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.