Apr 202014

I just finished D.T. Max’s fine new book, Every Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. The book is elegantly written and does a wonderful job in portraying Wallace, who was a polymath genius, stunning literary talent and deeply sincere humanist .

51MbRwLrSoL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_While I enjoyed learning more about all aspects of the man, I was especially interested in what Max had to say about Wallace’s use of computers. Which is to say: not much. I was a bit disappointed in this because, later in his career, Wallace did use a computer to draft his work and went on to use email for correspondence.

Wallace left a hybrid collection, the vast majority of which seems to have been on paper. He came of age during the late 1970s and early 1980s, before the widespread adoption of personal computers, and began his literary career using the traditional tools of handwritten and typescript drafts. Wallace also used paper correspondence with friends, editors and a variety of literary figures, including Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen. Thankfully, a good deal of this material survives in the David Foster Wallace Papers in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Yet, according to Max, Wallace did come use a computer around his mid 20s. It seems he began drafting by hand and then transcribed the work into electronic form, maybe in way similar to how he used a typewriter beforehand. What I found striking is there is so little discussion of how Wallace actually used the machine and what insights might be offered from his digital files. How extensively did he rework drafts on the screen, for example? What is revealed through a forensic analysis of the files and their media? How did the machine influence his work?

Part of the issue is that Wallace was no computer nerd. “Thank God,” Max quotes him as saying in reaction to a new piece of computer equipment “I wasn’t raised in this era.” Another issue is just what kind of born digital material exists for Wallace.

At the least there are files relating to his posthumous novel, The Pale King. Wallace’s editor at Little Brown turned a “tower of a manuscript and the handwritten journals and notebooks… and stacks of computer disks whose labels indicated the evolution of the novel’s title” into the finished work. The Ransom Center states that this material is slated to be placed with the rest of his archive. It will be interesting to see what kind of use the disks–along with whatever other born digital materials that might survive–are put to.


Mar 242014

Are you looking forward to The Emails of Thomas Pynchon? Or maybe Jonathan Franzen: Tweets and Chats?

Sorry, but the future holds something different for the literary remains of famous authors.

By Frank Boyd, on Flickr

By Frank Boyd, on Flickr

Email and other forms of digital technology represent a sea change for writers. Works are drafted and rewritten on the screen. Authors have a vastly expanded capability to create and to correspond with editors, friends and others, all of whom may be just a few keystrokes away.

But the degree to which any one writer’s digital trail survives is very much an open question. In 2005, for example, Zadie Smith speculated that her email would “will go the way of everything else I write on the computer–oblivion.”

Famous writers have long bequeathed their correspondence, drafts and unpublished works to libraries and archives. It’s an arrangement that benefits everyone: the institution build prestige; the researcher get revealing material; the public learns about the literary back story; and the writer (or her estate) gets money. Yet the whole system as we know it is built on paper: letters, journals and hand-annotated drafts.

Personal digital content threatens everything. The biggest problem is the “personal” part: authors, like the rest of us, can be poor stewards of their own digital legacy. They don’t back up their hard drives. Their files are a disorganized mess. Their content is scattered among multiple devices and online platforms. And while writers may know that some of this digital material has enduring value, there is as yet no easy way to even think about preserving it. All of us are still working though what digital means in our lives.

People have a natural emotional connection to works on paper–it’s easy to see, to handle and to store. It’s durable and even resists apparent efforts to destroy it. Even though Samuel Clements could, for example, write a letter declaring “shove this in the stove… I don’t want any absurd ‘literary remains’ & ‘unpublished letters of Mark Twain’ published after I am planted,” the words live on because they were on paper.

Clemens changed his mind regarding his letters, choosing to “leave it behind and utter it from the grave.” He has plenty of company.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Sylvia Plath, Mary McCarthy and Saul Bellow all left paper literary remains. Over the last century, libraries and archives have developed great expertise in acquiring and preserving this material.

But we are at an unusual point in documenting literary lives and works. Authors have had word processing and other forms of personal digital technology available to them for 30 years. Some writers have stubbornly refused to use it, but many have, and are contemplating their own “absurd literary remains.” What actually remains is big open question. Are there emails with editors or notable authors? Drafts with track changes? Ribald direct messages?

At this point, there are only a few institutions with literary personal digital materials. The Norman Mailer Papers at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, include “359 computer disks, 47 electronic files, 40 CDs, 6 mini data cartridges, 3 laptop computers [documenting] correspondence and literary drafts.” The Salman Rushdie Papers at the Emory University Library have “one Macintosh Performa 5400/180, one Macintosh PowerBook 5300c, two Macintosh PowerBook G3 models, and one SmartDisk FWFL60 FireLite 60GB 2.5′ FireWire Portable Hard Drive.” The Susan Sontag Papers at the Charles E. Young Library, University of California Los Angeles, contain “seventeen thousand one hundred and ninety-eight e-mails.” All these are hybrid collections, which is to say that most of the material is on paper.

How much born digital content is still out there, living wild under the good/bad/indifferent care of writers who find themselves to be their own unintended digital archivists? How ever much there is, I suspect that the proportion of paper to digital is rapidly declining.

What to do about it? Raise awareness about the value of personal digital archives across the board, pure and simple. Everyone has a story to tell and a digital legacy to pass on. The apparent value of email and other content will, I am sure, become more obvious over time.

This is already happening for writers. In 2005, Rick Moody told the New York Times that, when he was considering the sale of his papers, the dealer wanted to know about email. “This sort of brought to mind that there was a policy [for saving it], though it was a very unmethodical policy,” he said. Paying money for email is certainly one way to draw attention to its value. And once writers, agents, publishers, libraries and archives, and all the rest of us understand that personal digital collections warrant careful management from the moment of creation, we will see betters tools and methods for personal digital archiving.

In the meantime, we can only speculate how much and what kinds of digital literary remains will find their way into research collections. Or, to paraphrase Sontag, our libraries await the digital archives of longing.


Oct 022012

This post is based on remarks I presented during a Digital Dialog at the University of Maryland, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, on 9/25/2012.

Personal Digital Archiving Outreach, by Wlef70, on Flickr

Personal Digital Archiving Outreach, by Wlef70, on Flickr

I believe that libraries, archives and museums share a common need to aggressively promote their social mission. While there are fundamental variances among these organizations, current trends are driving them closer together, including a demand to justify relevance in an era of profound change in how people seek and use information.

Libraries, archives and museums also have a pressing imperative to deal with digital content. Each manages different kinds of content for different reasons, but they share the same challenge in keeping it accessible over time.  All institutions face a common need to raise public awareness about what is at stake for our culture in terms of preserving significant digital material. The danger of digital loss is growing along with the volume of digital information, and there much work to do in educating people about that risk.

Cultural heritage organizations have a great opportunity to fulfill their mission through what I loosely refer to as personal digital archiving. The heart of the matter is that individuals and families are building large collections of personal digital content, and they need advice and help to keep this content accessible into the future.  Cultural heritage institutions, as preserving entities with a public service orientation, are well-positioned to help people deal with their growing–and fragile–personal digital archives.  This is a way for institutions to connect with their communities in a new way, and to thrive.

I’m going to focus on public libraries, both because I think they are at the greatest risk and also because they also have the greatest opportunity to benefit from a focus on news kinds of services.

Libraries are obviously facing tough times. The Huffington Post recently ran a series called Libraries in Crisis. The lead article is headlined Can the American Library Survive? and features a litany of sad stories from communities across the country. There are two clear-cut issues at work here. First, the state and local governments that fund public libraries are under dire financial pressure. Second, there is a case to be made that at least some of the traditional functions of libraries have been supplanted by information technology. The result is budget cuts and reduced services for libraries nearly everywhere.

