Friday, November 29, 2013

Distribution is Preservation

Growing up in the preservation world I was taught, and I in turn taught that the single-most important factor in long-term preservation of materials was climate-control. Ensuring that some book sitting on a shelf would still be there in usable form 300 years from now is best accomplished by providing a stable and ideal environment.

I’m not so convinced of that anymore, or rather, I think I am less interested in preserving that one book sitting on your shelf as I am in providing access to that book – for as long as possible/necessary to as many people as possible. I am now of the opinion that the single-most important factor in providing ongoing access is distribution. (As I write this I take note that I switched from preserving a book to providing ongoing access to that book – hmm, curious.)

Distribution is not a guarantee of preservation – there has to be some motivation and capability to retain the thing that was distributed – but distribution vastly increases the likelihood of preservation. I’m sure one could develop a formula comparing the likelihood of survival and accessibility between one (or a few) book(s) in ideal environmental conditions versus several distributed books in less than ideal environmental conditions. (For a great analysis of the number of copies and likelihood of survival see Jake Nadal and Annie Petersen’s Scarce and Endangered Works: Using Network-level Holdings Data in Preservation Decision Making and Stewardship of the Printed Record )

In my experience (which is admittedly very limited and idiosyncratic) library and archives preservation has primarily been approached through the lens of preserving the specific and “unique” items in a specific institution’s collection. (In fact one of my concerns with the book conservation programs being absorbed into art conservation programs is that it is encouraging viewing each book as a unique item – and not part of a broader network of at least very, very, very similar published items held in institutions, and elsewhere, around the world.) It is perfectly reasonable that library preservation thinking has focused on preserving items in one’s institutional collections – because it isn’t very reasonable to expect me to preserve items in some other institution’s collections – but this approach may not be perfectly effective in ensuring long-term access to the items held by an institution. 

I don’t mean to dismiss the skills and interests of those who are pay keen attention to the unique qualities of individual volumes, but their interests are the miniscule minority and saving two really nice trees but losing the forest is not an excellent conservation strategy. I will be so bold as to suggest that saving the 1961 edition of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 is almost always more important than saving one institution’s specific copy of the 1961 edition of Catch 22. Yes, there are always exceptions.

What initially spurred me to write this post is an interesting blog post by Ed Summers based on a talk he gave – titled “The Web as a Preservation Medium.” There are lot of things said in that post which may not be relevant to physical material collection, but as I’ve said before, it is important for physical material preservation folk look to and learn from digital material preservation folk. Summers quoted Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation said This next decade belongs to distributed models not centralized ones, to collaboration not control, and to small data not big data.

The World Wide Web is a ridiculously successful tool for distribution. This blog post will likely be recreated on screens around the world maybe as many as 20 or even 30 times. It is being also archived by Internet Archive. Against my intentions parts of my previous blog are available online – thanks I’m sure to some Russian hacker. (It was a bit of a surprise to see this content which I had taken offline and thought it was gone “forever” suddenly re-appear less than a year later.) 

Now yes, print materials and print preservation are not the same as digital materials and digital preservation, but each has something to learn from the other. I think it is important for the print preservation world to better recognize the preservation power of distribution and incorporate it into their preservation strategies. Distribution as a preservation strategy requires the national and international collaboration of many institutions and may, at times, place the value of the cooperative over the value of the individual items in individual collections.

(p.s. As I was bringing my work on this post to an end, it occurred to me that perhaps the federal government document depository program might also be a strategic model to consider for distribution providing preservation and access. I, however, don’t know much more about the program than what I wrote in the previous sentence.)

(p.p.s This post deserved more time and thought and work, and that might happen some day, but it is what it is for now.)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

More stuff, more problems

Sometimes I fear I am a bad person – or at least a person unfit for any type of preservation profession.

day 18/365 by flick user shehan365
I was sitting at a plenary session at Best Practices Exchange, and Meg Phillips of NARA was talking about their mindblowing challenge of digital records management for the US federal government. She did a wonderful job of presenting the challenge and the legal directives and then she solicited the thoughts of the attendees about what they saw as the nature of the problem and how it could be resolved.

What follows probably further digs me deeper into the hole of being a bad person. The participants in the room seemed to be mostly archivists. I will make two bold assertions about archivists: 1) They will complain about having too much stuff; and 2) Given the choice between acquiring more or less stuff, they will almost always opt for more. (I don’t think these two characteristics are unique to archivists, but “characteristics of a profession” is qualitatively different than being idiosyncrasies of an individual.)

