Friday, November 16, 2012

First Event of the Michigan Collections Network

While I don't really like to create blog posts that are little more than a link to some other blog's post, that is pretty much what this is. This past week the Michigan Collections Network held their first event - and quite a success at that. It was an afternoon dedicated to grant funding for preservation and digitization. Some of the things that pleased me about the event was that we could offer it at no cost, the event brought in people from libraries, archives, and museums, and the attendees could hear stories from their colleagues about the steps they went through to write and carryout various kinds of grant funded projects. Without really saying much more than that, you can read more about it on the Michigan Collections Network blog where you can also see pictures of the event, and slides of some of the presenters.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Conservator Takes on Digital Preservation

Below are slides and script for my talk given last evening at the Wayne State University NDSA Student Organization event Converge and Ingest: Teaching Digital Preservation. It was a wonderful event - I'll write more in another post.

Conservator takes on Digital Preservation from Kevin Driedger

A conservator takes on digital preservation
Thanks to the Wayne State NDSA student chapter for hosting this event, and thanks to them for humoring me and letting is old guy on the stage to talk about books and such.

As all opinions and ideas are embedded within and shaped by our personal narrative, I’ll provide a brief introduction to my personal professional story and my foray into digital preservation coming from the world of traditional analog (book) conservation. And then I’ll step back and offer some observations, and opinions, about the relationship between these two worlds of preservation. (A brief caveat on language – I’ll only be referring to libraries but that is only of convenience, and I’ll use conservation and preservation pretty much interchangeably.)

SLIDE About Me
About me – First, I am a librarian. This may seem an odd way to initially identify myself in such a surrounding, but I think this professional and institutional context which gives my identity as a librarian is very important, and I’ll talk more about institutional context in a bit. I work at the Library of Michigan, Michigan’s state library.

I’m also a conservator – I am trained in the craft of book and paper repair and conservation. I’ve been doing book repair and binding for more than 15 years and been the conservator at the Library of Michigan for around 7 years (although it is only part of my responsibilities.)

SLIDE More About Me
I am also a cataloger/metadater– and this responsibility probably plays a bigger role for my foray into digital preservation. The Library’s legal mandate is to collect and preserve state government publications so I primarily catalog electronic state government documents which we then harvest and ingest into our digital preservation system. And for the record – LM uses OCLC’s Digital Archive as our preservation system (for now.)

And, finally, I am a digitizer.  I manage the library’s digitization program supervising a handful of students as we create digital surrogates of our print objects. We are late to the digitization show only really beginning to develop our in-house capability last year.

SLIDE Preservation/Conservation/Curation
A bit about preservation writ large.

A fundamental responsibility of collecting institutions is to preserve and continue to make available the collections they have acquired. We do this indefinitely, or at least till they are no longer deemed of value to the collection. This principle pays no regard to the format of the collections.

To act upon that principle our institutions and professions have history of developing administrative and technical practices to preserve collections of various media.
And the introduction of digital material to our collections and our concomitant desire to preserve this material is just a matter of coming up with a new set of administrative and technical practices for a new medium. Or is it?

Libraries have been preserving analog collections – primarily print – for thousands of years and we’ve developed a set of understandings and practices to reasonably adequately preserve print collections. So when I look at the larger preservation world today I am struck by a couple things – there doesn’t seem to be a lot of conversation between the book conservation community and the digital preservation community. And the other thing that strikes me is – libraries have been conserving print collections for a long time and surely the lessons learned from that has something to say to digital preservation. And then in return, what might the lessons of digital preservation have to say to the world of analog conservation.

So I want to begin exploring some of those thoughts with you this evening.

I want to talk about some of the values that shape conservation work. These values revolve around the ideas of Authenticity and Reversibility and Documentation.

The picture on this slide is of me mending a torn page with a piece of Kizukishi – a Japanese paper – and wheat starch paste. Wheat starch paste is used so that in the future, if someone sees need to undo the repair the adhesive can be softened and undone with the simple application of water.

This reversibility is a much revered value of the library conservation community. The goal is that any action we take on an item can be at least to some level, reversed or undone. I think this value of reversibility is born of two interests – one relates to the authenticity of the item being conserved. Any treatment potentially hides, or undoes something of the object’s authentic state. This sheet of paper did not originally come with Japanese paper and wheat paste attached to it, so it feels good to us that these alterations we are making no matter how beneficial we think they are at the moment can be undone.

