Monday, April 7, 2014

Keep your hands off my books: Preservation and Access: Digital and Analog

I attended the Converge and Ingest colloquium this weekend put on by the Wayne State Unviersity NDSA student chapter. (The event was quite enjoyable and warranted more attention than it got.)

My attention was particularly grabbed by a presentation by Wayne State digital publishing librarian, Cole Hudson. (He was supposed to have presented with his colleague Graham Hukill who unfortunately could not attend due to a family emergency.)

Part of Cole's presentation looked at the relationship between preservation and access. The glib gist of what he said was that with digital materials we need to rethink the relationship between preservation and access. He then when on to tell of their involved work constructing an access system for WSU's digital collections. Their work was entirely access focused. Near the end of their work they thought they should probably think about preservation too. They looked at the NDSA Levels of Preservation (which may just be replacing OAIS as the obligatory digital preservation presentation reference) and realized that much of their access focused work achieved many of these preservation tasks.

In the Q&A I did the annoying thing of making a comment. I began my comment hoping that a question would form but by the time I got to the end of my talking there was no question. My comment, and the purpose for why I am writing this, was a thought that I've been toying with for a while is that

With digital material, access improves the likelihood of preservation,
with analog material, access decreases the likelihood of preservation.

Instead of "likelihood of preservation" I might use "length of life."

My thinking is that accessing a digital object increases its likelihood of preservation, or a long life, because often access can involve creating a copy - like when I save an article on my computer thus duplicating and distributing the object. Also, a digital object that is regularly used is likely to undergo processes to ensure its future use. For e.g. you will likely migrate a text document that you regularly consult from an old file format to a new one, whereas old files that you seldom use will not likely be migrated.

With analog materials, all use causes damage, or at least increases the likelihood of damage. The obvious example to me is my work library's city directory collection. Man of these books are much newer and better made than much of the rest of our collection, but because of extremely high use, these directories are in very poor shape.

I know my little preservation and access forumla for digital and analog materials isn't a universal truth, but it seems pretty true. I'd be curious to hear if there are people who think that it isn't very true. I'm certainly open to that argument.


  1. (Another lengthy comment lost to the aether of mulitple Google Account logins...)

    I think that I have to disagree with the access decreases preservation for analog materials thread. While access leads to use which leads to wear which leads to damage, access and use also lead to attention and valuation. Attention means increased awareness of the threats caused by environmental hazards and inherent vices. Valuation rises as use increases, making it easier to gather support for greater preservation and conservation.

    I think that the perceived benefits of benign neglect may just be a cognitive bias: so many of modern societies' older elements reached us through benign neglect that we assume that to be the best way to pass on cultural heritage, when in fact much greater numbers of things have been lost to benign neglect through the ages (see all classical writing that was not actively reproduced through the monastic system) , but does not exist today. Or to put it another way: out of sight, out of mind is a terrible philosophy for cultural heritage.

  2. Fletcher, well you managed to quickly hone in what I also saw to be the weakest part of my glib argument. I knew that I could also argue against what I had written - as you so well did - but the statement had such nice symmetry and rhythm.

    You are correct that use leads to attention and valuation, and support for preservation.

    But I'm still not giving up on the the idea of a different relationship between preservation and access with digital and analog. I just don't think I've named it well yet.

    Use of analog materials increases likelihood of preservation activity, and one set of preservation actions often includes efforts to reduce use, or reduce the effect of use - like placing the object into closed stacks, placing it into a box, and making a surrogate copy.

  3. Pardon another comment from me, but I've had some more time to think. I really like your second paragraph of the perceived benefit of benign neglect.

    I guess I get a little caught up in the question of what is it we are preserving. The thing about analog is you can have unique, distinct instances of a thing in a way that doesn't really seem comparable with digital. You mentioned preserving ancient texts by monks copying them. Copying texts preserves many things about the earlier physical manifestation of a text, but it is also an interpretive transformation in the way that copying a file isn't.

    With a physical book I'll suggest there are three realms of existence. There is the distinct physical artifact of a book, there is the language or text written within, and there is the conceptual world the text create (perhaps in conjunction with the object). All three of these realms are preservable. The realms of the text and the concepts are preserved through use, but the distinct artifact is damaged through use. (Now I don't think this paragraph is stated as glibly as my initial pronouncement, but there are some very valid counter-arguments.)

    Ignoring the physical part, I'm not certaing how "distinct artifact" makes any sense in the realm of digital objects.

  4. (Sorry for the delay, life in RSS can be very...atemporal)

    I certainly agree with you that there is a different relationship between preservation and access with digital and analog. Perhaps because of the absence of a distinct physical artifact (although perhaps that can be debated, as even digital objects are presented in a distinct and culturally grounded physical form, e.g. Facebook on your computer monitor vs iPhone, or SD vs HD video, or even the distinct projector used for a work of installation art), the preservation of digital objects has no relation to use. In theory, a digital file can be opened a million times and never need preservation. However, a digital file can also never be used and still be in dire need of preservation (from obsolesecense, bit rot, etc.)

    I think that I would even argue that copying a file IS an interpretive transformation: are you emulating or migrating? Both are choices and neither is wrong, but they could result in very different outcomes for later users.