Monday, July 2, 2012

Searching for the Soul of Digital Preservation

“I’m sorry that I won’t even be here the first week you are back” I tell Hanna, a student worker who is about to depart on a 6 week study abroad program. “I’ll be at a week of training in Indianapolis.”

“Are you giving or receiving the training?” she asks.

“I’m being trained to provide training on digital preservation.”

“Digital preservation?” she says with a quizzical look.

Hanna sees me do traditional book and paper conservation work, she assists with rehousing maps, and she does a lot of scanning of our print materials, but hearing the term digital preservation leaves her puzzled.

“It’s about making sure the files we create today are still there and usable in the future.”

“So, backing up your files,” she suggests.

“Well, yes that, and more. It’s about making sure that files don’t get corrupted, and about being able to view files that were created 10 years ago.” I explain.

“One of the big challenges for digital preservation is there is no good visual for people to really get it. With traditional preservation you can show people an old tattered book and there is a visceral understanding of the need to take steps to preserve it. We are physical creatures and we understand other physical objects. Digital preservation is completely disembodied.”

“It doesn’t appeal to any of the five senses,” says Hanna.
Like many who work in analog book and paper preservation, a big part of what attracted me to the work was the chance to work with interesting physical materials. These materials excite and appeal to at least four of my senses. (I can’t recall a time when I used the sense of taste in my work – except for with Edible Book Fest.) The text and images on these book and paper objects are not just text and images, but they are inextricably connected to and embodied in physical containers – just like those of us who engage these texts  and objects.

If I show someone a tattered book there is usually an innate understanding that something is wrong, that this wrong was caused over time, and that something can likely be done to lessen the wrong. I often sense people feeling empathy for a damaged book. (Books seem to have an iconic place for many in the western world: a broken chair is just a broken chair, but a damaged book often brings out an emotional response of compassion.) Much like books, people are personalities embodied in and inextricably linked to a physical form.

And this, for me, is the challenge I have with digital preservation. Conceptually, I understand it; however, because digital objects are so disembodied, all I can do is understand them. It is hard for me to feel compassion and sympathy for them. (I understand that some might question the validity of compassion and sympathy for an object as an appropriate motivation for institutionally based preservation. My experience tells me that compassion and sympathy are often present in the person undertaking acts of physical preservation. )

Physical preservation often involves physical interactions with the objects and the hand skills gained over years of working with similar objects. Digital preservation involves administrative and technical decisions about processes. (I fear the two previous sentences are convenient oversimplifications which merely help me make my point but it seems to me there is an important difference between a person’s encounter with physical and digital preservation. My purpose is not to suggest the experience of physical preservation, is more noble or soulful than digital preservation, but rather to try to uncover what might be the human, soulful elements of digital preservation.)

Bamiyan Buddha before and after destruction
I think digital preservation is one of the most urgent issues facing the larger library and cultural heritage world today, but I also think the disembodied nature of digital objects makes it a challenge to communicate that urgency to the larger world. With the “Slow fires” video about brittle books, seeing brittle pages turn to crumbs readily communicates the issue. But what images can do the same for digital preservation? People can relate to files lost, but trying to persuade someone based on an absence of something they can’t see seems challenging. The hollowed out wall of rock where the Bamiyan Buddhas used to be physically communicates an absence in a way that lost files do not.

As I was working on this blog post I read the latest post from The Signal:Digital Preservation from the Library of Congress which is my favorite source for trying to keep abreast of the world digital preservation. The post “Rescuing the Tangible from the Intangible,” by Butch Lazorchak spoke about a program at the Library of Congress called the Tangible Media Project which consists of a mobile cart with a Ripstation machine which is taken to different parts of the Library and it is used to copy files from CDs onto their digital asset management system. What most caught my attention about the post was the closing line. “In a rapidly transforming world where digital objects are often mysteriously distant and abstract, the TMP provides a physical, tangible gateway to digital management and preservation issues.”

Does digital preservation have soul? Yes, I suspect it does but I can’t help but think that communicating that soul so that it moves people will have to involve to an appeal to one or more of our physical senses. Locating and effectively portraying that soul to others will take minds more clever than mine.