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.

Jan 092011

The grim economy grinds on.

Recently I noted that a very well publicized online job survey appeared to be painting an overly rosy picture about jobs for historians, philosophers, librarians and museum curators.  Now today’s New York Times asks Is Law School a Losing Game? And they mean “game.”  The article leaves little doubt that law schools work very hard to pump up the appearance that nearly all of their graduates are reaping the golden reward of a law degree.  Even if they are waiting tables or stocking shelves.

2010-04-22 by bgottsab, on Flickr

Yet the issue is more complicated than just fudged statistics and doubtful rankings.  The Times also gets to the issue of what can be called student self-deception: “nearly all of them, it seems, are convinced they’re going to win the ring toss at this carnival and bring home the bear.”  The article tells the story of one fellow who has $250,000 in law school loans and survives on temp work.  He supposedly has no regrets because he has a prestigious degree.  “I’m an attorney.” he says.  “All of my friends see me as a person they look up to.”

Slate, among others, has bashed the Times repeatedly for running bogus trend stories on subjects such as “winning souls for Christ with mixed martial arts” and “maintained that potbellies were now hip.”  But this collusion between school and student strikes me as authentic.  I have a child who was drawn into the sparkling promise of law school spell but, thankfully, the spell broke before she enrolled (or took out any loans).

The issue is not limited to law school.  A host of articles have appeared recently about the perils of the PhD, particularly those in the humanities.  The Economist was especially brutal  last month in suggesting that advanced degree seekers grow dispirited over time.  The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time notes that only 57% of U.S. doctoral students overall get the degree within a decade.  “In the humanities, where most students pay for their own PhDs, the figure is 49%. Worse still, whereas in other subject areas students tend to jump ship in the early years, in the humanities they cling like limpets before eventually falling off.”  Bad job prospects are cited as a reason.

When it comes to careers, all of us face leaps of faith.  Few choices come with certainly.  But when it comes to making certain investments in an education it seems that more attention is needed on the leap with less reliance on the faith.

Jan 072011

While studying the humanities is deeply rewarding and socially important, many graduates have had to seek jobs outside the field.

Yet according to a 2011 Jobs Rated report we are in boom times for people with skills tied to the humanities.  Out of 200 jobs rated here is how some with an apparent connection to the humanities stack up:

  • Historian, ranked 8th
  • Philosopher, ranked 16th
  • Librarian, ranked 29th
  • Museum Curator, ranked 53rd

Each job is rated according to work environment, stress, physical demands and hiring outlook, with a composite score determining the overall ranking.

Of the four jobs noted, historians had the highest income: $63,208 (“income score was computed by adding the estimated mid-level income and the income growth potential”).  Curators had the highest stress and the most physical demands, but also the best work environment and the best hiring outlook.

I am, however, a bit confused about the actual jobs involved.  Click on the historian category and one sees job openings like this:

  • DSS Application & Data Historians
  • Computer Systems Process Engineer (with “Wonderware Historian” experience)
  • Control Systems Specialist (with “A&E Historian” experience)

Out of 20 jobs listed, there is only one that looks like my notion of a historian: “Professor in Art History.”

Similar results are seen for listed librarian jobs, which include “Business Development Assistant,” “Computer Operator” and “Traffic Specialist I.”  There are a few jobs that come a little closer to my notion of a actual library job, including a post as “Librarian—Golf Channel.”

Things are stranger still for the philosophy category.  The only position listed is for “Urologist Job in Vermont.”

Another source of job prospects is from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition.  It says “keen competition is expected for historian jobs because the number of applicants typically outnumbers the number of positions available.”  The same phrase is used to describe career prospects for “archivists, curators and museum technicians.”

Things are somewhat brighter for librarians: “Job growth is expected to be as fast as the average and job opportunities are expected to be favorable, as a large number of librarians are likely to retire in the coming decade.”  Philosophers may also be in better shape as well, although they are assessed in combination with  postsecondary teachers of all kinds.

