Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Reading "Preserving Our Heritage: Perspectives from Antiquity to the Digital Age"

Preserving Our Heritage: Perspectives from Antiquity to the Digital Age, selections and commentary by Michele Valerie Cloonan. Chicago: Neal-Schuman, 2015.

[Addendum: You can listen to my interview with Michele Cloonan on my Preservation Imperative podcast.]

This is a large book. It is many other things as well, including being a good book, but first impressions of the books size have stuck with me throughout its reading. It is 693 pages of 8.5 x 11 in. doubled-columned pages filled with not particularly large type. Granted, this volume’s heft may not seem to be the most essential quality of this book, but when you’ve taken on the task of reading the entire volume, it is a very real and present quality.

I have been anticipating this book for quite some time for two reasons: Cloonan's writings cause me to look at aspects of preservation in new ways – which is nearly the best thing I can say of any writing; I’ve also been anticipating this book because it took quite some time to finally come into existence. For two years I watched its publication date be pushed back again and again.

The book is an anthology, a selection of preservation writings over time – a very long time – with commentary by Cloonan. All of the pieces had been previously published, except for a few written specifically for this volume.

My first graduate degree is in biblical studies, and I noticed my mind occasionally going back to those times as I made my way through this volume. Here are some of the connections: both books tell the mythic/philosophical/historical story of how we came to be where we are today; both books tell that story with different and sometimes contradictory voices and perspectives; with both books the reader needs to decide what parts to read within the piece’s historical context, and what to read as “confessional” or as speaking directly to the reader’s context; and with each book, readers began the new year with the noble conviction that they were going to read the entire thing, and finding motivation to continue occasionally flagging along the way.

Here’s a listing of the chapter headings and each chapter contains several articles:
  • Early Perspectives on Preservation
  • Perspectives on Cultural Heritage 
  • Preservation in Context: Libraries, Archives, Museums, and the Built Environment
  • Collections: Development and Management
  • Risks to Cultural Heritage: Time, Nature, and People
  • Conservation
  • Frameworks for Digital Preservation
  • Preservation Policy
  • Ethics and Values
  • Multicultural Perspectives
  • Sustainability

The chapter titles reveal that this book is not only large in physical size, it is large in perspective. This large, interdisciplinary perspective on preservation is both the book’s biggest gift to the reader, as well as its biggest hurdle. By gathering all these voices across time and tradition into one volume Cloonan offers the reader a global perspective of cultural heritage preservation. Reading this volume will introduce the reader to new voices and new disciplines and is bound to expand one’s perception of cultural heritage preservation. This book weaves a wide web of interconnected preservation ideas and interests. The hurdle of this planetary perspective, at least for this reader, is trying to hold onto all these many voices and ideas at the same time to uncover connections, relationships, and patterns.

As I was working through it my mind did what it needs to do and developed a model or pattern with which understand or organize these various articles. I settled on four realms of preservation being Conceptual, Strategic, Administrative, and Technical. (I wrote more on this on some earlier blog posts. Post 1. Part 2.) These four categories gave me a framework to receive these different articles independent of the discipline they represented. Each article generally falls into one of these four categories, although many straddle multiple categories.

The majority of the articles reflect a library/archives context, with some articles from museum, historical preservation, and general cultural heritage contexts also included. I would describe the book as more multi-disciplinary than interdisciplinary. Cloonan places different preservation disciplines next to each other, but she doesn’t exactly get them to talk to each other. It is up to the reader to establish connections. In the Epilogue, Cloonan encourages the development of the interdisciplinary study of preservation as a distinct academic field.

As I was reading this volume I occasionally paused over the question: Who is going to want to read this book? And how will they read it? Some might use this book as a reference tool reading selected articles of particular relevance, but that would miss the value of the book as a whole, which is greater than its individual parts. Referring back to my biblical reference, this book, like the Bible, is not a great “how-to” book. It does not specifically tell the reader how to manage a preservation program or repair a book. What this book does is provide a historical and philosophical foundation from which decisions about preservation programs and book repair can be more wisely made.

I found a few chapters to be particularly valuable inclusions in this volume: “Perspectives on Cultural Heritage Preservation,” which includes most of the book’s conceptual/philosophical writings; “Preservation Policy,” which surprised me as being about government policy for cultural heritage preservation; “Multicultural Perspectives,” although I note that these articles focus on objects, and not libraries or information; and finally I found “Sustainability, A Review” and particularly helpful overview of this growing area of interest.

The chapter “Frameworks for Digital Preservation” is the book’s weakest section, largely because it has too much similar content. The majority of the articles were from the 1990s. I acknowledge that in an anthology that covers texts from over 2000 years selecting texts to represent the rapidly changing and growing discipline of digital preservation is a challenge.

Publishing this book is itself an act of preservation as republishing and distribution have long been seen as one tool for preservation. Also, by selecting these articles and inviting the reader to read and pay attention to them, Cloonan is shaping the reader’s memory and what they carry with them into the future. The content of this book is being preserved because it will be distributed to readers and libraries around the world, but also because the contents are now part of my thought process and will likely shape and be cited in my own future work.

