Saturday, February 15, 2014

Time and media

Two questions have been floating around my brain for the last few days. Like many of the questions that float around my brain and occasionally get expressed on this blog, neither will likely have any direct impact on anyone’s immediate efforts at preservation but they might shape how we think about our immediate efforts at preservation.

1) What kind of time frames do we conceptualize when we think about preservation?
2) Does medium matter? Or, is storage medium ultimately a significant preservation decision?

With regards to time, I am pleased by the recognition that in my recent preservation related reading I cannot recall encountering use of the term “forever.” This pleases me because in thinking about preservation, forever is a stupid concept. But, if we’ve given up on the time context of eternity how do we think of time and the persistence of what we are preserving?

I was led to think about time because I was thinking about the second question of media. Working in the analog preservation world I sometimes handle books that are hundreds of years old, and we talk of well-stored microfilm having a lifetime of 500 years, and of poorly made newsprint having a potential lifespan of less than a century. These time frames are almost irrelevant to the world of audio-visual preservation where a century is the outside edge of media duration. And then we come to digital preservation where anything more than 5 or 10 years is pushing your luck for media duration.

And so thinking about 500 year microfilm and 5 year hard drives I wonder if that drastic difference in chronological context fundamentally changes what preservation looks like? (And I’m guessing we think 500 years is a long time and 5 years is a short time because we hold these amounts up to the measure of time that matters most to us – the duration of our own life. 500 years makes us feel nearly immortal, and 5 years is a frightening threat of an untimely death.)

I used to say that analog preservation was about stable media and digital preservation was about stable systems. Now I wonder if the stable media idea is a bit of a red herring.  Yes, there is certainly more urgency to our decisions when we are dealing with 5 year life-spans, but I’m wondering if, ultimately, preserving things that can survive 500 years and things that can survive 5 years is only achieved through the same stable systems working with very different time contexts?

Granted, a more stable medium slows the urgency of preservation decisions and actions, but does that drastic difference in life-spans simply a difference of scale, or does it create a qualitative difference?

This pondering is just a branch of some bigger pondering of the relationship between analog and digital preservation. The differences between the two are bigger than just the speed of media degradation. In fact, I don’t think the difference between time contexts is the fundamental difference but it’s one that I think deserves some pondering.

I acknowledge I am speaking from the context of library-based print and digital preservation. I actually think that the world of audio-visual preservation has a lot to say about these questions of time and media. I don’t know much about a/v preservation and I am particularly grateful for Josh Ranger’s wonderful posts on AudioVideo Preservation Solution’s blog for greatly increasing my awareness of audio-visual preservation issues.

(Looking back on what I’ve written here I have noticed that I have used some version of “ultimate” at least twice in this post. I’ve declared “forever” to be irrelevant, but I appeal to the “ultimate” perspective of our work. I may just be replacing one dumb idea with another one. Just as we don’t preserve forever, we don’t work in the context of making “ultimate” actions or decisions. We work in the here and now and make decisions and do actions that will likely be re-decided and re-acted 5, 100, 500 years from now.)