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An Intern Considers the Digital Preservation Challenge, Part 2

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

In yesterday’s post, I discussed how my initial ideas about digital preservation changed during my visit with NDIIPP. Today, I consider what I learned about building a socio-technical cyberinfrastructure.

In an ever-changing digital landscape, with limited budgets and resources, up against a variety of difficult-to-solve challenges, preservationists must learn to work smarter, not harder. The term cyberinfrastructure is often used to describe the type of infrastructure that will be needed in order to share and manage data on a very large scale. The idea of a cyberinfrastructure is one that includes a network of both technology and people, but often the conversation leans more heavily on the raw infrastructure, tools, and standards still needed to create the system. While the raw infrastructure is an essential piece of the puzzle, it shouldn’t be the entire picture.

No digital facelifts: thinking the unthinkable, by giulia.forsythe, on Flickr
No digital facelifts: thinking the unthinkable, by giulia.forsythe, on Flickr

Making progress in digital preservation is not just an issue of technology and tools; it’s also an issue of collaboration. This sentiment was echoed time and time again in my interviews with the staff of NDIIPP, and they agreed that while we still need to keep working on the technology problems we face, we must also work to bring communities together. Knowledge sharing is essential in digital preservation because a large portion of the work does not have any precedence, and professionals aren’t always aware of others in the field working through similar problems. The type of cyberinfrastructure we need, therefore, is not just one based on super computers and sophisticated software, it’s also one made of people.

NDIIPP has a number of exciting projects which assist in the building of a socio-technical cyberinfrastructure. From the creation of tools like Viewshare, which allows institutions to visualize their digital collections, to the creation of collaborations like the National Digital Stewardship Alliance, which allows institutions to come together to work through the unique problems encountered in everyday digital preservation activities, NDIIPP has been working to create a network of networks. The Library of Congress has also assisted in creating a common framework for discussion with the help  of tools like the NDSA Levels of Preservation Glossary, and they provide outreach services to individuals in the community for best practices in personal archiving as well as train the trainer programs.

After learning about these programs in person and witnessing some of the work being done, I now believe that the future of the profession is not only to become advocates, but also to become collaborators. We can help people by speaking their own language in order to help them understand the value of preserving their digital items, whether it’s explaining to musicians the importance of keeping lossless digital originals or showing state governments how to work together in order to save money. By convincing people of the future value of their digital objects in a way that is important to them and shifting some of the work to the creation of the digital object, we not only save the objects and help other communities, but we also help ourselves by saving precious processing time and costs.

Becoming collaborators, however, comes with an extra set of responsibilities. We must view these collaborations as merely extending or building on top of existing infrastructures and workflows. All of the communities that need our assistance with digital preservation activities have existing workflows in place, whether the community is comprised of scientists or music label professionals or software engineers. The easiest way to get people to become fellow collaborators is to tap into their familiar workflows and to seamlessly integrate preservation activities, rather than trying to create a parallel workflow or impose an entirely new one.

To borrow the words of NDIIPP’s Acting Director, Leslie Johnston, “None of us should. Ever. Work. Alone. Anymore.” The problems we are facing are too fast and complex, and far too often our institution’s budgets and resources are shrinking at an alarming pace. The only way we are going to be able to keep pushing forward is to build a new coalition of people passionate about digital preservation. Part of the shift will require we take a hard look at our traditional roles.

In my previous post, I mentioned that librarians will have to shake off some of the traditional stereotypes in order to make progress in these new and challenging areas. We will need to be sensitive of our designated communities needs rather than obsessed with our own idealism. We need to help put people at a table together, give them some guidance and best practices, and get out of their way. If we pursue the authoritative librarian role, the only object we’re guaranteed to push into obsolescence is ourselves. NDIIPP’s staff and its projects provide a great model, and we can’t let them do this work alone.

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