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.


Oct 302011

There is a polite but persistent disagreement among librarians, archivists and other normally peaceful souls who care about keeping digital information accessible into the future.  The conflict is low key, as one might expect: no one is occupying reading rooms, much less being led away in plastic handcuffs. But there are few signs that all parties are ready to reconcile.

Keep... - Day 50, by MarkAllanson, on Flickr

Keep… – Day 50, by MarkAllanson, on Flickr

The dispute is over the proper term to use for the act of keeping digital content alive over time.  One group sticks with “digital preservation,” which is a blanket term of choice dating to at least the early 1990s.  Some insurgents have been urging use of “digital curation” during the last few years, stating, among other things, that the term is more comprehensive.  The idea is that curation covers the full life cycle of information, from creation through to access.  Another group adheres to “digital stewardship” also to convey the broad set of responsibilities involved, as well as to impart the necessity of ongoing, active engagement needed to keep digital information in a form that is authoritative, uncorrupted and useful.  (Full disclosure: I work for the Library of Congress and had a hand in launching the National Digital Stewardship Alliance).

The story doesn’t end here, as there are a bunch of other competing terms.  “Archive” is an old standby that can variously mean transfer to a preservation repository or merely to store data offline.  “Digital conservation” pops up from time in quite different circumstances.  A more recent entrant is “data management,” which is associated with a recent U.S. National Science Foundation requirement for funding proposals to include a plan for dissemination and sharing of data based on the research.

To make matters even more complicated, the same terms preservationists use are used by others in completely different contexts.  “Digital curation” is hot buzzword that huge numbers of people associate with picking content for distribution via the web.  “Digital preservation” is also used to mean constructing 3D scans of historic sites, such as Ft. Laramie, WY.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche painted portrait _DDC1256, by Abode of Chaos, on Flickr

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche painted portrait _DDC1256, by Abode of Chaos, on Flickr

Is it a problem that there are so many competing terms for what non-experts (particularly the ones who control funding) might reasonably consider to be approximately the same activity?  I’m of two minds here.  Part of me yearns for more clarity (through adoption of my favorite definition, of course).  But another part of me recognizes the inevitability of multiple terms because there are multiple perspectives, including about how best to get attention and support.  “We have a problem with language in this domain at the moment,” Steve Knight declared at a conference in 2008.  He said the term “permanent access” more accurately communicates what the preservation community is trying to do.  More to the point, Chris Rusbridge bluntly titled a blog post “Digital Preservation” term considered harmful?  and went on to note that “the language used and the way that the discourse is constructed [in the digital preservation community] is unlikely to make much impact on either decision-makers or the creators of the digital information.”  The author suggests “selling the outcomes” through use of terms like “long term accessibility” or “usability over time.”  More recently yet Kari Kraus opined in the New York Times that “we must replace digital preservation with digital curation,” if we are to make effective use of data worth saving.

All of this is perhaps part of a larger contemporary social force that resists firm definitions.  Politicians, for example, are continuously “redefining” themselves.  There are ongoing debates about how (or even whether) to define race for college applications.  It’s even  impossible to define the value of stretching before a workout.

Closer to home, Fred Gibbs recently analyzed 170 definitions of “the digital humanities,”  and was relieved to find that they fell into only nine categories (one of which was “refusals to define the term”).  It may well be that we live an in age where conceptual boundaries are weak, especially for emergent practices and ideas. This contrasts with earlier intellectual intentions: consider this bit from Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration, by Tracy B. Strong (thank you, Google books, for giving me the means to quote this juicy highbrow stuff):

The ability to give names–to extend control of language over the world… [is] a masterly trait: it consists of saying what the world is.  The reverse proposition will also be accurate: knowledge of the power of language may lead to the a prohibition on the use of certain names…. To name is to define and to bring under control, to give determination of the being of the object in question.  The allocation of names creates the world in the image of he who names.

Our inability “to define and bring under control” the concept underlying digital preservation is a sign of the times.  And while some  press for a favorite term, others adopt a more accepting stance.  Embedded in the lengthy discussion that is Semantics: Digital Preservation vs. Digital Curation, Chris Prom outlines issues with various terms, but also offers some down to earth advice: “I think we all need to be comfortable with using a lot of different terms to explain what we do.”

En Control, by alvaroalegria, on Flickr

En Control, by alvaroalegria, on Flickr

This perspective is evident in a brand new Association of Research Libraries publication Digital Preservation, SPEC Kit 325.  While the title embraces one term, the executive summary takes pains to mention others, including digital curation, continued access and life cycle curation.  The report also notes that “the definition of ‘digital preservation’ is still murky for some librarians.  A number of respondents confused ‘backups’ with ‘preservation’ and referred to access-oriented repository services as though they were preservation solutions.”

Personally, I like the ARL approach and feel that, for all its limitations, “digital preservation” is still the best catch-all term.  But there are other terms that fit the concept also, and we need to be fully aware of their nuances.  There will be a continuing need to apply all the current terms–and probably some new ones–in the course of managing digital information into the future.

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.