Humanities students should apply their hard-won analytical and critical skills when assessing career prospects.

Jan 042011

I recently taught a class of library school students about digital preservation.  On the plus side, they were a bright lot, many already knew something about the subject and I could inflict some advance reading on them.  The flip side is that this was a single class lasting only two and half hours, which is a short time to cover a broad subject.

I’ll go over what I tried to cover in the class in a later post (quite a lot, actually).  For now let me share what I sent out as a reading list with the intent to prepare students for our face-to-face encounter.

Preparing the list was a challenge.  I wanted sources that covered issues of current importance, were succinct and that were reasonably friendly to the non-expert.  I did find plenty of good information, but was surprised how few sources fit this particular need.  In fact, one could argue that no source currently meets the need.  Many focus on a particular program, approach or issue.  Many drill down into very granular details that can overwhelm the novice.  Others are a bit long or a bit old.  After much hunting and culling, the best I could find turned out to consist of 15 items, as noted below.

I’d like to hear about other sources that I might have missed.

Update: I clarified that the selected sources were the best I found, not that they all met the three criteria listed.

Let me add my usual full disclosure notice: I work with the NDIIPP team at the Library of Congress.

Update: I clarified that the selected sources were the best I found, not that they all met the three criteria listed.

Dec 262010

Lots of people who work in libraries, archives, museums and other cultural heritage organizations need to become more familiar with Information Technology.  While some staff are well-grounded in the subject, many have gaps in knowledge of fundamental terms, concepts and trends.

This is a problem.  The pressure is on to implement social media services, put holdings online, develop innovative websites and manage digital collections.  Organizations—and staff—that lag in this area run the risk of losing relevancy.  And loss of relevancy can have an unfortunate economic impact.

Organizations need to have staff who are familiar with IT basics.  Doing this is tricky.  What exactly are “the basics”?  How are they best explained?  And most importantly, to what end is this knowledge supposed to be put?

I know of one pretty good example:  Technology Made Simple: An Improvement Guide for Small and Medium Libraries, by Kimberly Bolan and Robert Cullin.   The American Library Association published this book in 2006.  It looks pretty good, but in full disclosure I haven’t actually read it.  But I have browsed the “web extra” page for it, and can say the online information provided is worthwhile (not to mention free).

Before I list some of the details on the web, it is useful to consider what the authors say about their intent:  “…librarians need a how-to technology manual for vision, planning, and understanding, not a how-to manual for configuring a router and server.”  Just right.  Add to that a starting place to learn foundational information needed for working with vendors, selling ideas to funders and positioning themselves for taking quick advantage of the next new tech wonder.

The web content covers a range of topics:

  • Worksheets and More
  • Resources
  • Resource Libraries
  • Job Descriptions
  • Publication and Marketing Ideas

All of these topics are useful, but a highlight is the worksheets section, which has all sorts of checklist templates that can be used to do a variety of self-assessments.  My experience is that these kinds of tools are very useful for staff to gain quick (and relatively painless)  insights about institutional capacities and areas that need improvement.  Checklists are not a silver bullet, but they can put an organization on the road to meaningful improvement.

The resource does have some limitations.  It is going on five years old, and that is a long time in Internet years.  There is no mention of Facebook, Twitter or any other social media service.  Same for mobile Internet, Flickr, YouTube or other Web 2.0 tools.  Plus the book itself appears to be only available as a physical object, not as a downloadable file or e-book.  The resources web page alone has about 30 dead or broken links according to the W3C Link Checker.  While not unusual for information this old, still is a big problem.

Here’s an idea for ALA and other professional organizations that cater to cultural heritage professionals: produce more of this kind of basic help and keep it current.  There could even be a some kind of centralized resource for archivists, librarians and museum staff to cover common areas—and there are many—with more specialized information for each kind of institutional type.   That would be an efficient, collaborative way to maintain a useful resource.