Saturday, August 16, 2014

This is not preservation. That is not preservation.

I occasionally follow events I’m not attending by tracking their hashtag on twitter. I’m deeply grateful for people who actively and insightfully tweet what is going on in front of them. This helps clue me in on the topics of discussion. It is interesting when several tweeters grab ahold of one particular phrase or idea.

Following the events of the Library of Congress’ Digital Preservation 2014 earlier this year one such retweeted phrase was “Storage is not preservation.”

Following the recent Society of American Archivists meeting this week one phrase which I took note of related to web archiving was “Capture is not preservation.”

Implied in these two “not-preservation” statements are that their subjects, Storage and Capture are not in and of themselves preservation. Preservation is more than just storage and capture. They are wonderfully tweetable phrases – coming easily under 140 characters and have that sense of glib truth, but defining what something isn’t, leaves me wanting. It leaves me wanting for positive assertions about preservation.

This may come as a bit of a surprise given the name of this blog, and given what I like to write about, but I want to know what preservation IS, not what it is not. This question of what is preservation was part of my motivation for the 5 Days ofPreservation event as it helped answer the question what does preservation look like, but they didn’t really get to the question of what do these acts of preservation accomplish. I think I was also trying to get at this question in my Portraits in Preservation project with my bonus question “What do you preserve and why?”

I don’t really think there is one conclusive definition to what preservation is. I expect there are many models or theories of preservation and that’s probably as it should be. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Reading Re-Collection

Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito, MIT Press, 2014.

I have realized, over time that the topic I am most interested in is preservation. This might seem an odd realization given the declarative name of this blog, and all the preservation related posts I've written. What I mean is that I am interested in the idea of preservation. My interests are less in the particulars of digital preservation or analog preservation or lighthouse preservation than in the very concept of preserving. It helps me to feed this interest when I encounter ideas of preservation that are beyond the realm of typical library talk. This is all an unnecessarily long-winded preface to me saying I stretched my mind and read this book about preserving art and stuff.

I don't typically read books about art, but mention of this volume on my twitter feed caught my eye, and a little research increased by interest. The table of contents listed three chapters with "death" in the title which is a good way to capture my attention. (After researching the book on Amazon I ordered it through my local independent bookstore.)

I found the book very engaging, accessible, insightful, and enjoyable. I really like what the authors did, or attempted to do, and appreciate their endeavors to broaden the conversation about preservation. I also found the book to be occasionally frustrating and I argued with it a lot. (The fact that I found it occasionally frustrating, but eagerly read on to the end is in fact a strong affirmation. I can easily drop a book mid-read if it annoys me.)

On its most up-front level, this book is about preserving new media, particularly digital media art. How do you preserve art that was created using computer technology that is now nearly obsolete? These new creations do pose significant technical challenges, but the technical challenges of digital preservation are not the real heart of this book. The heart of this book is really an exploration of new (or not so new) ways of conceptualizing what preservation might look like. I think the authors do an admirable job of stretching traditional understandings of both how to preserve and what we are preserving.

One of my frustrations with this book is the author's use of caricatures to argue their points, and caricatures make for weak arguments. The authors liked to contrast traditional, institution-bound, conservators, with libertarian, free-wheeling, amateurs. Using their language: "The amateur has no white gloves, [the authors HATE white gloves] lab, or a cadre of assistants" but these amazing amateurs are "acned kids on laptops in bedrooms." Even their portrayal of analog media as compared to digital media relies too heavily on glib characterizations. Some might find this makes the reading more amusing. I didn't. But this is tempered, because in other places in the book, the authors demonstrated much more nuanced understandings of roles and media.

One of my challenges/learning points with reading this book is it comes out of the art context which places a great deal of emphasis on an artifact's creator and the creator's intent.  Galleries - and archives - tend to be much more concerned about facilitating "appropriate" interpretations by providing "context" than is the library world’s tradition. I tend toward the idea that the creator/writer is part of the community of interpreters and not necessarily possessing a more privileged understanding. Having such a high view of the creator, however, will naturally shape how one approaches preservation.

