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Making the Point About Digital Preservation

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The following is a guest post by Chelcie Rowell, 2012 Junior Fellow.

At the opening keynote of DigitalPreservation 2012, Anil Dash exhorted the digital preservation community to build bridges to other groups, from the tech community to everyday people.

Nintendo Entertainment System, by dansays, on Flickr
Nintendo Entertainment System, by dansays, on Flickr

Just a few days later, Emily Reynolds and I got to practice talking about digital preservation with a diverse audience at the 2012 Junior Fellows display at the Library of Congress. Along with 36 other fellows, Emily and I presented the products of our work this summer. For us, those products included outreach videos featuring Library staff talking about how their division manages digital content over its life cycle, as well as a policy analysis of existing digital preservation practices. Just as meaningfully, the Junior Fellows display also gave us an opportunity to step to the front lines of digital preservation outreach.

Earlier on The Signal, Erin Engle wrote about developing a 30-second description for family and friends about her digital preservation work. The conversation generated in the comment thread noted the importance of analogies when talking about digital preservation to a new audience, such as how “the many volumes in the complete correspondence of Thomas Jefferson compared to the 6 million emails churned out in each year of the Clinton White House.”

A disk pack in action, Fotothek df n-10 0000117.jpg, by Deutsche Fotothek, on Wikimedia
A disk pack in action, Fotothek df n-10 0000117.jpg, by Deutsche Fotothek, on Wikimedia

Analogies such as these vividly illustrate the challenges faced by managers of digital content. Another strategy is to give your audience something they can hold in their hands—objects like a 8” floppy, Nintendo Entertainment System cartridge and 1970s-era disk pack.

Luckily, at the Junior Fellows display we had all three, borrowed from the desks of resident OSI geeks. We found that nothing draws people into a conversation about digital preservation like something you can touch.

Almost everyone commented on the 8” floppy disk. Teenagers and young adults asked why we included a Super Mario Nintendo cartridge in our display. Second-generation technologists, who caught glimpses of server stacks as children, crossed the room to see a 1970s-era disk pack up close. Resembling a stack of LP records, a disk pack is the component of a hard drive that stores data and spins while it’s being read. The particular disk pack we displayed was one of the first removable storage media.

L'evoluzione della specie, by Aldoaldoz, on Flickr
L'evoluzione della specie, by Aldoaldoz, on Flickr

Each of these objects spoke to core digital preservation threats, such as hardware dependency and media obsolescence. It’s intuitive that you need the 1985 Nintendo system to play the game cartridge. Similarly, almost everyone who visited our display recognized the 8” floppy, but no one had the drive to read it.

The more we talked with different people, we were surprised to realize at least one characteristic shared by the 8” floppy, cartridge and disk pack. Although the disk pack dates to the 1970s and the others date to the mid-1980s, all are examples of removable storage media.

At the same time, setting these objects next to one another revealed interesting points of contrast. The game cartridge—designed to be played again and again and again by children—seemed indestructible in contrast to the fragile 8” floppy.

The disk pack was definitely the least familiar object on our display table, but even it afforded comparisons with more familiar storage media. For example, instead of inscribing data onto the disk by means of grooves in vinyl (like a record) or by means of a laser (like a CD or DVD), data on disk packs was stored magnetically.

What communication strategies do you use when talking about digital preservation with different audiences? How do you encourage people to see themselves as preservationists? Let us know in the comments!

Comments (2)

  1. Chelcie, I think you put your finger (or your audience’s fingers) on one of the best touchstones for obsolescence. In my live classes in variable media at the University of Maine, I often pass around formerly ubiquitous storage-media-turned-drink-coasters.

    This September we are launching a Digital Curation grad program (, but as it’s taught entirely online we’re using other ways to introduce the topic.

    Here’s a simple one: Write down examples of technologies introduced over the past millennium (or more), and sort them by date. The resulting curve clearly demonstrates how a product’s shelf-life shrinks the closer you get to the present.

    You can perform the same exercise with a project you have worked on in the past year. List all the work’s technological and cultural aspects that are vulnerable to obsolescence, along with a guess as to the viability in years of each aspect.

    The Dead Media List is also a fun, if sobering, compendium of technological has-beens.


  2. Jon,

    I am in fact the proud owner of a set of 3.5″ floppies repurposed as drink coasters!

    Thanks for sharing these digital preservation thought exercises. I especially love the idea of a graph of time-until-obsolescence over the past millennium.


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