Map of US showing where libraries are being cut

To be sure, public libraries still enjoy a great deal of support. The HuffPo articles are replete with fierce testimonials in support of libraries as historic community resources and as essential public goods. Those of us of a certain age have warm memories about libraries as places where we discovered the joy of reading and discovering new knowledge. Experiences like this are deeply entwined in our values and lead to a reflexive ongoing support for the idea of public libraries.

As well, there is a wonderful egalitarian ideal involved. The Daily Kos blog, for example, recently wrote: “The library offers equal access to all. It is a truly public, truly socialized good. It doesn’t matter if you’re a homeless person or the mayor, when you walk-in to the library and present your library card, you have access to all of the same services.”

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators devotes a section to public libraries and declares that they are “the primary point of contact with the humanities” for many Americans.  David Carr, in The Promise of Cultural Institutions, writes lyrically about the importance of libraries. He declares that they “are among the most purposeful and intentional of institutions. … Holding the culture’s memory and minding its continuing community.”

Sentiments such as these have helped public libraries survive to this point. But no one can count on this emotional response to last. Budgetary pressures will continue, and many communities already are facing gut-wrenching choices about cutting other priority services. The English writer Will Self also claims that a good deal of the visceral support for public libraries is based on nostalgic memories rather than the value of current services. A clear-eyed view, according to him, would reveal that many libraries—in the UK, anyway—offer less than the resources they are given. Regardless of how right or wrong Self is, a new generation is rising with their own impression of the utility of the library, and they will eventually be making the decisions.

It’s clear that many in the library community understand that a new direction is essential. Susan Hildreth, Director of the Institute for Museums and Library Services, said recently that “There is no doubt that the future success of libraries depends on their ability to change and evolve to meet the changing ways that people access and use information.”

This is the right idea, but I do quibble with the use of “evolve,” which implies gradual development. Given the profound change libraries face, “rapidly transform” is more appropriate. Libraries 2020, Imagining the Library of the not too distant future, a report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, points to how information itself has morphed in ways that were impossible to imagine just a few decades ago.

Pew Internet and American Life Project, Libraries 2020, Imagining the Library of the not too distant future

Information used to be scarce, now it’s everywhere. It used to cost a lot, now it’s for the most part free. It used to be controlled by an elite, now it’s in the hands of everyone. Information used to be designed for one-way use but now it’s designed for sharing, participation and feedback. Pew also suggests that we now expect ready access to all kinds of information, including “location sensitive” details and data that provide immersive meaning in the context of our personal lives.

For libraries, these changes are amplified even more by new ideas about how people acquire knowledge. Lee Rainie from Pew spoke recently about the need for libraries to become an anchor for what he calls “learning communities.”

Institute for Museums and Library Services, Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills

Institute for Museums and Library Services, Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills

IMLS explores this situation further in Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills, which outlines the changes that cultural heritage organizations face. The adjustment centers on interactions with users. Most institutions, for example, traditionally serve as unquestioned centers of authority in delivering their content to users. In the new era, people expect more of a partnership. Users certainly continue to value the expertise of institutions and staff. But user communities also want the ability to influence how information is presented, accessed and understood. A big part of this is a push for closer relationships between staff and users with “a focus on audience engagement and experiences.”

Graphic from: Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public Library

The American Library Association recently issued Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public Library (PDF)which outlines the strategic choices that institutions will have to make as they adapt to the needs of their communities. The key message is institutions must shift along several dimensions of their operations. ALA presents a model to think about the strategic choices that institutions will have to make as they adapt to the needs of their communities.

As I interpret this model, the left dimension represents the way public libraries have traditionally functioned: as physical places dealing with physical objects, focusing on providing access to a common set of authoritative resources. The right dimension is often seen as “the library of the future” with features such as virtual services, broad-based community interaction, and the availability of specialized resources and equipment, such as fab labs and 3D printers. The bottom dimension is particularly interesting. It represents a choice between the library as a place where you can get standard published information and as a place where you find information that is unique to a particular community. At the far right along this dimension, the library actually is more like an archive—which is exactly the term the report uses. To fill this role, libraries will collect and preserve unique local materials, such as neighborhood histories, photographs of local people and places, as well as other multimedia resources.

It’s possible to image a library positioning itself at various points along each line, but it seems to me that moving one way on one dimension has the effect of pulling the other dimensions in the same direction. It also seems to me that enhanced community engagement, a focus on new media and facilitating locally-based collections is a great way for libraries to build public support and demonstrate value.

Economists talk about a concept known as “the value proposition,” which can be defined as a promise to the consumer that they will get a worthwhile experience in exchange for what it costs.

In a cultural heritage context, the term begs some pointed questions. Do institutions offer what the public wants? What makes institutional products, services, or messages valuable? Why should people, for example, care about a preservation mission? At the most basic level, addressing these questions comes down to getting and holding attention. Capturing even fleeting awareness is a challenge in today’s information-soaked environment. Ultimately a public institution must aim to form an emotional bond with its community, and this requires connecting with people in a way that matters to them personally. MuseumNext founder Jim Richardson talks about “social commerce for the cultural sector,” by which he means having institutions understand what their communities want and then using outreach to “sell” their services.

Perhaps the most important consideration for public libraries is the need to justify relevance in modern terms to modern audiences. To quote David Carr, “the incendiary institution… must understand its own energy and how that energy attracts and engages its users: How does it lead people in? . …Users will increase in number when the institution addresses them and the problems that learning presents to contemporary life.” Institutions should know that people—particularly younger people—need a different approach to lead people in. As Nick Poole from the UK Collections Trust says in his talk Powering the Museum of Tomorrow, “meeting the needs of future audiences demands new technologies and new ways of thinking.” Poole notes that today and tomorrow’s generations have grown up in a world designed around them. There is a basic expectation of being empowered to do what they want to do. Any aspect of life that doesn’t fit that model will be ignored.

Right now there is plenty of competition for people’s attention, commitment and passion. Even the notion of cultural heritage and who should collect it is up for grabs. Anyone can set up a social media account and declare themselves a curator of an archive of something or another. This is an empowering turn of events, but it also illustrates the competition for community attention that institutions face. Some cultural heritage organizations are quite aware of what they are up against. A “voter sentiment” report for the public library in Cromaine, MI, declared that “With the heavy competition for attention from all forms of media, libraries must work to market their value and services as much as any organization.”

I would argue that personal digital archiving is a key marketing advantage for public libraries. People are amassing large bodies of digital content such as photographs, videos and social media streams, but they have little in the way of guidance for managing and preserving this content. The need for help in this area is rapidly growing, both because the content is expanding and because its value—sentimental and otherwise—is becoming more apparent. As noted earlier, libraries already enjoy a trusted community role. This offers a unique and potentially very effective way for institutions to connect their mission with the personal concerns of contemporary citizens. In this way, people can develop a more expansive basis for supporting the role of the library in their community.

Screen shot from Library of Congress website for personal digital archiving

Several libraries around the country are already doing personal digital archiving outreach. I trace the origin of these activities primarily to two initiatives. The first is the Library of Congress National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program website, digitalpreservation.gov. Full disclosure: I manage the site along with NDIIPP social media activities. And, at the risk of self-aggrandizement, let me say that the personal digital archiving section on the site is one of the best for members of the public who are seeking basic help. Included are a series of tips for dealing with different kinds of content, along with a dozen short videos focusing on topics such as preserving digital photographs and the cultural importance of digital preservation. A recently added feature is the Personal Digital Archiving Day Kit, which provides guidance and information resources to help institutions hold public outreach sessions.