While the participants were dreaming of algorithms to automatically categorize the kinds of records the federal government was creating, I was thinking in my head – “Don’t take in so much stuff!” Just because something has been recorded in a “preservable” format it doesn't mean there is any reason to preserve it.

I am hardly moved by the plea to keep things because we don’t know what value future researchers might find in it. Nope, we don’t, and I hardly think we are doing the future researchers any favors by burying them under mounds of our mostly useless trivialities that might hold some gem.

The people of the future, just like those of the past, and we today will make meaning out of what they have access to. (The ingredients of “meaning” are far more vast and complex than the variety of documents and records available.) A people with access to 10 records will construct one meaning. A people with access to 1000 records will construct a different meaning, and a people with access to 100,000,000 records will construct a different meaning. I would argue that these meanings are not getting progressively better with the more records that are available. They are simply the meanings created with what is available. (There is an interesting, and I think related post on the Signal about what might impact might be had if we had access to the information on Lee Harvey Oswald's laptop.)

The stuff we have access to today is the product of a combination of human intention, luck, and natural causes.  I don’t know what the ratio is for importance of those three elements, but I’m disposed to guess human intention is probably be the smallest number.

While I may be a bad person, I’d like to think I’m not stupid. Advising NARA and the federal government to keep less stuff is not likely to result in a very l long or substantial conversation. But I do think all parties involved would be advised to approach the task with humility. (Advising the federal government to be humble isn’t likely to result in any more substantial conversations.) Future peoples will construct meanings both because of, and despite our actions today. Keeping more stuff today, doesn’t necessarily mean a better tomorrow.

There is never enough data to remove mystery.

p.s. After saying what could be seen as potentially disparaging remarks about archivists I want to add that I am in awe of and deeply grateful for the work of archivists. A reasonable response to the above post is when faced with the challenge of the onslaught of digital records, archivists choose to fight, I choose flight.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Print/Digital Preservation Divide

First I posted Paul Banks’ “10 Laws of Preservation.” Then I posted Dave Thompson’s “10 Laws of Digital Preservation.” Then Archival Products published their latest issue of Archival Products News with an article I co-wrote with Lance Stuchell, digital preservation librarian at the University of Michigan, titled “Bridging the Print/Digital Preservation Divide.”

The world of library and archives preservation – which is the work world I most identify with – is divided. But in saying it is divided I am not sure whether I am stating fact, opinion, or proposing a framework to look at preservation. I guess the reality is – it feels divided (which makes it more of a statement of truthiness.)

This division is increasingly characterizing my professional life. On Monday I get on a plane to attend Archive-It and Best Practices Exchange meeting – two meetings focused on acquiring and preserving digital content. Upon my return from these meetings I immediately turn my attention to speedily moving my work’s conservation shop – including things like a 500 pound cast iron press – down one floor to its new home. At this summer’s meeting of the Mid-Michigan Digital Practitioners meeting I presented on preserving digital state government documents. In a couple weeks I will present on constructing custom clamshell boxes at a Conservation and Collection Care Camp – that I am helping organize.

I am not telling you these things to let you know how vast and impressive my skills are – although I won’t try to stop you from coming to that conclusion on your own – but this is simply to relate that I feel like I have one fit firmly planted in print/analog preservation and the other foot is perhaps not quite as firmly planted, but it is well within the world of digital preservation.  And this leaves me to sometimes ponder – are these two feet walking down the same path? Are they walking down parallel paths? Or divergent paths? Also, does the fact that I have two left feet doom met to stumble and land flat on my face?

I don’t think I’m being too generalizing when I say that the two foci of preservation have resulted in two camps of practitioners. I’m going to guess there is not a lot of overlap in the NDSA/AIC venn diagram.

An intent of Lance and myself with our rather informal back and forth piece was for practitioners of print and digital preservation to address some common question about our work. I don’t know that this piece presents any profound new insights, but I hope that it might spur others ask and answer similar questions and have similar conversations. (As I just reread the article I did cringe a little wishing I could take it back and rewrite some of my sentences – but it’s done, which is more important than being perfect.)

If the preservation world is divided, is there a big umbrella understanding of preservation that can capture the interests and concerns of both print and digital preservation? If there is such a big picture understanding, to get that big picture do you have to pull so far back so as to lose sight of the details and therefore lose relevancy for the practitioner?

When I look at the two sets of “10 laws” my first response is these are very different lists. I don’t mean to exaggerate difference between disciplines, but I also don’t want to blur or gloss over differences. I am led to wonder – what are the commonalities? I would be curious to see someone – although it really couldn’t be “one” but some group – come up with a set of “10 agreements between print and digital preservation.” What are 10 mutual and meaningful understandings or agreements of the work we do?