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.”
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.