NDIIPP also works to raise awareness about digital preservation through a Twitter stream, @ndiipp, and a blog, The Signal. We’ve made a concerted effort to reach a broad audience. The NDIIPP team found the most effective way to draw in readers were posts about personal digital archiving topics. After nearly a year and a half of blogging, nearly all of the most-read posts cover personal digital archiving topics. Our hope is that some readers will take steps to preserve their digital memories. The most motivated of these people could be activated to connect with a local institution to seek more advice. We hope as well that interest in personal digital archiving can be leveraged to raise public awareness about the overall value of preserving all forms of cultural heritage in digital form.

The second initiative that has draw attention to personal digital archiving is Preservation Week, which ALA initiated in 2010 to raise awareness about institutional collections. ALA declared that “Libraries and other institutions can use Preservation Week to connect our communities through events, activities and resources that highlight what we can do, individually and together, to preserve our personal and shared collections.” The organizational website includes a listing of events and a variety of preservation resources. The number of events has steadily grown, and in 2012 over 40 institutions in the U.S. and Canada held public outreach events, many of which included some discussion of personal digital archiving.

Buttons Promoting Digital Preservation, by Wlef70, on Flickr

Promotional buttons, by Wlef70, on Flickr

The public library impact on—and visibility from—digital archiving could be larger still in situations where libraries embrace the community archival function noted in the ALA report. A library could, for example, collect local government records, as well as historic community photographs, videos, blogs and oral histories. Librarians could work with citizens to build co-created community repositories to document local cultural heritage. Individuals could donate personal digital information to a repository, which has the dual benefit of expanding research material while also tightening the bond between the library and it’s community.

While this is a prospective vision for most public libraries, it can also be said—with apologies to William Gibson—that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. An exemplar is Digital Amherst, a project of the Jones Public Library of Amherst, Massachusetts. The web-based collection blends the library’s historical and literary resources with materials contributed by local residents. The Kansas City Public Library Missouri Valley Special Collections has a rich body of local content available online and solicits new material. The Fullerton, California, Public Library Local History Room has a repository with donations of materials by individuals as well as organizations. Digital Horizons, a consortium that includes the Fargo, ND, public library, solicits donations of digital photographs, videos and documents.

It is too soon to tell what the overall impact has been for personal digital archiving outreach and community repository development. My guess is that penetrating public attention will take some time. Personal collections need to keep expanding, and, sadly, a number need to be lost for the issue to resonate loudly enough to break through the torrent of other messages that people are exposed to every day. But I feel that public libraries have a great opportunity to capitalize on a growing need. And, given the rich set of personal digital archiving resources from the Library of Congress and others, launching a personal digital archiving outreach program is within the reach of nearly every public library.

The stakes are high. It could well be that personal digital archiving might turn out to be a test for how well libraries adapt to the changing needs of users. I don’t mean to say that other activities are less important, but libraries are in the business of managing information—and what people need is help managing their digital information. The other consideration is the extent to which libraries can continue to serve the role that Carr describes as “holding the culture’s memory and minding its continuing community.”

The memory of contemporary culture is now largely digital and huge parts of that memory are in the public’s hands. This is the reality that libraries face as they seek to thrive in the days ahead.


Sep 052012

This post consists of edited remarks I gave to the 17th Brazilian Conference of Archival Science/XVII Congresso Brasileiro de Arquivologia held in Rio de Janeiro in June of this year.  These remarks will be published in Portuguese as part of the conference proceedings.  My original presentation was given using a set of slides, a copy of which is available on Slideshare.

Libraries, archives and museums should take advantage of social media to promote their mission in general and digital preservation in particular. While there are fundamental variances among these organizations, current trends are driving them closer together, particularly with regard to how they manage digital content.

Each type of institution manages different kinds of content for different reasons, but they share the same challenge in keeping that content accessible over time. They also face a common need to raise public awareness about what is at stake for our culture in terms of preserving significant digital material. The danger of loss is growing along with the volume and complexity of digital information. There is still much work to do in making that risk clear to people. Most critically, all cultural heritage institutions must assert their relevance in an era of profound change in how people seek and use information.

I work at the U.S. Library of Congress as part of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation program. I manage our social media activities, and I think we do a fairly good job. We maintain an active Facebook page and have an extensive website, digitalpreservation.gov. For the last year, we have been blogging vigorously. I also have worked for a number of years at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, where I helped to preserve electronic records. I am taking a perspective beyond any one institution, and am offering only my personal opinions in this paper.

Libraries, archives and museums are collectively concerned about the future, as the titles of recent professional publications indicate. Examples include The Future of Archives in a Digital AgeConfronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public LibraryThe museum of the future is…; and A National Archives of the Future. This concern is well placed: our world is in the midst of an information revolution that forces us to seriously rethink how cultural heritage institutions meet their missions. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this revolution is that it is evolving so fast that we face a future that surely will transform all aspects of our work. A big part of this is that information itself is changing. The Pew Internet and American Life Project suggests that information used to be scarce, now it’s everywhere. It used to be controlled by an elite, now it is in the hands of everyone. Information used to be designed for one-way use but now it’s designed for sharing, participation and feedback.

Another way in which information has changed is that it has moved from paper and other analog media to digital formats. This change has been sudden, dramatic and risky. Information on paper is stable and can last for a long time without extensive maintenance. We have centuries of experience working with paper, and we are good at keeping it in archives. Digital information is notoriously different. The technology is rapidly evolving. Some of us know what a 5.25” floppy disk is; we might even still own some. But there are already plenty of younger people who have no idea what a floppy disk is or that it has anything to do with computers. As time passes, most varieties of computer media—and the information they contain—will fade into oblivion.

Every cultural heritage institution must accept basic facts about digital content. First, most institutions will be responsible for managing lots of data. Second, there is no simple way to preserve that data over time. And third, the best way to move ahead is to seek and share information about digital preservation standards, policies and best practices. Partially in response to this, institutions will shift along several key dimensions of their operations. The American Library Association presents the model shown in Figure 1 as a way to think about the strategic choices that institutions will have to make as they adapt to the needs of their communities.

Figure 1

Figure 1

We can see some familiar issues here, such as a movement away from physical space to virtual experiences and shifting focus from working with individual users to working with many users as the same time. The bottom dimension is particularly interesting. It represents a shift away from libraries as a portal to information to serving what is called an archival role. In other words, libraries will start collecting and preserving unique materials that are relevant to their area, such as neighborhood histories, photographs of local people and places, as well as other multimedia sources. This is an excellent way for libraries to connect in a meaningful way with users, and all cultural heritage institutions should consider the same approach.

Figure 2 is from the Institute of Museum and Library Services report Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills and outlines the major changes that cultural heritage organizations face. The adjustment centers around how institutions work with users. Most institutions, for example, traditionally serve as centers of authority in delivering their content to users. In the new era, people expect less filtering of information. Users certainly continue to value the expertise of institutions and staff. But users also want the ability to influence how information is presented, accessed and understood. A big part of this is a push for closer relationships between archival staff and users with a “focus on audience engagement, experiences.”

Figure 2

Figure 2

Archivists have traditionally spent much of their time working to make collections ready for research. They focus on arranging, describing and understanding provenance. In the traditional custodial model, users are expected to come through archivists to get to content. This is a model that has worked well for generations. But it is challenged by new forces. Consider the concept of “Web 2.0.” Wikipedia describes the term as “web-based services that facilitate participatory information sharing, interoperability and user-centered design.” “Archive 2.0” (or library 2.0 or museum 2.0) is shorthand for defining an approach that permits more direct access to collections and that regards users as equal partners in terms of determining the usefulness of those collections. This means that institutions have to be more transparent and collaborative about what they collect and how they make it available, especially when it comes to the digital content users seek.