 In library conservation a goal is to make our work sympathetic to the original object, but it is not our intention that our repairs be hidden. It is an ethical principle of conservation not to deceive user to think that the item was not mended. Transparency facilitates authenticity.

This value of reversibility also grows out of the experience of each conservator spending many hours undoing the work that some likely well intentioned person had previously done to preserve the document. Often times the things people did to preserve a document were the then accepted practice like laminating or using tape. And, now, these actions have caused damage and undoing them, if it can be done at all, takes many hours of painstaking work. (I recently heard someone suggest an average of 8 minutes/in. for tape removal, and I think that is overly generous.)

Related to reversibility and authenticity is documentation, that the work done on a particular object should be recorded so that future users and conservators can understand how the item came to be in the condition it is today and what materials and techniques might be encountered in the object. This is comparable to technical and preservation metadata which records information about the digital object and activities enacted upon the digital object for future reference.

Authenticity, transparency, and documentation are obviously values of digital preservation as well and many of the techniques such as checksums for fixity and preservation metadata strive to meet these same concerns. I still struggle with understanding what place, if any, the idea of reversibility might have within the digital preservation world. Format migration, if it happens at all, only happens in one direction. It may be that the idea of reversibility has nothing to say to the world of digital preservation, I’m just not sure yet. In my mind, authenticity is a bigger challenge in the digital realm than in physical conservation.

Now I want to talk about some of the challenges of conservation and digital preservation especially the interesting relationship between Use and Neglect, and then a little about object creation.

One of our primary reasons, if not the primary reason to preserve, whether print or digital, is to provide access – or enable use. Use, however, has a very conflicting relationship with preservation. Use often increases value of the item used. Use often influences selection for preservation. Use also has a tendency to change the item. Use of Wikipedia makes it a more valuable resource and more worthy of preservation, but also a bigger challenge to preserve.  Use of print materials, however, often leads to a faster rate of degradation and the need for more invasive conservation. Success can pose some of preservation’s biggest challenges, and that is true regardless of the media.

Benign neglect. One of the advantages of print materials is that not using the material – neglect – has generally positive, or at least benign results. Years of un-use will likely have more positive results for print materials, than it will for digital materials, and un-use is a very economical preservation model. However lack of use will often also lead the library director to question why resources are being spent to preserve this item at all.

As books are digitized and the digital surrogate is increasingly the means of accessing its content some are considering how this is, or should be, changing our approach to conserving the original print volumes. As there is less reliance of the print volume for reading, the inclination is to doing less invasive conservation work on the books – less altering of them – but simply boxing them to keep it as “original” and authentic as possible. As the use of the digital surrogate changes the use and purpose of the original volume, it changes the approach to the preservation of the original.

Object creation. With both physical and digital preservation we are often face with the challenge of having to preserve what you get – not what you want. Working in any field of preservation you will develop a desire to impact how the content creator creates the original. You’d love for publishers to use good materials and binding techniques, and you’d love for digital content creators not to use obscure software and formats.

For digital preservation, especially when the digital objects being preserved are created by your own institution there is greater opportunity to influence object creation to help foster preservation. If the digital object is created by the library digitizing a document then preservation concerns can be accounted for at the moment of creation – at least theoretically. Libraries have much less of a tradition of creating their own print objects and so the print objects in libraries were very often created without concern for the library’s preservation interest.

Compromise – All preservation is compromise. I think someone important once said this, but I don’t know who it was. Or, it may be that I have said it often enough that I think it is the kind of thing someone important would have said. Nevertheless, it is true. All preservation is compromise. You can’t save everything, and the things you do save you can’t save as well as you’d like.

Humility – Earlier this year on my blog I posted a series of profiles of people working in conservation – and during Preservation Week I posted 6 profiles of students which included our next speaker. Most of the people profiled are people who have worked in traditional conservation for many years. One of the questions I asked each of them was, “How do you think working in preservation has shaped or changed your worldview?” Interestingly, one thread that I found in most everyone’s response was Humility.
Quote from Martha Little (private conservator and part-time conservator at UC Berkekely)
In spite of my longer vision I still can’t see what my treatment of the book will look like in the long run, because I’m limited by my own time’s perspective. What we think of as neutral may look jarring to a future viewer. Or it may become harmful with age. In the end, ironically, all these thoughts have made me less of a compulsively conservative person than I was when I started out. All you can do put in your best effort with the knowledge you have.