This book does not set a vision for how to move preservation forward, but that is not what this book sets out to do. While this book doesn’t extend the reader’s vision on the future, it certainly invites the reader to look both deeper within and further beyond their familiarity. It builds a foundation that is both deeper and wider upon which to create new ways of understanding and accomplishing preservation.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunshine and Preservation

It is Sunshine Week, “a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.”

Sun shining through a pipe which now carries
tar sand oil across Michigan.
An open and transparent government is – or should be – one of the highest principles of American life, or really of any civic life. The government acts on behalf of the people, regulating the people, and using the people’s money to act, so the people have a right to know how the government does its work. The means of acquiring that knowledge championed during Sunshine Week is the FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) request.

I work for the government – the State of Michigan – so my role and experience with FOIA and government transparency is different from journalists. I tend to be on the receiving rather than requesting end of FOIA requests. My involvement on the receiving end has been simply as a member of the department – providing copies of emails sent to Hillary Clinton’s non-governmental email address (zero), and identifying any training videos I created so a resident could determine if the video was wasteful (I believe I create one video, and no word if it was deemed wasteful.)

I’ve also been part of internal discussions considering a digitization program which would help make our own agency’s response to the more common FOIA requests a quicker and easier process. In my other digitization responsibilities we are increasingly responding to government agencies wanting us to digitize and provide online access to their own most requested materials. (These materials end up on our Governing Michigan collection.)

But this is a blog about preservation and not open government. Government agencies can only fulfill FOIA requests if they have and can access the information being requested. Preserving these records in an accessible format is a vital responsibility of government – and something that personally motivates me to do what I do. One thing that helps hold government accountable for its past decisions and actions is well-maintained records of those past decisions and actions. The challenges of capturing, preserving, and providing access to that information have only increased as governments have moved to digital media.

In thinking about preserving government information for open access Sunshine is a curious metaphor. If you’ve ever watched a single episode of Antiques Roadshow you’ve heard the advice to keep things out of the sunlight. Sunlight damages materials and speeds up the aging process. But sunlight (both literal and figurative) also reveals and exposes and allows materials to be read. We preserve (keep out of sunlight) to provide access (let the light shine in.)

If the sun shines in and exposes unorganized shelves of crumbling paper and unreadable files, then we – our government, and those of us who preserve government records – have failed.

A few resources for more information about open government:
Sunlight Foundation
Sunshine Week
Free Government Info
Michigan Coalition for Open Government

(I feel I should probably reiterate that everything on the Library Preservation 2 blog is my own opinion and is in no way endorsed by my employer.)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Citizen Four and Preservation

Last night I watched Citizenfour, a documentary about Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. Others play a role in the story but those are the two main "characters". I'm going to presume that anyone reading this has a pretty good idea what the story is about.

I found it to be a discouraging and disheartening story - or rather a story filled with discouraging and disheartening information. Shortly after watching it, however, I began to ask myself "What preservation lessons might be learned from all this?" (I'm a little embarrassed that I ask this question in so many different contexts. I feel like a man with a single thought who needs to bring everything back to preservation. But if that's who I am I guess I should run with it.)

Two things that came to mind after this film were our decisions of what to preserve, and where to preserve it.

It seems to me that within our increasingly digital context the default approach to records and information is to keep it, even if only through neglect. Adding more file cabinets to take on more files can cause us to reconsider how much we are keeping, whereas decisions to buy a bigger hard drive, or using cloud-based storage are easily made. The apparent ease of keeping data reduces our felt need to decide what to keep, and more importantly, to decide what to dispose of.

But when do we consider if the convenience and ease of retaining this data is less significant than the potential threat of its misuse or use against your interests?

Libraries took the lead on this in response to the Patriot Act by assuring that their systems did not retain records of patron transaction histories. There could be value in retaining those records, like proving more personalized experience for patrons, but the principle of patron privacy is deemed to be more valuable.

It seems an important question to ask if the value of preserving information is greater than the potential harm or violation that could be done with that information? Is the convenience of preserving your various passwords on a post-it attached to your monitor of greater value than the risk of someone finding and using those passwords for malicious purposes? Do we keep things because it is easy and convenient, or do we keep them because we need to?

Related to choosing what to preserve - and what not to preserve - is the choice of where to preserve it and related security questions. After viewing this film, it is hard for me to think anything other than if you don't want the NSA (and who knows who else) to be able to access your files, don't store them with a cloud-based provider. It's really hard to know where in a networked environment your data is not vulnerable to intrusion.

A significant part of preservation is providing security from threats, and while there is no way to avoid all threats it is important to know and understand your security vulnerabilities. It would be a sad conclusion if the only way to mitigate the risk of security vulnerability was through self-censorship. There is not preserving what you don’t need, but there can also be not preserving what you do need, because the risk of unwanted discovery is too great.

It was a striking closing scene in the movie to see Snowden and Greenwald in a room communicating with a few spoken words, but mostly hand-written notes - which were then shredded. Information was shared between then in a way that had the least vulnerability to interception.

I fully acknowledge, I do not write these things as a very informed voice. And my desire is not to be alarmist or paranoid. My simple goals are to be more aware of the ramifications of my preservation decisions; and to be more aware of what I value.