Today many people—particularly those that have grown up immersed in digital technology—have firm expectations about the availability of information, and also firm expectations of freedom to use that information as they wish to learn something new. There are competing ideas about what cultural heritage institutions need to do to adapt to these expectations, but there are some common themes, including:

  • Institutions must work harder to understand the needs of their communities to build stronger relations and relationships.
  • Institutions should be less inward-looking and imagine their boundaries in more porous ways.
  • Staff need expertise to communicate directly with a broad spectrum of users and facilitate discussions focusing on topics the community cares about.
  • Organizations need to be flexible, responsive and agile in embracing new technologies and new ways of working.

Perhaps the most important theme relating to institutional change is the need to justify relevance in modern terms to modern audiences. A great deal of the pressure on institutions comes from the community they serve. In a wired world where a teenager with a smart phone has more information at their fingertips than a U.S. president did a few years, users have transformed from passive recipients to demanding consumers. This isn’t a new story—Time magazine declared “You” as the person of the year in 2007 because “You control the information age.” But there can be no doubt that people—particularly younger people—have different expectations about how to use information and how to value the institutions that provide information. This calls for discussing cultural heritage—and the work of cultural heritage organizations—in a way that fits into how people live their lives and that makes sense as part of their personal story. As Nick Poole from the UK Collections Trust says, “meeting the needs of future audiences demands new technologies and new ways of thinking.” To paraphrase Poole, today and tomorrow’s generations have grown up in a world designed around them. There is a basic expectation of being empowered to do what they want to do. Any aspect of life that doesn’t fit that model will be ignored.

Mind the “be ignored” part. There is plenty of competition for people’s attention, commitment and passion. Even the notion of cultural heritage and who should collect it is up for grabs. Any person or group can set up a social media account and declare it to be “an archive” of something or another. And many people will consider this to be culture heritage information, even though no formally trained curator is involved. This is an empowering turn of events, but it also demonstrates the competition for community attention, participation and commitment that institutions face. The fact that this competition exists should come as no surprise to cultural heritage organizations. In 2002, a report based on a survey of registered voters in Cromaine, MI, declared that “With the heavy competition for attention from all forms of media, libraries must work to market their value and services as much as any organization.”

Institutions of all types need to think about what the future holds in terms of expanded engagement with the community, particularly in connection with social media tools. The U.S. National Archives, for example, recently hosted a “Forum on Communications, Technology, and Government,” during which a panel explored “new opportunities and ideas for social media affecting the private, government, and public sectors and the average citizen.” The National Archives clearly sees its future as closely involved with social media. The agency made this point clearly with this suggested Facebook post: “For a change, the National Archives will focus on the future, not the past!” It is fascinating that the agency drew such as sharp contrast to its “focus on the past” by saying they have a “focus on the future” “for a change.” That’s a big message packed into a few words.

Thinking about the future is sensible. There’s just one thing—the future is here right now. There is precious little time to contemplate future audiences or think up future strategies. There are demands to undertake change now. The risk in waiting is that the larger culture will pass cultural heritage institutions by as a relic from a pre-wired world. Users expect relevant aspects of culture to come to them and to resonate with their needs. Now, many cultural heritage professionals are aware of the need to embrace technology and to engage with users in novel ways. There are some great efforts around the world to do just that, and some institutions are actively embracing the future with social media. William Gibson famously said “The future is already here–it’s just unevenly distributed.” These are still early days for libraries, archives and museums in using these tools, but the outlines of a strategy are emerging.

Social media is not, of course, an end to itself. It is a tool to help institutions interact with and build communities. Unless the tool is used correctly, it will accomplish little. If an institution is looking to social media to promote change some immediate questions arise. What should a strategy consider? Which specific tools can be used? What is the best way to measure the usefulness of those tools? A formal social media strategy is rare at this point for most institutions. An exception is the U.S. National Archives, which is explicit about its strategy and what it hopes to accomplish. “At the National Archives and Records Administration, social media tools have the potential to transform our agency and the way we serve our customers and American citizens,” states the agency website. “Social media tools will help us accomplish our mission as the nation’s record keeper to preserve government records and make them more accessible to you.”

In devising a social media strategy, it is useful to think of four basic goals (inform, engage, influence and activate) and four ways to measure success in meeting those goals (numbers, trends, mentions, shares). The goals focus on an institution connecting with its audience. At the most basic level, the intent is for people to know what your mission is and why it is important. Beyond that, the hope is to engage with people on topics in which they have a direct interest. engage means that people respond to what an institution communicates. The clearest indication of that are blog comments or other kinds of direct feedback. The influence and activate goals mean that what we do helps people learn and causes them to expand their awareness. In the case of digital preservation, this means helping people understand what is at stake in keeping digital information accessible. Measures are important to understand how effective the strategy is in terms of audience, reach and impact. There are different ways to think about measurements, and they include “hard” metrics, like numbers of viewers or followers, as well as “soft” indicators such as mentions by influential people.

Communication and engagement should be at heart of why preserving institutions use social media. Institutions have to propose ideas, accept feedback and facilitate an ongoing conversation among a diverse set of people with different priorities and perspectives. The ultimate goal is that the larger community supports the mission to preserve and make available digital content. One way to promote this is to share information about digital preservation standards and best practices. Many people apart from information professionals are interested in the “how to” aspect and are eager to learn about the skills, tools and infrastructures needed to bring digital content under stewardship. It is crucial to raise awareness among the general public about what is at stake for our collective digital heritage. The public has long valued the role of archives in keeping traditional materials, but the idea of preserving digital content is new. Very new, in fact.

Engaging with the public has a related purpose: many individuals and families are looking for advice for keeping their own growing collections of digital photographs and other personal materials. This offers a unique and potentially very effective way for institutions to connect their preservation mission with the personal concerns of citizens. The key to successful public engagement is effective social media content. Kate Brodock in Content Production and Your Communications Program sums up how to do this in two simple ways: 1) create content that people want to read and to share; and 2) create content that will work well after its shared. Content is defined in a broad sense—it includes blog posts, tweets and Facebook posts. It also includes all other information generated and distributed, including videos, podcasts and graphics. The idea is to design content to lose control of it, have others repost it, see it spread on social networks. The more it spreads the further it reaches. Sharable in this context means content that is interesting, is clear and addresses issues that people care about. Brodock notes that people are consuming information in different ways and that “you need to keep up with them.” Skimming is a fact of life these days, and that means headlines that grab attention and messages that people care about. Bradock also encourages non-textual communication. Videos and graphics are important to tell the right story. Both also need to have good production values; the typical internet user has little patience for cluttered images or long, dull videos.

Jim Richardson talks about social commerce for the cultural sector as a way to frame what people are looking for on the internet and via social media. He says that content should meet four values—it should be educational, social, entertaining, and it should lend itself to some kind of emotional reaction or connection with the viewer. Related to this is the idea of brand. A brand is what a company or institution means to people in terms of personal expectations. Boiled down to its essence, a brand makes people feel a certain way about something. Brands are usually associated with business, but the concept applies equally well to cultural heritage institutions. People usually already have positive feelings about archives, an we can leverage that to build audiences an promote the value of preserving digital cultural heritage.

The question of audiences for digital preservation is important. There are three basic audiences: information professionals; students and researchers; and the general public. As noted earlier, details about standards, tools and best practices are popular among information professionals. Any institution doing digital preservation should actively discuss that work using social media with the practitioner community. This community is very receptive to questions, which is another avenue for an institution to extend its reach, share information and acquire new knowledge about digital preservation.

