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