An Intern Considers the Digital Preservation Challenge, Part 1

The following is a guest post by Jennifer Clark, an NDIIPP intern from the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

INTERN@T, by nicholasnova, on Flickr

[email protected], by nicholasnova, on Flickr

I came to NDIIPP expecting to hear that institutions and the public weren’t prioritizing digital preservation, and that the next wave of librarians would need to shout from the rooftops to raise awareness that digital objects are facing mass obsolescence. I expected a clear, clean outline of the steps we can take to make digital preservation a priority. What I learned, however, paints a much more complex picture.

The overall consensus of the staff at NDIIPP is that both the public and professionals working in cultural heritage and government institutions actually do know that digital preservation is important and even essential, but they aren’t always sure of the best ways of approaching the problem and achieving success in their preservation activities. Nearly every digital object is important to someone, but there isn’t always an awareness of the object’s short lifespan. Users often need to understand more deeply how digital objects age or how there may be a need to access the item in the future.

Part of the misunderstanding or lack of knowledge may stem from the fact that many unique preservation activities get lumped under the same digital preservation umbrella. Though some challenges exist across the board, like limited resources, each digital preservation community faces its own specific challenges:

  • Independent musicians and community musical archivists risk inhibiting future monetization if they compress source files into an MP3 or album art work into a low image resolution.
  • Geospatial data collectors create files that are large and unwieldy, and most of the files exist in propriety formats. Questions remain as to who manages what data sets, and how local and state institutions will be able to allow access in spite of the large file sizes.
  • State and local governments face shrinking budgets with concerns as to who will be able to archive government documents long term, since the risk of losing access to these files is directly tied to the stability of the funding for the archival infrastructure.
  • Web archivists struggle to provide access to users while staying within the reigns of fair use, as well as having to combat ever-changing web technologies when trying to capture and tame the “Wild West” of the digital landscape.
  • Personal archiving outreach requires that preservationists make the public aware of file format differences and the need for many different copies in different locations.
  • Software preservationists have to decide what it is that they want to preserve – whether it be source code or recreating user experience, while battling software dependencies and copyright issues.

If these issues weren’t complicated and diverse enough, preservationists must anticipate future uses for these objects. Digital objects are no longer just for viewing or reading but also for data analysis and visualization. It is not sufficient to save these items merely for human interaction; we must also preserve for future machine interaction as well. These items are all pieces of data that can be used and manipulated in new and interesting ways, and in ways that we may not even be able to conceive of yet. Our computational capacities are beginning to influence our research questions and projects, such as incorporating geospatial information into digital maps, and these digital objects will play an essential role for scholarship now and in the future.

Digital preservationists have to help knock down these walls that impede progress, and they must work quickly and efficiently. In many ways, digital preservationists must value pragmatism over idealism to make sure as many of our digital objects are as safe as possible. In the slower-paced analog world of days gone by, it was easier to painstakingly select and appraise items, but in the digital deluge, we must move away from prioritizing perfection in processing over protection of our objects. As technology continues to improve, preservationists will find new ways to automate the processing of born-digital items, but we will not have anything to process if we don’t acquire as much at-risk material as we can right now.

As librarians, we can often become overly concerned with owning, centralizing and organizing, but when dealing with digital objects, the scale, copyright issues and shifting environment makes it impossible to achieve perfection. The entire profession must challenge the stereotypical idea of librarian as change-adverse and become adaptable practitioners with a never-ending thirst for knowledge and emerging technologies.

2 Comments

  1. Meg Miner
    March 27, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    This is a great overview of the issues at stake. May I have permission to reuse some of the bulleted examples for a presentation on my campus?

    I think this sentence is spot-on: “digital preservationists must value pragmatism over idealism to make sure as many of our digital objects are as safe as possible.” Getting the objects is one thing, but saving enough information about them to be able to hang onto them long term strikes me as another challenge.

    And while I don’t think librarians actually are “change-adverse” I don’t disagree with the conclusion that we have to keep up. The trick is in knowing how given all the things that compete for time in our days 🙂

  2. Susan
    April 8, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    Great intern article! I will be pointing people to this. It explains all the problems in a nutshell. It is hard for us to give guidance to small institutions about what they should do for digital preservation when even the big guys feel like they are wandering blindfolded at the moment.

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