Sunday, March 17, 2013

Possession and Preservation

DRM CHAIR from Thibault Brevet on Vimeo.

I used to think that possession was the first step in preservation. “You can’t preserve what you don’t have,” I have said many times to myself, and probably to others. I used to think that, but I don’t anymore. Now, I’m not exactly sure what to think.

Library preservation has historically operated out of a property ownership model. The library purchased a thing and therefore it owned that thing along with many, but not always all rights to that thing. Once owned, the library could choose to take steps to preserve that thing. Today the defining lines both of ownership and thingness are increasingly blurred. As a simple example of these blurred lines I’ll offer up my Facebook account. Can anybody point me to clear defining lines of ownership or thingness of my Facebook account? I don’t think so. Other examples include; Digital Rights Management protected electronic content, print books which include access to related and protected online content, leased city directories, comments on blog posts, continually updated self-published monographs (c.f. Gary Frost), etc. What then does this mean for library-based preservation?

As the definitions of what to preserve are changing and blurring the library preservation profession needs to continually change and blur the lines of our discipline. I don’t mean to suggest that this isn’t already happening. It is, somewhat. I just don’t know how aware of or in control of the change we are.

The preservation world has a history of dealing with challenging conceptions of property ownership, most pertinently with copyright. What we are legally able to do with a thing whose contents are protected by current copyright law seriously shapes our preservation practices. Other areas of the cultural heritage community have vastly more experience with the challenges of preservation beyond property ownership. One thing we can learn from these communities is that dealing with preservation beyond the confines of simple institutional ownership is challenging, but not doing it is failure.

With developing practices like collective print holdings, and the new ways of conceiving of preservation that digital material has introduced, the library preservation world is already thinking of preservation beyond the boundaries of object ownership based preservation, and it needs to continue to push at these boundaries. For the library preservation profession to effectively and appropriately push at these boundaries, however, it needs to occasionally (or continually) stop, step outside of its own work, recognize and name the boundaries, and actively chart a way forward to a library preservation model that is not based exclusively on property ownership. In fact, I would suggest the need is urgent today for the library preservation community to develop a broadly inclusive, non-ownership based preservation model. Seriously accepting our moral responsibility for preservation obligates us to such thinking.

p.s. I was motivated to write this post after listening to the radio show On the Media’s episode, The Past, Present, and Future ofOwnership  which brought my attention to the DRM chair demonstrated in the video at the beginning of this post. (For those who need further explanation: DRM places limitations on use of digital material, like whether it can be shared, or how often it can be viewed. The chair in this exhibit was programmed to allow 8 sittings before it self-destructed.)

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