Students and researchers are the most traditional audiences for many cultural heritage organizations. Even so, there is still much to be done in terms of engaging with them about digital preservation. Teachers tend to be interested in digital preservation in the context of learning about modern culture. The Library of Congress does quite a bit of outreach in connection with schools. NDIIPP has produced YouTube videos on this topic, including Digital Natives Explore Digital Preservation and America’s Young Archivists. Both videos aim to provide insights into how children think about issues relating to digital preservation, particularly the types of materials they think are worth collecting and preserving. The term “researcher” has always been a bit vague, and it certainly can apply to a broad cross section of users today. Institutions also have much to gain by engaging with users about how to improve collections, as well as access to them.

Members of the public—and information professionals who interact with public—are interested in personal digital archiving. NDIIPP has generated extensive guidance for personal digital archiving, and that information is very popular. An online webinar sponsored by the American Library Association featured information from NDIIPP on preserving personal digital photographs. This presentation was part of Preservation Week, held in April 2012, and discussed simple steps people could take to select, organize, describe and preserve personal collections. The webinar attracted over 500 people, which ALA said was a record for such an event. The intent was for people to come away with a new appreciation for digital preservation, both for themselves and for our culture. Providing advice and assistance with personal digital archiving is a promising and worthwhile approach for cultural heritage organizations to reach and to influence the larger community. One reason is professional: personal digital content will come into institutional collections, and it is helpful to have it well organized beforehand. Another reason is that helping people manage their digital photographs builds community support. The need for personal digital archiving advice is going to keep growing and many, many people are going to want it. Librarians, archivists and museum curators are the right people to give this advice.

Once an institution has identified the audiences for its social media communication, the next step is to plan for maximum visibility. This comes back to a an earlier point: create content that the target audience wants. This principle applies to all varieties of communication, and goes beyond social media. Institutions need to have some idea where their audience looks for information and engagement. A worthy investment of time is to identify specific social media authors, both individuals or institutions. Observing their patterns of communication can help refine institutional practices, including how to push information out in a way that audiences are likely to notice. It is also important to find out how best to cross-promote information among different channels. Blog posts are usually well-promoted on Twitter, and YouTube videos can be embedded on Facebook pages. People are accustomed to looking for information in different places, and the steady flow of social media information means that users will need multiple chances to view content.

Advertisers and economists talk about a concept known as “the value proposition.” In a cultural heritage context, the term begs some pointed questions. Why should anyone care about what an institution has to offer? What makes its product, service, or message valuable? Why should people care about a preservation mission? At the most basic level, addressing these questions comes down to getting and holding public attention. Capturing even fleeting attention can be a challenge in today’s information-soaked environment. Does an institutional Tweet, blog post or video look remotely interesting to an audience? Will they pause even for a second when they see the title? Will they click over to investigate further? If they do, will they care enough to read (or watch) the complete message? Affirmative answers to these questions depend on reaching people on an emotional level. The true goal is to get people to care so much that they will engage (leave a comment, say), or be influenced (by thinking, perhaps, something like “digital preservation really is important”). Ultimately an institution aims to activate community members to recognize and support its mission, including the need for digital preservation.

This raises the issue of selecting social media channels. There are, of course, many choices. The NDIIPP program has significant experience with three social media tools. One is YouTube, for which the program has produced a dozen short videos to promote digital preservation. Examples include Why Digital Preservation is important to You, and Preserving Digital Photographs. Both are aimed at a general audience and are meant to convey practical information under the Library of Congress brand. DigitalPreservationEurope has put out an excellent video series modeled on children’s cartoon shows. The videos feature the adventure of Digiman as he fights evil characters representing threats to digital content. These videos are extremely popular and quite effective. The Archipelproject in Belgium has also put out a series of great videos that present digital preservation issues in an entertaining and informative manner. The project does well in offering information geared to different audiences, with videos that are aimed at the public and other videos that discuss technical details of interest to digital preservation practitioners.

Twitter is a very compelling tool for a cultural heritage institution to distribute and consume information. NDIIPP is active on Twitter, and has well over 10,000 followers. The account has sent out over 2,200 individual tweets about topics such as digital preservation partnerships, new tools the we have developed and meetings and events that we host. We also distribute information about what other institutions are doing around the world. In addition, we publicize important meetings as well as other topics that people care deeply about, including jobs and professional educational opportunities. The depth and variety of information available on Twitter is awe-inspiring. Even casual use will yield rich details including links to major initiatives, new tools, sessions at professional conferences and more. Blogs offer a longer form of communication than Twitter. The NDIIPP program pushes out a great deal of information through its blog, The Signal. There are also many other worthwhile blogs that promote digital preservation in the context of cultural heritage organizations, including the UK National Archives and the European Open Planets Foundation, as well as Chris Prom’s personal blog, Practical E-Records, which is especially strong in reviewing a variety of tools and services for archives.

Many institutions use multiple social media tools. This is a good strategy because it allows for cross channel communication and broadens the reach of distributed information. An excellent example of using social media to promote digital preservation is the State Archives and State Library of North Carolina, which have a project to engage citizens using a blog, twitter and Flickr. This project is also an great example of connecting the personal concerns of individuals to the larger societal need for increased attention to digital preservation. These blog and twitter streams often talk about issues related to keeping digital photographs and other personal materials, which helps people become more aware of the larger cultural concern for preserving digital content.

After undertaking a social media strategy, it is important to measure its reach and effectiveness. There are many potential metrics; individual institutions will have to decide which kinds of measures are most helpful. Another way to gauge results is through soft or qualitative measures. These are measures that do not involve numbers—they include tracking comments and other engagements from users, testimonials and other mentions.

For blogs, its is useful to determine which individual posts are most popular over time. The titles of the five blog posts from The Signal blog over the past year, ranked by total views, are as follows.

  1. Four Easy Tips for Preserving your Digital Photographs
  2. What Skills Does a Digital Archivist or Librarian Need?
  3. Digital Preservation File Formats for Scanned Images
  4. Mission Possible: Add Descriptions to Digital Photos
  5. When I Go Away: Getting Your Digital Affairs in Order

Note that topics relating to personal digital archiving predominate. NDIIPP is pleased with the reach of these messages, as it is clear that they have gone well beyond the archives and library community and out to the general public. It is hard to tell at the moment if getting people engaged on personal digital archiving will elevate overall public awareness about digital preservation. But, at the least, there are some positive indicators.

Qualitative measures are just as important as numbers in terms of determining effectiveness of social media implementations. Here are some examples of qualitative measures for The Signal blog over the past year.

  • Blog mentioned on high-traffic sites
    • Huffingtonpost.com
    • Grammy.com
    • Federal Computer Week (noted as one of the “best in the federal blogosphere”)
    • Several appearances in daily count of “Top U.S. Government Links”
  • Blog mentioned on diversity of sites
    • Genealogy and family history
    • Art and museums
    • Theatrical
    • Photography
    • Estate planning
    • Public, academic and special libraries
    • State legislature
    • Many, many personal blogs

The reach is extensive in terms of different domains and areas of interest. The NDIIPP program is especially pleased to see that lots of personal bloggers—people blogging on their own rather than for an institution—are mentioning the work of the program. That is more evidence the program is making connections outside the practitioner community, and hopefully raising general awareness about digital preservation. The reach is diverse in terms of geography as well. Most websites that mentioned The Signal were in North America or Europe, but many other countries also are represented.