A few observations of the new things digital preservation brings to the table.

Institutional context deconstructed
In my intro I talked about my institutional context of the library profession and the specific library where I work. Physical preservation is inherently tied to that institutional context, but I think the world of digital preservation has abundant opportunities to deconstruct those institutional contexts both of the library/archive/museum context and the institution/individual/corporation contexts. This is a great opportunity to rethink how preservation can happen, but it is not without risks, because institutions will still likely be the ones to provide the funding.

Copies are copies
In the world of physical book each copy of a book is its own thing and even if multiple libraries agree to keep multiple copies of the same book, they are different entities. And when you make a copy of a book, whether photocopy or microfilm or digitize there is that original/surrogate relationship where the two are not the same thing and serve different purposes.  Digital material blows that whole original/surrogate idea out of the water. When one copy is identical to another a fundamentally different thing is happening that we haven’t experienced before in the preservation world.

Loses on emotion but wins on funding
People’s experiences with physical books are visceral. People like to swoon about the feel of books, of curling up with a book, of the smell of books. People feel sympathy when they see a damaged book. They love to see me with my tools and equipment doing this “lost art” of book repair. Whereas, a Google Images search for “digital preservation” brings up lots of pictures of flow charts. The PSA done by the NDSA student chapter was great, and in it I noticed you used the device of showing pictures of fading photographs to get an emotional response, and then try to transfer that emotion to pictures of digital storage. All that being said, most big funders and the decision makers aren’t particularly motivated by sentimentality, so digital preservation is where their eyes and grants are turned. But still, digital preservation needs to do some work to find its soul.

De-ghettoize physical and digital preservation
Don’t draw the boundary lines of your discipline too definitively. There are lots of different communities that are trying to preserve different things from buildings to paintings to films to languages, and we will only benefit by talking and working with these folks.

Don’t neglect the least of these
Both conservation and digital preservation tends to gravitate towards the big and important, and my council is don’t forget the small and debatably less important. It is important to figure out how to down-scale the lessons and values of your particular discipline to be relevant for small organizations is important.

Always ask “What are we to preserve?”
And finally, the most important question to ask is not how are we to preserve, but what are we to preserve?

Thank you

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Speaking on digital preservation

If you are in the Detroit area on Oct. 23 you can come hear me speak - or more importantly - you can hear several students, and recent students speak and present posters on various digital preservation topics. Converge and Ingest: Learning about Digital Preservation is the first colloquium put on the by Wayne State University NDSA (that's National Digital Stewardship Alliance) Student chapter.

I'm a graduate of the Wayne State program, and taught their intro to conservation course for a couple years, and when I saw their call for proposals I decided I'd try and come up with something. In my proposal I wrote "He will discuss how the lessons and skills of physical preservation can help inform approaches to digital preservation, and the challenges of approaching physical and digital preservation in a cohesive and complementary manner."

For some reason they accepted my proposal put this old conservator-type guy on the agenda. I'm not quite sure what they (or I) were thinking. Despite my presence on the the agenda it looks to be an interesting evening, and I always enjoy spending time with the students. Graham Hukill, one of the students in my Portraits in Preservation Student Edition, is also speaking.

And there's refreshments!

Welcome & Introductions
6:00 – 6:15 PM
Opening remarks from Stephen Bajjaly, Associate Dean and Director of SLIS at WSU; Kim Schroeder, Faculty Advisor for WSU NDSA Student Chapter; and Lisa Phillips, WSU NDSA Student Chapter President

Presentations and Q&A Session:
6:15 – 8:15 PM
“A Conservator takes on Digital Preservation”, Kevin Driedger
“Imagining an Ecosystem: Selecting a Digital Collection Platform for the Library”, Graham Hukill
“Data Curation on Trip to the Stars”, Nick Krabbenhoeft
“Dissemination Information Packages for Information Reuse”, Jessica Schaengold
“Desks Drawers and Trusted Repositories: Digital Preservation in an Academic Library”, Lance Stuchell

Poster Session & Appetizers/Refreshments:
8:15 – 9:00 PM
Poster session featuring research and work by WSU SLIS alumni and current SLIS students from Wayne State University, University of Michigan, and Indiana University.  Appetizers and coffee will be available at the poster sessions

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Organizing for Preservation

There is a newly forming preservation related organization in Michigan – the Michigan Collections Network. I have been intimately involved in its creation and working with it has been and continues to be a good learning experience.

