Intro post – Jeff Gerhard

Hi, everyone. As I mentioned in class, I’m in the second year of the part-time MLIS program, though this is my first semester taking any classes in person. I’m looking forward to interacting with all of you outside of online comment boards, though evidently there will still be plenty of that! I decided to come to College Park for IRL classes that were particularly relevant to my current job, and I think this course will be immediately useful. I work at Georgetown Law Library as a Digital Initiatives Coordinator, managing digitization projects from the hands-on scanning phase through to file management and long-term preservation planning. I’m familiar with some of the tools and practices in the field, but have barely any theoretical knowledge, so the structure of this course is appealing with its focus on policies and ideas.

In a previous career, I was involved in international education and cultural exchange, and I’m still interested in foreign affairs and many humanities topics despite my recent focus on technical work. One of the things I love about my job is all the content inside of those digital books; I have to be careful not to get too distracted when I’m examining digitized books about history or politics or law. My earlier library experience was in cataloging and metadata, and I remain interested in classification and metadata and the way those topics intersect with digital preservation. I’ve been stretching my technology skills in my current position, and I’m planning to figure out a future career in this nexus of metadata, digital libraries, and technology. There is a lot of work to be done.

Speaking of work to be done, I was inclined to defend Vint Cerf during our class discussion, so I went ahead and watched this presentation to get a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses of his argument. I admit that he comes across as a bit presumptuous, with a stereotypical Silicon Valley belief that a technological solution can be found for every problem in society — no need to engage with existing work in the field! His digital vellum discussion is mostly just a means to highlight the pre-existing OLIVE project, which is interesting but not revolutionary (it seems like a modest development in the emulation field). The part of Cerf’s argument I want to highlight, though, is his brief focus on issues like intellectual property and legal regimes. He mentions, in passing, the concept of “preservation rights,” and it is in this arena that I believe some of that Silicon Valley brazenness could make a difference. The legal challenges to digital preservation are at least as significant as the technical ones. If there is ever going to be a digital dark age, its source is likely to be copyright and software patents rather than degraded floppy disks and CD-ROMS.

I also found it instructive to look at the “further reading” article by Terry Kuny – for one thing, it is useful to remember that the phrase “digital dark ages” dates back nearly twenty years. Kuny, in 1997, examined digital preservation issues and listed eight areas where more work was needed. While there has since been progress in many of these areas, it is apparent that this work will continue indefinitely, and never be entirely resolved. In particular, Cuny mentions “digital collection development and evaluation guidelines” and “rights management and access control,” both of which remain major challenges that Vint Cerf could include in a presentation today. In my opinion, the prospect of a digital dark age really comes down to expectations. If 30 billion photos per year are posted to Instagram, and users believe that those photos will exist for eternity, then they are misguided. The ephemera of digital life are just too vast and varied to preserve in their entirety. Stuff will vanish forever, but our era will hardly be “dark” unless you expect everything digital to last forever. It will be the job of archivists, as always, to save the things that seem most important and hope that we get it somewhat right.

2 Replies to “Intro post – Jeff Gerhard”

  1. I really appreciate that you bring up the issue of copyright/intellectual property; while it’s an important point, it’s also where I feel Cerf deserves at least a little side-eye. Google touts its use of open-source software, but they seem to have a good amount of closed-source software as well. I’m not entirely well-versed in Google’s archival practices, but I think that if such a large company started to publicly implement a sort of “preservation rights” access to their proprietary source code, they could also promote the idea to others.

    The question of expectations is an interesting one. This is actually where I feel like “the digital dark age” is really most important– its rhetoric gets people out of the mindset that things are around forever. Hopefully this will lead to a larger group of people taking on the preservation of digital objects and digital copies of objects… which of course, means that we can save more.

  2. Hey Alice,
    Thanks for the response! I think that “preservation rights” is a reference to some kind of legislative approach. Get Congress to pass a law saying that, for preservation purposes, the Library of Congress has an unambiguous right to take “digital vellum” snapshots of instances of proprietary software running. Require prominent tech companies like Facebook and Google and Apple to deposit their code in an archive for future use. Things like that. I don’t know if it will ever happen, or even if it’s a great idea (I think we have a lot of good systems already in place), but it would take someone like Cerf to rally up some politicians for a project like that.

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