Cultural heritage organizations collect qualitative and quantitative measures with the intent to analyze and improve a social media strategy. At this point, it is too soon to know exactly how effectively cultural heritage institutions can make use of social media. The cultural heritage sector might well draw from the experience of commercial advertisers and draw on focus groups, opinion surveys and other methods to understand how to refine our message and better engage with our communities. Effective engagement is crucial for cultural heritage organizations to build community support. And community support is the bedrock upon which sustainable operation is built.

Links valid as of 8/4/2012

Oct 102011

Innovation is one of those words that is as loaded as it is inescapable.

It appears constantly on billboards, TV commercials and political speeches. I’ll wager every big organization in the world lays claim to the concept through a mission statement or some other purported self-description. Our hopes for improved institutional outcomes–from schools, from hospitals, from governments–are all stoked by a devotion to the glimmering promise of doing things better in a new way.

alien innovate, by TaranRampersad, on Flickr

alien innovate, by TaranRampersad, on Flickr

What about digital preservation? Is innovation the key to dealing with all that valuable digital data?


This is, of course, an very unsatisfying answer. Innovation should be the answer to everything, most especially to all things digital.

“Never before in history has innovation offered promise of so much to so many in so short a time,” is a quote attributed Bill Gates, and at first glance it seems to ring with a self-evident truth.

When considered from the popular perspective of innovation, digital preservation looks like a straightforward challenge for libraries, archives, museums and other entities that long have kept information on behalf of society. All they need are some new ideas, practices and tools–all of which information technology excels in delivering. There’s also a neat symmetry here: technology created new kinds of information for libraries to preserve, so technology can help libraries do the job.

But it isn’t quite so easy. The basic problem is what Larry Downes has called “the laws of disruption,” of which the most fundamental is  “technology changes exponentially, but social, economic and legal systems change incrementally.”  Downes notes that innovative digital technology has thoroughly roiled many social conventions and that “nothing can stop the chaos that will follow.”  An overly dramatic statement, yes, but it illustrates that innovation is not a safe, orderly or controllable process.  It sends out big ripples of disruption with an unpredictable impact.

Consider the irony: organizations tout innovation as a way to thrive and prosper when the truth of the matter is that real innovation often destabilizes and destroys.

Libraries and other memory organizations are now bouncing on ripples of disruption, and the ride likely will stay scary for the foreseeable future.  Innovation puts these institutions in a bind: they are now confronted with a huge array of demands and choices that traditional structures are ill-suited to address.  They face an irresistible need for change.  But the further they stick their toes into the waves of innovation, the greater the potential for even more destabilization.  And since most institutions strongly resist that which threatens their stability, they have an unmovable incentive to resist real change.  All this means that the ability of traditional institutions to fully meet the need for digital preservation is in doubt.

Future as Disruption, by Fu Man Jew, on Flickr

Future as Disruption, by Fu Man Jew, on Flickr

Well, that’s depressing.  Wait, though–there’s a another side to innovation that offers hope for meeting the digital preservation challenge. Many individual librarians and archivists are using new kinds of tools and services–such as LOCKSS and “micro-services“–to build local preservation solutions.

Even more significantly, individuals of all kinds are playing a role in determining what gets saved and how that content is used.  Consider the impact that one person–Brewster Kahle–has made over the years through the Internet Archive.  Jason Scott is getting high-profile attention for his grassroots work to preserve large volumes of web content abandoned by companies such as Yahoo!.  All kinds of average people are developing interest in personal digital archiving to preserve their family memories.

Tim O’Reilly, the visionary who first saw the development known as web 2.0, sees a major role for individuals in digital preservation.   Here’s a summary from an account of his talk at a recent Library of Congress meeting:

O’Reilly stressed the preservation role of people working outside of institutions.  He called for “baking in” more preservation functionality into tools used to create and distribute digital content to enable a more distributed stewardship mindset.  This is important because “the things that turn out to be historic are not thought to be historic at the time.”   O’Reilly also said one of the most tweetable bits at the meeting: “Digital preservation won’t be just the concern of specialists, it will be the concern of everyone.”

I have some sympathy with O’Reilly’s argument.  It builds on the powerful trend of individuals asserting control over how information is published, distributed and used.  The result of a broad-based popular effort to steward digital data would also address some fundamental preservation needs: lots of distributed copies that are open for active use.  Individuals also often can adapt to change with more flexibility than can institutions.

Ultimately, we have to hope that innovation pushes along the trend toward the democratization of digital preservation.  The more people who care about saving digital content, and the easier it is for them to save it, the more likely it is that bits will be preserved and kept available.


Jul 232011

Your cultural heritage-related job has a rising probability of going away.  Or, if you’re looking for such a job, you could have a tough time finding one.

Budget, by chbrenchley, on Flickr

Budget, by chbrenchley, on Flickr

Saying this goes against my native optimism, but in surveying the current political landscape, it’s hard to come to a different conclusion.  Most libraries, archives, museums, historical societies and related institutions depend to some extent–often a rather large extent–on government revenue streams. State and local funding is already being cut back all over the country.

A saving grace have been federal dollars.  Budgets for federal collecting institutions such as the National Archives and Records Administration and Government Printing Office have been steady, as have budgets for funders such as the Institute for Museum and Library Services and National Endowment for the Humanities.

Much of this money goes directly to providing jobs for librarians, archivists, curators and other related professions.  Jobs all over the country, in places big and small.  Jobs for long-time professionals and jobs for those just starting out.

Out of work, by peretzpup, on Flickr

Out of work, by peretzpup, on Flickr

But, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, the days of reliable federal dollars for culture are over.  Regardless of the outcome for the current battle over raising the debt limit, deep cuts in federal discretionary spending are inevitable.  The only question is how deep and how soon.  News reports about the current negotiations between Congress and the White House toss around various ideas for trillion-dollar cuts without many details; you can be sure, however, that discretionary spending for cultural heritage entities–while comparatively tiny, will take proportionally big hits to cushion blows to more popular programs such as medicare and ostensibly more important activities such as national defense.

I’m basing this prediction partly on a gut feeling and partly on news reports.  The news has been plenty grim.  Congress is looking to cut NEH by 13 percent in the 2012 budget, “nearly double what the House panel proposed to cut from the Interior Department and other agencies covered by the spending legislation.” The House is looking to cut the Government Printing Office 2012 budget by 16 percent.  And the coming debt-ceiling cuts could be on top of the annual budget reductions.

The popular zeitgeist also seems oriented toward distributed individual action rather than big, centralized institutional solutions.  Social media is all about empowering the individual, and innovation is now commonly seen as working from “edge to core” or through activities such as crowdsourcing.  The latter approach even extends to funding: Kickstarter has raised millions of dollars for a host of creative projects.  Plus there is, needless to say, very little enthusiasm to raise taxes in support of government programs.

All this will add up to big job losses in an already tough labor market.  This will be terrible for older and mid-career workers, but I also worry about the next generation who may have a very hard time finding work that pays a living wage.  This is bad for them, of course, but it’s also really bad for whole sector, which desperately needs their energy, enthusiasm and engagement.

We may be facing a lost generation of librarians, archivists and curators.

Two things could prevent this.  The first is that market-based economic models such as Kickstarter will ramp way up to offset the loss of government funding, which would be fantastic.  The second is that I’m completely wrong in this prognostication, which normally would be a bummer, but in this case would also be fantastic.

So, go Kickstarter.  And, for good measure, here’s to being wrong.

Mar 282011

I came across a rather amazing interview with Will Self on the BBC Open Book radio program.  The subject was Self’s nominal opposition, along with a host of other well-known English writers, to the closing of public libraries in the UK for budgetary purposes.

