Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Portraits in Preservation SE – Graham Hukill


Portraits in Preservation Student Edition, Preservation Week 2012

Bio
My name is Graham Hukill, an MSI student and soon to be graduate of the University of Michigan’s School of Information.  Specializing in Archival and Records Management and Digital Preservation, I have focused on the creation of digital objects through digitization, the management of digital assets, and the creation, management, and dissemination of their accompanying metadata. 

Before returning to school to purse a Masters in the information domain, I was a student of philosophy, a geo-spatial land surveyor, an English teacher in South Korea, and worked for a community hardware store recycling building materials.  My education and professional past has not been one of isolated experiences, but instead, what I believe to be a continuously developing understanding of the pivotal role information, and information management, plays across different disciplines and domains.

What experience or person has greatly influenced your desire to pursue preservation?

Though I could cite countless individuals and experiences that have collectively shaped my desire to pursue preservation, if hard pressed, a very influential experience was working as a geo-spatial land surveyor for a small family owned firm in Washington state.  I was hired on to assimilate new GPS surveying equipment into existing workflows and data management.  This new equipment, which integrated GPS data with more traditional surveying spatial data that relied on relative coordinates and positions, provided me with my first taste of “big data”.  As I learned more about the profession, it was impressed upon me how integral the management and preservation of data was, both logistically and legally.  Though the company had successfully managed their datasets for 30+ years, the sheer volume of data created from the new equipment was stressing the limits of their organizational infrastructure. 

I began to wonder how other institutions and organizations were affected by similar influxes of data.  This curiosity proved insatiable, I found challenges and opportunities abound, and here I am today.

What has been a particularly rewarding experience in your preservation training?

Almost daily, it feels like, I think about the tension between “preservation” and “access”.  One of the most rewarding experiences of my preservation training revolved around discovery and access of digital materials.  While an intern at the Internet Archive in San Francisco, working for the web archiving service Archive-It, I had the opportunity to work with engineers designing an OAI-PMH server for web archived materials.  For archived web content, where original documents are ephemeral in nature and collections can be in the tens of millions of documents, providing access is a primary concern.

Designing this OAI-PMH server, by breaking down the OAI-PMH protocol and replicating its core functionality with a SOLR infrastructure and XSLT transformations, helped me to better understand the complexity that exists between “access” and “preservation”.  It furthered my belief that preservation of materials is insufficient if access has not been adequately considered.  Which is not to say all materials must be immediately available, or for everyone, but I think that discussion should always take place when preserving materials.

What are you looking forward to personally contributing to the larger preservation world?

Shaking it up!  That is to say, by rigorous and thorough means.  With digital information and objects come concepts like migration, emulation, duplicity, and so forth.  As one intimately concerned with the relationship of digital to analog materials, analog to digital, I hope to help push the discussion of what digital materials mean to us as preservationists, individuals, and as a society. 

This past year, I worked on a project exploring the digitization of biological specimens.  This included the orchestration of digitization processes, the management of the digital files produced, and that tenuous link between these newly created files and their original, physical, counterparts.  More recently, I have been working with a couple BioInformaticists creating pipelines for sequencing “next generation” short read genome data.  Though radically different projects, in both instances I was struck with the difficulties the sheer volume of data presented for preservation.  Though I don’t believe the preservation community has ever been so naive as to assume information or preservation professionals have all day to spend on one item, I nonetheless see a need for these communities to step back and look at what is being produced; many of our current methods of preservation and access simply won’t scale to these levels, it will takes some really novel and innovate approaches.  I see this not as a re-thinking of traditional practices, but more applying those foundations and philosophies to new data management and preservation techniques, and something I excited to be a part of.

What do you see is a pressing issue facing the preservation world?

I think this is touched on above.  But to elaborate a bit more, I see both the porous boundaries between disciplines and domains, and the rapidly evolving relationship of analog to digital materials, as two major challenges facing the preservation community.  That said, I also think both provide vast realty for innovation and elegant solutions to problems we currently face.   When 1.7 million botanical specimens, an enormous physical preservation undertaking in itself, becomes the subject of digitization and analysis (as is currently underway at the University of Michigan and other institutions around the country), where are the boundaries between the botanist overseeing the specimens, the technicians digitizing them, the repositories providing storage for these digital files, and the scientists and communities using and annotating them?  These nebulous boundaries seem, at least currently, difficult to navigate, but also provide incredible opportunities for collaboration and sharing of resources.

With regards to the tension between digital and analog materials, examples abound.  In this space, as in many others, I believe how materials are used - that is, how they are useful - will prove to be helpful in better understanding that relationship.  It is an “issue” or a “problem”, I believe, only insofar as it something fascinating and extremely relevant to the field right now. 

Oh, and funding.

Bonus question (optional) - What do you want to preserve and why?

Personally, nothing excites me more than preserving both scientific data and visual images.  Often, scientific data looks almost meaningless at first glance.  It is usually only through explanation, contextualization, and re-representation that its intellectual merit is observable and appreciable.  At the other end of the spectrum, I am enamored with how quickly a photograph will pull you in; regardless of context, back-story, or even its original format sometimes, I love how immediate and visceral the arrangement of colors and shapes in a confined space can be.  It is on preserving one, that my appreciation and understanding of preserving the other is amplified.  So both I would have to answer, for ultimately complimentary reasons.

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