The Darker Side of the Digital Content Life Cycle

In May I was suffering from writer’s block and crowdsourced some topics for blog posts on Facebook.  I got some very funny suggestions, many useful suggestions, and one that was both humorous and serious that kept sticking in my mind from my LC colleague Rosie Storey:  “Digital content death cycle. Hoard, corrupt, abandon, neglect.”

This resonated with me because I have seen it happen. (And, as a disclaimer, none of my examples are from the Library of Congress. I will never say where they happened, so don’t ask.)

File Not Found, Some rights reserved by MikeNeilson on <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikeneilson/532623208/in/photostream/" target="_blank">Flickr</a>

File Not Found, Some rights reserved by MikeNeilson on Flickr

Now, I am one of those people who subscribe (mostly) to the “collect all the things” school of collection development. I have been around long enough to see successes where physical items that were purchased through blanket approval plans or seemingly wacky digital collections acquired or created through a fluke of opportunity become vital resources when new research trends take over or when new tools and increased computing capacity make innovative analysis possible.  I wish that, given unlimited funds and storage space, we could taken in every collection we were offered or had the opportunity to digitize. But I know we can’t, and we have to carefully consider what we add to our collections.

I don’t like referring to collection development as “hoarding,” but it can seem that way sometimes. It has to be, because you cannot always guess what will be needed for research in the future and you must collect broadly. That’s at the core of collection development theory. But sometimes hoarding happens as a result of last minute decisions that are not, shall we say, made in a strategic context.

I have seen digital collections acquired that have gotten little to no use. I once ran web statistics on some collections  and found we had collections that got a single view per month. In making decisions about migration at a later date, those stats meant that the collections were packed up and held for migration at a much later date. Or not at all.

I have seen digital collections corrupted. They are put online, servers are updated, and the applications to index and deliver the collections break. Servers crash and files cannot be restored. Or collections are migrated but files are missed. I have seen collections accidentally deleted from servers and backups are nowhere to be found.  I have seen collection sites overwritten with new versions and the older versions not retained. I was working with a very high-use online collection when we discovered that some bad images.  We went back to the original CDs to get the images, to find that there were write artifacts and the files on the discs were unsuable. No one had ever checked that they had written to the CDs correctly, so we had no useable masters.

I have seen collections abandoned and neglected. The faculty member or curator who championed the acquisition or creation of the collection leaves, and it is never added to, promoted to users, or prioritized for migration in the future. I once had a server hacked, and some abandoned collections were not restored. A decision had to be made about human effort to restore them in terms of space and fixing anything that broke during the migration. Who knows how much effort it took to create them in the first place, to then see them left behind.

I don’t want to collect tales of woe about this darker side of the digital content life cycle, but I do want cautionary tales like these to be communicated, so that we can all consider what we are acquiring and if we are remembering to undertake proper stewardship.

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