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Data: A Love Story in the Making

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Here’s a simple experiment that involves asking an average person two questions. Question one is: “how do you feel about physical books?” Question two is: “how do you feel about digital data?”

"I Love Data" She Wept, by bixentro, on Flickr
“I Love Data” She Wept, by bixentro, on Flickr

The first question almost surely will quickly elicit warm, positive exclamations about a life-long relationship with books, including the joy of using and owning them as objects. You may also hear about the convenience of reading on an electronic device, but I’ll wager that most people will mention that only after expounding on paper books.

The second question shifts to cooler, more uncertain ground. The addressee may well appear baffled and request clarification. You could help the person a bit by specifying digital materials of personal interest to them, such as content that resides on their tablet or laptop. “Oh, that stuff,” they might say with measured relief. “I’m glad it’s there.”

These divergent emotional reactions should be worrying to those of us who are committed to keeping digital cultural heritage materials accessible over time. Trying to make a case for something that lacks emotional resonance is difficult, as marketing people say. Most certainly, the issue of limited resources is a common refrain when it comes to assessing the state of digital preservation in cultural heritage institutions; see the Canadian Heritage Information Network’s Digital Preservation Survey: 2011 Preliminary Results, for example.

The flip side is that traditional analog materials are a formidable competitor for management resources because those materials are seen in a glowing emotional context. I don’t mean to say that analog materials are awash in preservation money; far from it. But physical collections still have to be managed even as the volume of digital holdings rapidly rise, and efforts to move away from reliance on the physical are vulnerable to impassioned attack by people such as Nicholson Baker.

What is curious is that even as we collectively move toward an ever deeper relationship with digital, there remains a strong nostalgic bond with traditional book objects. A perfect example of this is a recent article, Real books should be preserved like papyrus scrolls. The author fully accepts the convenience and the future dominance of ebooks, and is profoundly elegiac in his view of the printed word. But, far from turning away from physical books, he declares that “books have a new place as sacred objects, and libraries as museums.” One might see this idea as one person’s nostalgic fetish, but it’s more than that. We can only wonder how long and to what extent this kind of powerful, emotionally-propelled thinking will drive how cultural heritage institutions operate, and more importantly, how they are funded.

As I’ve written before, we’re at a point where intriguing ideas are emerging about establishing a potentially deeper and more meaningful role for digital collections. This is vitally important, as a fundamental challenge that lies before those who champion digital cultural heritage preservation is how to develop a narrative that can compete in terms of personal meaning and impact.

Comments (8)

  1. What I’ve been thinking about lately is how our romances are captured. The box of letters elicit the same wave of nostalgia as your mention of a book. What does the inbox of emails elicit? The online dating profile? The torrent of photographs?

    • Nick, that’s a great question. I seen a few anecdotes about how digital files elicit strong emotion, such as emails & photos from people killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, as well as efforts to memorialize Facebook pages for the deceased, but it’s not clear to me exactly how much personal connection most people feel with their own digital content (and how best to convey that awareness). That’s something worth exploring.

  2. I’ve recently retired. Over the length of my employment as a digital graphic designer, I’ve had many computers, many email software configurations and several blogs resulting in quite a bit of digital clutter. I’ve had to go through a good bit of the clutter for personal and professional reasons. Reading old blog posts that will soon go away, reading old emails saved on servers, reviewing old project files from 15 years ago all give me the same wave of emotion that shoe boxes, albums, and drawers of stuff have. I think digital data just hasn’t been around long enough in most people’s lives to have developed the same emotional power. Give it time. Or talk to people who’ve been around it longer.

    • David,

      Good point. Emotion often is a product of time, and the longer we are around data the more we may feel an emotional connection with it.

  3. I suspect this is one area where emulation will provide value for many types of data.

    I’ve noticed that when users interact with data through the original software environments (via emulation), their experiences are much more emotional than when they interact with the data in modern environments.

    There is nothing quite like seeing the blue screen from WordPerfect for DOS in 2014 to bring you back to when you spent hours working on documents in the product back in its heyday.

    • Euan,

      Fascinating point that makes perfect sense. Memory and emotion are clearly tied to the entire material experience of viewing and interacting with digital content. Thanks for making that clear!


  4. Pardon my late entry to this conversation. You write “These divergent emotional reactions should be worrying to those of us who are committed to keeping digital cultural heritage materials accessible over time.” and I’m not so sure I agree. While I acknowledge divergent emotional reactions, how key are these emotional reactions to setting policy and funding? Was microfilming newspaper borne out of an emotional response to newspapers? And I’ve not done more than 5 seconds of thinking about it, but where is preservation funding going, but towards digital.

    I still think physical objects have an easier emotional pull, but I’m not sure that emotional pull has a significant impact on the actual preservation decisions and actions of organizations.

    • Kevin,

      If we consider preservation funding to include the costs for housing and managing collections, I’d venture to say the vast majority resources go to physical collections. Most of the staff and physical plants for libraries, archives and museums are for managing and keeping analog materials.

      Nearly everywhere I know of, preservation of born digital materials is regarded as an adjunct to a long-standing mission to safeguard physical objects. And where hardcopy is replaced with something else, like microfilm or digital, institutions are vulnerable to the Nicholson Baker line of attack. “Rational” arguments about saving space or expanding access wither in the face of outrage over “neglecting” physical materials.

      My basic worry here is that average people may be less inclined to feel the same emotional tug for keeping born digital materials. What if people really are fine with libraries as book museums? Public support for born digital preservation might be hard to come by.

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