The initial motivation behind it was my own frustration at not having local opportunities to discuss the issues pertinent to the work I do. This past year I traveled to the ALA annual and a couple CONTENTdm and other digital preservation events out of state and was very rewarded by the experience of meeting and sharing with others who do similar work. My problems with these experiences, however, are that going to Anaheim for a week, paid for on my own, is a little pricey, plus the people I meet are in institutions far away from me. Additionally, when I have had the opportunity to talk with other Michigan library and archive people who are interested in similar preservation topics I perceive this same sense of aloneness – of not having colleagues they can talk with and learn from.

So, because I’ve got more than a few restless bones in my body, I proceeded to see what I could do about this. It began with my creating a survey. One of my initial challenges is how narrow or broad to cast the possible focus of the group. In my own work, my time is spread across physical conservation, digitization, and digital preservation, and while that is a large spread it is an interrelated group of topics. More importantly, however, they are the topics I want to talk about so they were the topics I asked about. The survey was intended to gauge interest in forming a group focused on these topics and possible activities of this group. I sent the survey out to the Michigan libraries listserv and the listserv of the Michigan Archival Association. It seemed sensible to me to limit the scope of this potential new group to libraries and archives – or at least to library and archive collections, regardless of where they were held. While there is value to considering preservation issues of all cultural heritage collections, that becomes such a broad scope that it is much harder to create a unified vision – when you are concerned about everything it is hard to do any one thing. The survey received about 70 enthusiastic responses. I was pleased by the number or responses and that the responses represented all types and sizes of library and archive institutions.

From the list of survey respondents I formed a planning group which has met a few time via conference call. The planning group has proven to be a good microcosm of all survey respondents – representing varied institutions, experiences, abilities and interests. Some of our first challenges is coming up with some definition to what this group will be about. What people wanted from this potential group was not surprisingly pretty much anything and everything they could hope for – workshops, a source of funding, a community to establish standards, and opportunities for collaboration. As the de-facto organizer of the group I had some particular desires of what I wanted to see, and perhaps more importantly, what I didn’t want to see. I am not interested in forming an organization that spends most of its energy being an organization. With this project I pushed for the approach of let’s do some things, and see what kind of organization evolves, and the planning group has been very graciously receptive.

The Name: we’ve settled – mostly – on the name Michigan Collections Network. I initially was playing around with names that included both Preservation and some variant of Digital in the name – but those words are too long and cumbersome. Michigan Collections Network came to me in the middle of the night and I like it because it is easy, and reasonably open in meaning – giving us the space to change what this group does without having to change our name. Our more explanatory tag line is “A network interested in preserving and providing access to library and archival print and digital collections.”

We’ve done the usual early things like set up a blog and a listserv. We have even organized our first event dedicated to grant funding for collection preservation and digitization – thank goodness for people who agree to speak at no cost. Timothy Chester, director emeritus of the Grand Rapids Public Museum will speak on the general topic of grant funding for cultural collections, and then a panel of representatives from 3 libraries will speak grant funded preservation and digitization projects they have worked on. (Plus I’ll be offering tours of my library’s conservation and digitization departments.) And the event is free! (Registration information for the workshop is available online.)

We’ll see where this group goes. We know that it will be important for us to form relationships with other relevant Michigan groups for potential future collaborations. At this point we are doing what we can with no budget although my employer is providing some organizational support. My hope and intent for the group is that it truly fosters a network of colleagues who can share and learn from each other’s experiences. I hope that it can provide the opportunity for colleagues to share their successes (and failures) and questions and can feel better equipped to do their work well.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sure. Why not. A few more words on impermanence

It has been all to long since impermanence has meandered around in my brain or made an appearance in this blog.

Today, a colleague in preservation and impermanence @blefurgy retweeted an Alan Lightman quote, which was excerpted from an Utne article  "Change is the Only Constant" which was excerpted from Tin House #51 article "THE TEMPORARY UNIVERSE • The novelist yearns for the eternal; the physicist knows better."  (I’ve made it as far down as into the Utne article and hope to get my hands on the longer Tin House piece.)

I don’t know that I have anything new to say to the topic of impermanence that I haven’t already said again, and again, and again. Suffice it to say that I think coming to grips with impermanence could reshape – in a very positive way – how we approach preservation.

When I read the initial quote I tweeted

@blefurgy replied that he’d do the same. So, that’s $200 on the table for one willing library.

