The following is a guest post by Jennifer Clark, intern with NDIIPP at the Library of Congress.
I am a first-year Master of Science student at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign through their online distance-learning LEEP program. I am pursuing a specialization in Data Curation which focuses on data management best practices with course work in digital preservation, information modeling and representation objects. I am particularly interested in how institutions decide what needs to be saved and how, as well as how those decisions affect patron access and their future interaction with the digital object.
Though digital preservation issues have recently grabbed my attention, I have been familiar with many digital preservation problems for years. As a hobby, I regularly participated in National Novel Writing Month, a month-long race that occurs in November to frantically write a novel of 50,000 words in 30 days. To date, I have written four draft novels, and all were born-digital. During those late nights, I became painfully aware of the stability issues that can occur with born-digital objects and how my computer might decide to interact with my precious, burgeoning “Great American Novel.” Without fail, right around 25,000 words, my word processor would corrupt my file. To this day, I have multiple backups of each of my novels in a variety of formats, but only after many heart-stopping incidents.
When I began my degree I started to wonder, if I had so much trouble preserving and stabilizing four relatively small files that held such personal significance, how do we as a profession begin to preserve and stabilize the millions – or billions – of files that make up our national digital heritage? Moreover, though I immensely valued my novels because I had a blood, sweat and tears connection with them, did I feel the same way about digital documents that did not hold a sentimental value, like my tax returns or my lease? How do librarians assist people in assigning value to intangible, impersonal and quickly-fleeting digital objects?
There has been a cultural shift in the last few years that has deemed digital objects as something “less-than.” Stories run weekly about how eBooks are poor substitutions for real books, and many musical artists are going back to releasing vinyl, believing the experience to be somehow better than listening to an MP3. We even attempt to make our digital photographs look like they were taken by an old Polaroid with the help of tools like Instagram. Admittedly, there is something to be said for experiencing an original, but what happens when the digital object IS the original? Do we still value it less?
We have already begun the tough work of ensuring that our traditional cultural heritage will be preserved for many generations. There is no argument that President Lincoln’s letters or a Civil War soldier’s accounts should be preserved. It’s easy to connect to physical items because they live in our physical realm – our bookshelves, our walls, and our museums, but digital objects often feel too-far removed. They are separated from us by our computers, our software, and our social media. Although we have discovered ways to slow-down or halt deterioration of traditional information objects like letters and photographs, the same cannot be said of the deterioration of born-digital objects. In many ways, these objects are much more fragile, and we should be in a much greater rush to preserve.
As part of the GSLIS Alternative Spring Break program, I’ll be conducting interviews with the people at NDIIPP to better understand how they propose we tackle our digital preservation problem and begin to value our digital objects. I want to know their opinions on the progress being made with digital preservation efforts as well as how their personal projects fit into the big picture. I hope to gain some insight into how we can accept our new digital norm to preserve what is most important before it’s too late, and I’ll be writing two blog posts to summarize my findings.
If there is one lesson that has been reinforced again and again in my short time at GSLIS, it is that our future roles will not be librarians, but advocates. I hope my week at NDIIPP will teach me how to be a better advocate for digital preservation at home, at school, and in my community.