space, and hear the diegetic noise of the Depository.

The experience of accessing material by wandering around in the storage will thus recreate the experience of actually being there. This kind of engagement with a work of art–in this case a documentary–and the relationship between the viewer and the work is one of the realms that the metaLAB investigates with their projects.

The metaLAB doesn’t get much attention from the Harvard student body unless they fly a drone over the Harvard stadium. But very soon, with the opening of the Fogg Museum, another project that they’ve developed, The Lighbox, will be on view. The Lighbox, which will be located on the top floor of the Museum, will house all the artwork that is currently on view in a digital form. The visitors will be able to collect works on their tray, and send them up to an LCD screen array, or to the several drop-down screens in the room. By manipulating the sizes, colors, and the orientations of the artworks, The Lighbox will give the visitors a chance to interact with the works to make connections between them.

Technology and humanities seem to inhabit different plots on the Harvard Campus, even though nobody will refute the opportunities that leveraging technology to study the humanities will unlock. But the metaLAB is one of the few places that will get a drone to fly over the Arnold Arboretum or the Harvard Depository, or create an online animated online using crowdsourcing (“Curarium”). The metaLAB continues to experiment with new forms of scholarship.

On CampusLibrariesTechnologyConversations