There is so much stuff in this book - my copy has notes written in it all over the place - that it is hard to write a response. This book really has a lot of engaging points and ideas. It's the kind of book I would be glad to do as a chapter by chapter study in a group. [Perhaps I should learn from the archives reading group and organize such a group for this book.]

A little aside about the presence of death in this book – as it is a bit of a hobby topic of mine. As I mentioned above, the word death appearing in chapter titles caught my interest, but upon reading I quickly realized they were regarding death as a bad thing. But then they threw me a curve ball and in the chapter “Unreliable Archivists” had an engaging and nuanced discussion of death, including K├╝bler-Ross’s stages of grief. The book is also dedicated “To everyone that’d dead.”

I think the key take away from this book is the things we want to preserve – whether new media art, or old-fashioned books – are variable, and preserving them requires solutions that are equally variable. Both their "object" as performance and their ecological models are valuable additions to the conversation.

I conclude reiterating that as much as I argued with and complained about this book, it is a really valuable read and the most engaging thing I've read in a while.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Reflecting on 5 Days of Preservation

Last week was a blast!

Last week many of my colleagues in libraries, archives, museums, commercial firms, and otherwise joined me in #5DaysOfPreservation. Over five days we shared over 300 pictures of what preservation looked like for us at that time wherever we were.
Emily Shaw of University of Iowa and hours or digitized film
A couple things came together to spawn the idea for this project. I had recently read “The Preservation Management Handbook” and came away with two thoughts: preservation in the 21st century is vast, and the first part of this book needed more pictures. I had also just read a book – on my phone – on visual storytelling. With those two books rolling around in my head, the idea for #5DaysOfPreservation was formed.

The idea was that I would invite colleagues (and by invite I mean post on my various social media accounts) to share pictures each workday of a week of what preservation looked like for them that day. I thought that sharing several pictures would help communicate something about our work that text doesn’t capture, plus I wanted to make the barrier to involvement as low as possible, and taking pictures and sharing them on social media is about as low a barrier as it gets.

Okay, now here’s where things were a little uncertain for me. I bear very little authority or influence in the larger preservation world.  I’ve got some blog readers and some twitter followers but I was a bit concerned about throwing a party and nobody coming.  (I was pretty sure Suzy Morgan was going to show up.) Happily, I started to see some others enthusiastically share about this event. In the end, the response was far greater than I had imagined.

So a whole bunch of people shared a whole bunch of pictures – and what did we learn?

I think we learned that there’s a lot of creativity out there, and I think the informality of sharing pics on social media allowed for a little more playfulness than other types of communication.

The scope of what we are preserving and who is doing the preserving is indeed vast.  We saw pics from UK, US, Canada (maybe more), from major universities, county libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, commercial vendors, television and radio archives.

Internet Archive's PetaBoxes
submitted by Jefferson Bailey
They types of materials preserved were also vast. There were what was to me a surprisingly large number of pictures of audio visual preservation activities.  There were many digital preservation related pics, as well as artifacts – both in libraries and museums. There were web archiving pics – with examples from both the UK parliament and the US Senate. We saw examples of extraordinary and exceptional items and activities, as well as the most common of materials and tasks.  There were even a few microfilm pics – one was mine.

There were several disaster/water related pics including a supply closet in preparation for a disaster, and drying books. There were a few pics of mysterious, and not so mysterious unpleasant soiling and staining of items.

One thing I noticed as the week was moving along is the presence of lots of screen shots and close ups of items, but not a lot of pictures with people. I was as guilty as others of not including the people who preserve in my pics. I issued a request on Thursday for people to post more people pics and they did.

I think one of the achievements of this project was the chance to see colleagues dealing with the same challenges and doing some of the same things we are doing.  It was a chance to hold up a mirror to our larger collective self. I think it was both reassuring, and energizing. And while the pictures often didn't have people in them, they were all crafted and shared by people, so I’d like to think it was a bit of a community building exercise.

I would be really curious to hear from others about what struck you as you viewed the pictures of this project. What struck you? What surprised you? Did it change your perception of preservation? The preservation departments of Duke University Library and Iowa State Library ended the week with blog posts in the 1091 Project series one their involvement.

So what’s next?  I’ll go back to writing goofy long blog posts, without enough pictures.  Perhaps we’ll do it again next year.