Sometimes I write a blog post until I'm not sure what to say next. This is such a blog post. It doesn't feel completed, but I'm not sure where to go with it. Part of the joyful vanity of the personal blog is I can post whatever I want without having to run it by anyone with better judgement. (It's probably more "joyful" for me than than for you. And, if more people wrote Portraits in Preservation profiles, then I wouldn't need to fill space with stuff like this.)
Traditionally, a library object has been understood as having a two-stage life cycle: create, and sustain. With this understanding there has been a strong distinction between the stages of create and sustain and who is responsible for them. It is a very simple linear workflow. Others create, then we – libraries – acquire and sustain.
I think the challenge, and opportunity, we must face is that this life cycle model is breaking down. What is being created and who is doing the creating is changing; what is being sustained and who is doing the sustaining is changing, and the ability to acquire what has been created is changing.
As content creation, whether in physical or electronic format, is increasingly accessible and affordable it seems imperative for archives and libraries to embrace the creation step in the object life cycle. A strength these institutions can bring is they can create with preservation in mind. Libraries as publishers is not a new idea, although it is getting a lot of buzz right now.
I recently read some discussion on the Archives and Archivists email list bemoaning the loss of college yearbooks. The general line went – colleges are no longer producing yearbooks; old yearbooks are an incredibly popular resource in the college archives; what will people in the future do when they want old college yearbook pictures?
This dilemma, of organization not publishing things they used to publish is not unique to college yearbooks. Newspapers don’t become a quarter the size they were 20 years ago without publishing less information. That is less information that is being acquired and preserved.
The model for archives and libraries has been others create, we collect and preserve. But, a question we are now facing, or should be facing is, what do we do if others are not creating what we want to collect and preserve? Take college yearbooks as an example. It appears that the relative value of the current college yearbook has plummeted. People and organizations are not willing to devote significant resources to their creation and acquisition. College archives, however, have seen an increase in value in college yearbooks as they age. There is a sudden demand for the contents of yearbooks as 10, 15, 25 year anniversaries approach. I’m curious whether that past interest is a predictor of future interest. With the ubiquity of digital images and social media, who in 10 years is going to go to an archives to find a picture of a classmate? Have others created resources that fill the emotional need once filled by yearbooks.
As the actors and the act of creating are changing, so too are the actors and act of sustaining. Non-library agents are playing an increasingly important role in the effort to sustain; think Internet Archive.
After suggesting that that the old “they create, we sustain” model needs to be revised, I’m going to suggest that this model was never really an accurate depiction of what was, and is an even less accurate depiction of what is, or what will be.
I recently made a comment on The Signal – the Library of Congress' digital preservation blog – which I’ll quote:
“While I appreciate your argument for blurring, or removing, the line between digitized and born digital I, in turn, want to blur a line of distinction that you declared. You [Trevor Owens] said ‘The idea of digitization obfuscates the fact that digitization is not a preservation act. Digitization is a creative act.’ I would argue that preservation acts, like digitization, are creative acts. And my intent is not to claim that the people who do traditional preservation are often creative people, although they are, but in the act of repairing or deacidifying a document, or even adjusting the environment, those doing these preservation acts are expressing their own intentions and interpretations and creating something ‘new.’ A repaired book is a new and different thing from its unrepaired state.”
I guess I’m suggesting that sustaining activities ultimately are creating activities, but I think the present opportunity for us in the library world is to be more aware and overt in our responsibilities and opportunities in all phases of the library object’s life cycle. The world of digital preservation has been a leader in understanding this, as the blog post I was responding to demonstrates.
I’ve been trying to visually conceptualize what this understanding of an object’s life cycle would look like and I’m not there yet. In my head, everything is blurred and overlapping. (That everything is blurred and overlapping probably applies to every thought in my head, not just those about an object’s life cycle.) I’ve created the diagram below, but all I really did is make create and sustain the same color. It’s not there yet. (I added “Destroy” to my life cycle diagram because my gut tells me this to be an important part. My head just doesn’t yet understand how.)