Sadly, I don’t really expect any forward thinking (or backward thinking, or inward thinking) library to incorporate that quote, or the sentiments behind it into their preservation policy. But, I think the truest, and most honest preservation policy would begin with the line “In the end, none of this will last.”

I think Lightman’s best response to the potentially debilitating acknowledgement of impermanence is this line near the end of the Utne article  
“Could there be a preciousness and value to existence 
stemming from the very fact of its temporary duration?” 
Are our collections not that much more special because their time on this earth is not permanent?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

My Jesus painting is better than your Jesus painting

I know I'm a little late to this flash-in-the-pan story of the "restored" Jesus painting that has so "shocked" the conservation community.

First off, I want to acknowledge and appreciated Beth Doyle's post on PCAN for her compassionate response to this event. I've seen several people suggest that this event is evidence that the conservation community should do more public education, but I would also suggest that this should also be an invitation for the conservation community to do a bit more self reflection.

I would suggest that the this "restored" painting bothers the conservation community because it violates the very specific and controlled narrative western conservation has constructed. It violates the narrative which justifies the work and existence of western conservation. What is "supposed" to happen with old painting X that has some damage, is those responsible for the painting humbly seek out professional western conservator Y who treats the painting according to their strict professional code of ethics. The final "restored" painting will fit seamlessly into the narrative and the conservative community will look on it with satisfaction. When someone, like this 80 year old woman steps outside the narrative, and the final "restored" painting looks as it currently does we are offended. Our narrative, and our authority was ignored.

I wonder if there is a useful comparison to the narrative of western medicine. Western medicine also presents a very specific narrative which is much like the narrative of western conservation. However, western culture has been open to draw on other medical/health narratives of chinese remedies and chakras and the like.

I don't mean to suggest that the western conservation narratives are invalid, nor am I promoting the idea that everyone go out and paint over all the old paintings they want, but I do think it is always helpful to recognize the world is larger than our narrative, and thus, a little humility is always a good thing.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Throughout all of documentary history, loss is the norm.*

Yesterday @blefurgy tweeted a line which caught my attention.

After a little research I figured out this line came from “Challenges and Opportunities for PersonalDigital Archivinga chapter by Catherine C. Marshall in the book I, Digital published by Society of American Archivists. It’s an intriguing and well researched study of people attitudes and activities with regards to their own digital “collections.”

I’ll provide some extended quotes (something you can’t do on twitter) without any commentary except for the one thought that came to me after reading the article.

As we examine what people do, a puzzling pattern emerges: people seem to be relying on disk crashes, technology failure, and periodic obsolescence as a way of pruning their collections. As we examine what people do, a puzzling pattern emerges: people seem to be relying on disk crashes, technology failure, and periodic obsolescence as a way of pruning their collections. It is not that loss does not bother them; it is rather that loss makes their collections more tractable. The accumulated weight of these digital belongings is swept away, so that they can focus their attention on the present.” P. 101-102

“But we can readily identify some countervailing reasons why we would not keep everything. First and foremost is that although storage is cheap, human attention is far less so. Furthermore, as we will see later in this chapter (and in other chapters of this book), stewardship is more than simply storing digital belongings once on reliable storage; stewardship requires continual attention to the items and media in a collection:” p. 102

“We are looking for the digital equivalent to benign neglect.” P. 103

“Thus, if we return to our earlier realization—it is easier to keep than to cull—we can further muse that it is easier to lose than maintain. And that, in a nutshell, encapsulates benign neglect as a personal digital archiving strategy.” P. 110

“Benign neglect and intrinsic distribution can become instrumental in securing a digital future in which we neither keep everything, nor lose everything, nor become shackled by the need to sustain our growing accumulations of digital belongings.” P. 112

I think it might be helpful to distinguish between those things people collect and those things people accumulate. Hoarders of the “reality tv” variety are not so much collectors of newspapers and trash so much as accumulators of the stuff. They get it and don’t get rid of it. Most of the papers, brochures, and business cards cluttering my desk are things that have accumulated and not things that I have particularly collected. Most of my digital possessions fall more into the category of accumulations than collections.I wonder if distinguishing between things accumulated and things collected would result in different attitudes towards their disposition.

*I must credit the “loss is the norm” line to the individual who reviewed the I, Digital book at . Apart from this helpful line, the reviewer seems like a writer who thoroughly enjoys reading his own writing.