Will Self at Humber Mouth 2007, by Maggie Hannan, on Flickr

Will Self at Humber Mouth 2007, by Maggie Hannan, on Flickr

Self is a well-known writer and television personality recognized, according to Wikipedia, “for his satirical, grotesque and fantastical novels and short stories.”  Among his great influences are listed William S. Burrows and Hunter S. Thompson.  All of this intersecting with commentary on the plight of the modern library is simply irresistible.

But anyone expecting a spirited defense of public libraries as we currently know them will be shocked by what he says.  While he has gone on record opposing the library closures, he seems to offer plenty of support for those on the other side.  This may be a put-on of some sort; he is a comedian and contrarian, after all.  Certainly the earnest interviewer, Mariella Frostrup, seems a bit boggled by his line of reasoning.

Most librarians, certainly most public librarians, find his comments enraging and dispiriting, especially coming as they do when public funding has cratered in the UK and looks to be headed in the same direction in the US.  It’s also possible that he is seriously ill-informed; he did later confess to one angry librarian that “perhaps I was referring to my own local libraries – not all of them.” But he does raise some cogent points about core issues: ebooks and the question of what role there should be for paper books; what current users expect; and the danger of relying on nostalgic ideas about libraries that may no longer apply.

In any event, I went to the bother to transcribe the interview.  I can’t vouch for 100 percent accuracy, but it captures the essence.

Transcript of Open Book, BBC Radio 4, 3/20/2011

Mariella Frostrup: Libraries: a subject that animates readers and writers like no other.  With hundreds of libraries across the country facing extinction and a veritable who’s who of British writing talent vocally opposing the closures from Phillip Pullman to Kate Moss to Joanna Trollop to Jacqueline Wilson, there’s no question that it’s a subject that arouses strong passions.  Yet, with books no longer a luxury item, and all of us increasingly umbilically attached to PCs ebooks and ipads we have to ask that the controversial question what exactly are libraries for.  Will self a novelist never short of an opinion is one of the names calling for a halt to the closures.  He joins me now.  Will welcome.  Will when did you last visit your local library and why?

Will Self: I haven’t been in for quite a while.  I occasionally go to photocopy stuff; I go in to accompany my 9-year old who does go in and borrow things, though mostly it has to be said talking books rather than actual written books.  The local library, to use it beyond photocopying, never.

Frostrup: You’ve lent your voice to a campaign for a library that as you say you rarely visit.  In the face of draconian cost cutting what’s your argument to local council that there are actually making a mistake?

Self:  Well, it’s not a good one because it doesn’t fit into the prevailing ethos of public services which is that they try to convert themselves into some kind of profit center.  In the case of libraries that means paying for things like internet and photocopying perhaps putting in a kind of coffee bar, introducing these kinds of revenue streams and also this idea of public services that they need to actually attract the public.  The truth of the matter is that the kind of library that I and the kinds of starry literary names mentioned want to preserve is the kind of library that existed about 30 or 40 years ago and not the contemporary library at all.

Frostrup:  So in which case, it does beg the question why you are supporting the campaign at all, doesn’t it?

Self: I’m supporting it out of some kind of nostalgia, I suppose.  There is a something a bit weird going on here.  All the names you mentioned at the beginning of this item are people who are extensively subsidized by the public purse through the public lending right.  They are some of the top borrowed people in the country and they make a considerable income out of libraries.  It’s no wonder they are campaigning to keep them open.

Frostrup:  You’re not saying that’s the only reason, are you?

Self:  I’m sure they’re all hopping up and down if they’re listening as I speak and are gripped by a frenzy of public spiritedness.  But the fact of the matter is the people you mentioned are earning thousands every year out of libraries.

Frostrup:  What about you?  Do you make money from being borrowed?

Self:  Oh yes, I make money out of PLR as well, but not that much.  But more germane it seems to me is that just as you asked me when I last went to my local library, you know, to actually use it, and the answer was “I never have,” so I wonder if my fellow objectors to library closures are really themselves library users themselves or rather, the argument seems to be, we used them when we were young and look at us now,  it’s a sort of argument from previous effects to current situations rather we actually are users at this moment and I think there’s something strange about that.

Frostrup: Let’s forget about the writers.  Thousands of people across the country say that they do use libraries and say they don’t want the libraries to be shut down.  Do you think they also are trying to preserve some five-decade old institution?

Self:  I certainly think that problem for libraries needs to be encountered head on, which as you mentioned is the internet. We have to try and grasp the extent to which electronic paper is going to replace physical paper, and whether this is something that libraries want to go with or whether it’s something they want to programmatically resist.  I certainly believe those people are sincere, I certainly believe that they use libraries, but I think people need to be absolutely clear about what it is they wish to preserve.

Frostrup: There are initiatives to bring U.S.-style public-private ownership to libraries where there will be radical overhauling: murder mystery nights and open mike sessions.  Do you think that sounds like a positive proposal?

Self: Well, the truth of the matter is that this is something that  libraries themselves could have been doing a lot more of.  I’m sure there will be a howl of anger from people in the library sector but when I have actually sat down and talked to librarians I have to say the impression I’ve often gained of them is that they are quite narrow in their thinking and there’s even a slight jobsworth mentality to them.  It’s one of those private sector jobs that people kind of get stuck in.  In my own career over the years the number of actual public events I’ve done at libraries is really pretty small and I’m not asked that often by libraries.  I mean, where are these libraries that have reached out beforehand to try and alter the model of the service they provide with the resources that are available?

Frostrup: You say that librarians can be a pretty [inaudible] lot but the role of the librarian used to be a pretty serious profession.  I mean Phillip Larkin was one, for heaven’s sake, and now it seems to be to domain of big society volunteers.  Who are these people who can afford to work for free and doesn’t that negate the role of the expert who says “oh you should really look at that shelf”?

Self: I don’t think the big society people are in their quite yet, Mariella.  I’m mean they are getting in there, there’s no doubt about that.  I certainly think the job of librarian is a serious occupation and should be undertaken seriously, but remember Larkin was a university librarian, he wasn’t a branch librarian.  What’s the reality of this? Those people you mentioned at the top of the program—all very fine effectively middlebrow writers who are all highly borrowed from branch libraries and that’s no doubt a good thing.  But they are exactly the kinds of writers who are most under threat in their paper incarnation from the internet and from ebooks.  So is that why we are keeping branch libraries open? The truth of the matter is that the resale value of those writer’s books is vanishingly small.  You can pick them up in a cardboard box outside your local charity shop for a few pence.  So maybe we need a different kind of model for how those kind of books can be accessed.  I just sat on the jury for the British Design Awards and we gave the award to a free library in Magdeburg where the residents had got together and created a free open building where books could be taken away and returned and there was no need for a librarian, I hate to say, and it was a way for people to access these paper books.

Frostrup:  You say that paper books are cheap, but books for children aren’t, and they arguably are the generation that writers are fighting for because those kids are the age they were when they used libraries and ultimately turned them into the writers they are…

Self:  That’s such a ridiculous argument, now isn’t it?

Frostrup: I know, but that’s what you tell me they are arguing.  So do you think there is a role for the inspiration for libraries that they perhaps had?

Self: Absolutely but we have to be honest about what we are doing.  We have to accept that it’s a massive loss-leader.  I can image the kind of library I’d like to see–and my local library is right down the road here a couple of hundred yards away–and I’d like it o have the kind of books I’d like to borrow and refer to and use.  But I really have no requirement to use it so I’d like it to sit there empty with a very brilliant Phillip Larkin style librarian sitting behind the counter and just waiting for me to come in and inspire me or my younger avatar to become a writer, but let’s be honest: it’s going cost quite a lot of money and people are going to oppose it.  Now the reason libraries have this iconic status in the careers of writers such as Pullman and myself who now in our 50s and 60s is that there were relatively less media around at that time there simply weren’t televisions and iPods and computers to tinker with.

Frostrup: So should this crisis be viewed as an opportunity to do things differently?  What should we be doing?

Self: I think my answer will just baffle.  I think the internet should be excluded from the library to make it solely a paper resource.  If you want to have a community internet room put it somewhere else.  If you still believe the solo contemplation of the paper book is an intrinsic educational good—and I do believe that—I think that ereaders and computers have quite a sinister effect on the way people learn and kind of agglomerate knowledge—then kick the internet out.


Mar 222011

I assembled an archive of the great #nytmuseums tweet chat held last week; it’s a 49 page PDF document (over 1400 tweets), 522kb.  I can’t guarantee that I got everything, but it looks reasonably complete.

The chat covered all kinds of things, but focused largely on how cultural institutions can use social media to meet their missions, especially engaging with users.

RT’s have been excluded from the archive.  The tweets are listed chronologically starting from 3/16/2011 through until 3/19/2011.  The event was billed as a “lunch time chat” and officially kicked off at 1pm on 3/17/2011.  Lunch is relative, I suppose.

For background information, see The New York Times special “museums online” article that kick started things.  Hyperallergic also covered the event extensively.

I use this blog to write about culture, technology and preservation.  I also tweet about the same @blefurgy.

The chat archive file is located here.

Mar 062011
Terra Cotta Archivists, Internet Archive

Terra Cotta Archivists, Internet Archive

I attended the Personal Digital Archiving conference in San Francisco last week. Some of the usual suspects in the world of digital preservation where there, most of whom are affiliated with institutions (including myself).

But there were also a few rugged individuals who, out of passion or some other impulse, are working alone to collect digital content.

These lone preservers deserve our thanks. Future users will thank them even more.

Most big collecting institutions–libraries, archives and museums–have yet to fully adopt their their attention to digital content, most especially born digital material.  The problems, wildly generalized, are fundamental:

  • Resource demands for managing traditional, non-digital holdings remain substantial.
  • New resources are hard to come by, and prospects for cuts loom.
  • Digital content is new and trendy, and may seem frivolous;  it is hard to know which of it merits saving.
  • Many–most?–staff have spent careers apart from digital material and are not eager to deal with it.
  • Many–most?–institutions have limited technological capacity or infrastructure to manage digital holdings.

Individuals acting on their own are free from these concerns.  They don’t have big legacy collections to worry about.  They don’t have to defend their actions to overseers.  It’s easy to get cheap technology to do the job.

PDA 2011 Conference Sign

The prime example of the lone collector is Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive, which hosted PDA 2011.  Kahle and his helpers had web archiving to themselves for the first few years, when there was plenty of skepticism about the the value of the content.  Around 2000, some institutions began to selectively capture websites, often working in concert with the IA.  Today, large-scale web capture is underway around the world:  there are now over 30 national libraries and other entities devoted to the job.

Jason Scott spoke at the conference. Scott, proprietor of textfiles.com and collector of “marginalized data, the textfiles and message bases of dial-up bulletin board systems of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s,” is a self-described “tiring activist.” He said that much digital information was at risk, facing a “danger of deletion, a danger of being lost, a danger that a piece of history, with its value unrecognized and a lack of interest in what it might mean, might just be lost forever.”

Scott talked about a recent project to download a copy of the websites formerly housed on the Geocities web hosting service.  He passionately defended the value of this information against “the current natural order of things for hosting user-generated content [which] is this: Disenfranchise. Demean. Delete.”  Scott also advocated individual responsibility for one’s own personal content.  “Go to your own computer, plug in a USB stick and copy your documents folder, because that’s the only thing that nobody’s going to be able to save.”

All of this leads me to speculate that, when it comes to digital content, our culture is reverting back to an era when we depended on high-minded individuals to build singular collections of art, books, manuscripts and other documentary material.  The survival of much important information is due solely to individual initiative, as its true value only became apparent years later.

Perhaps it is appropriate that the era of user-generated content also includes the return of the heroic private collector.  A twist is that the heroics are now scalable.  The far end of the scale has people like Kahle and Scott.  At the near end are everyday people who do their best to keep family photos and the occasional email.

Libraries, archives and museums, of course, still have a major role to play.  If history is a guide, they will eventually assume stewardship responsibility for some private digital collections, and they will also expand their own curatorial interests into this realm.



Jan 122011

I noted in an earlier post that I recently taught an introductory class on digital preservation.  I pulled together some slides to present the important points, and devoted some time at the start to explain “the digital preservation challenge.”

Work in Progress, by blumpy, on Flickr

This is a dicey proposition.  On the one hand, I wanted to convey a realistic assessment of the issues which are, to my mind,  significant.  It is a bit like a 12 step program: the first step is facing up to a need for change.

Yet dwelling too much on the problems associated with digital preservation encourages some combination of hand-wringing and reluctance to act, both of which are counterproductive.  I believe that iterative solutions built on the experience of doing the best we can at a given time is far better than doing nothing.  I also think this is the only way we are going to make progress with the many technical issues, as well as with the really hard stuff we face: the social, political and legal challenges.

Below is the information presented in my slides.  I’m still not sure I struck the right balance, but then nobody fled the class under a cloud of discouragement.

The Digital Preservation Challenge

  • Libraries, archives, museums and other cultural heritage institutions have unparalleled experience managing analog items…
  • But only some of this experience carries over to the digital world
  • Digital information presents an existential test:  institutions have to figure out a new way of doing business
  • Which is hard, because institutions and their staff have comparatively limited experience dealing with digital…
  • And hard, too, because digital presents some tough problems

Problem: Lots and Lots of Data

  • Huge volume of digital information—and it is rapidly growing
  • Organizations, governments and individuals are all information creators
  • Some large chunks of this information has value—actual or potential—from perspective of archives/libraries
  • Which chunks to focus on?

Problem: Problem: Information Complexity

  • Dynamic databases, websites
  • Sophisticated specialty uses: CGI, CAD/CAM, geospatial…
  • Highly specialized applications dependent on deep knowledge: scientific databases
  • Linked data

Problem: Technological Dependency/Obsolescence

  • Every piece of digital information depends on a stack of technologies working perfectly together, e.g.:
    • File format (pdf, html, doc)
    • Storage media (cloud, hard drive, USB drive)
    • Application software (reader, browser, app)
    • Operating system (Windows XP, Vista, 7)
    • Computing device (PC, laptop, smart phone)
  • Each layer of the stack is rapidly changing
  • Ensuring ongoing access requires work, careful planning

We Have Solid Preservation Concepts (e.g., OAIS) but Implementation is Difficult

  • No optimal digital preservation system exists
  • Institutional, user requirements not always clear
  • Bottom line: guiding principles, no obvious solutions
  • Plus: What constitutes preservation itself a matter of perspective and debate (more on that later)

Alright Then, If It’s So Hard, Why Worry About It?

  • Traditional information sources becoming digital: books, serials, reports, photographs, documents…
  • New information sources digital only: websites, social media, email…
  • Users expect digital access to information, now and in the future
  • If libraries/archives are to extend their historic mission and remain relevant they must collect, preserve and serve digital information

Good Progress is Evident!

  • A number of initiatives are tackling the issue around the world
  • Some common principals demonstrated with different approaches
  • Reasons for optimism:
    • Important elements of the issue are defined
    • Solid conceptual framework exists
    • Biggest institutions are deeply engaged
    • Extensive cooperation, sharing, open development
    • Tools and services are multiplying

At this point, I had another series of slides that characterize some of the operational approaches to digital preservation that discuss the pros and cons of each.  I’ll get into that at a later date.