During the course of this week’s readings, I kept coming back to the fourth axiom in the intro to our text – “Nothing has been preserved. There are only things being preserved.” (p. 5) The title to our text is Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, and in Chapter 4, Owens fleshes out more what he means by “craft.” Digital preservation is an ongoing process. The frameworks in our readings can be used as tools in directing this approach, but there isn’t a manual per se that explains what to do. It’s about asking the right questions to develop something that is sustainable for your situation. The word “craft” is evocative of an artisan, a glass blower for example – the end products might look similar but each piece is unique.
In “The Emperor’s New Repository,” Chudnov suggests not stressing too much at the beginning about doing everything just right. You can start small and build, change tools, change how you think about the content, and draw on user feedback to guide your changes. My sense was that he didn’t want people to be paralyzed by the possibility of having to scrap or redo the work because they didn’t make the right decision at the beginning. In fairness, when you’re spending someone else’s money, it’s a difficult prospect to have to explain that this is all part of the process. As we discussed last week, we can can’t assume that everyone understands what’s involved in archiving or digital preservation.
Trying and learning from mistakes is still better than nothing though. Our readings last week presented an urgency to this. Setting aside how well you feel professional archivists have this in hand, there’s a lot out there and archivists can’t preserve it all or even anticipate everything that is worth preserving; so if you think something important is slipping through the cracks, you might be the last recourse.
Practitioners don’t have to start from scratch
We can make informed decisions based on traditional archival and preservation practices. People are sharing their experiences and putting their heads together to try to make this attainable even if you don’t do this for a living. Reading, sharing, and talking it out is how we develop the craft.
Oh and another area where archivists can help – documenting decisions. What you did, why you did it, what worked, what didn’t. Owens writes, “Preservation happens because of institutions.…individuals alone can’t do digital preservation.” (p. 78) If an individual tries to preserve a collection alone and doesn’t pass it on to anyone, then it’s not being preserved anymore. When those responsibilities get passed on, either to or within an organization, documentation gives us a context and affects future decision-making. The most frustrating aspects of jobs I’ve had in the past all point to a lack of context to make informed decisions. It means taking the time to ask something I could have figured out myself, or trying something that someone else has already determined doesn’t work, or following the wrong path based on a misunderstanding.
Digital preservation frameworks
This week’s readings focused on two frameworks – Levels of Digital Preservation (LoDP) and the Open Archival Information System (OAIS). LoDP was developed by the National Digital Stewardship Alliance. It takes five concerns of digital preservation (storage and geographic location, file fixity and data integrity, information security, metadata, file formats) and provides recommendations for the types of activities at each level. Level 1 pertains to what are considered the most urgent activities and serves as a prerequisite to the later levels.
In keeping with the idea of digital preservation as a craft, LoDP is a work in progress. An update is underway. LoDP is conceptual. The authors discourage thinking of a preservation program as being at one level. The different concerns listed above can fall at different levels or only partially meet the recommendations at a particular level.
OAIS is more specific than LoDP and deals with repository design from submission to dissemination. Despite the fact that OAIS is now an ISO standard, the report written by the Digital Preservation Coalition still describes it more as a concept than a standard (pp. 3, 31). This means that there’s no official way to tell if a repository is “OAIS-compliant.” (Side note: I didn’t go directly to the source for this because the ISO standard costs $200.)
Theory versus practice
The fact that these frameworks are conceptual didn’t stop me from wanting to harness this theory to something a little more concrete – to think about what Level 3 might look like or how realistic Level 4 is. I work on a digitization program so I have some idea of what goes into the repository, but I don’t work on ingest or design user interfaces. As a student I’ve accessed digital repositories so I understand what I might want, at least right now, from a repository as a user. In this way, I could think about my own experiences to put some shape to the theory. I suppose there’s a danger of oversimplifying when doing that and we’ve seen examples of this in our readings.
Chudnov warns not to “fetishize” software because what works for one situation won’t necessarily work for another, but examples help. One of our optional readings described DSpace. Even though “[a] repository is not a piece of software” (Owens, p. 4), the author describes it as a digital repository built from open-source software. Still I appreciated the example because it presented specific scenarios for how you could use the software. The article doesn’t mention OAIS, but the description seemed similar to that model. In googling “DSPACE” and “OAIS-compliant” however, I came across this quote from a white paper:
“Digital preservation is a process, not a technology. I’m not quite sure where claims that DSpace is ‘OAIS compliant’ came from, but since OAIS talks about processes, communities and responsibilities, DSpace itself can no more be ‘OAIS compliant’ than a set of pliers can be a certified electrician.” (p. 18)
This week’s readings opened us up to the idea that we have a lot of choices in our digital preservation activities, but I wondered if the theoretical basis for some of this would be off-putting for those who have no previous experience. I found LoDP understandable, but still question if readers would shut down at the mention of “fixity” or “metadata.” One thing I like about LoDP is that it uses the language that you need to know to make those decisions.
I know we come from different backgrounds and that we all have different levels of experience with digital preservation. I’m curious to read your impressions and what you responded to.
2 Replies to “FUNdamentals”
Tina, I appreciate the connection you made between the Chudnov article and the readings from last week. While reading “The Emperor’s New Repository,” I was somewhat surprised to see that many professionals are still figuring out how to navigate digital projects even if they’ve worked with digital repositories before. This is somewhat reassuring to me as a newer professional. But I also have to wonder, if Chudnov claims he doesn’t know how to build a digital repository, then who actually does? It’s natural for there to be some kind of learning curve and hopefully our colleagues outside the field will accept that mistakes and unexpected challenges will happen. But I also agree with you that it could be hard to justify a more experimental approach to the people with the power to fund your project who might expect a quicker or easier solution. I think that my main takeaway from the Chudnov article is that it’s okay to start small and to let user feedback direct future developments. That way, if we do make mistakes early on in the process, at least we can minimize their impact.
Emily, your comment made me lol… it’s so true! If nobody knows what they are doing, who are we supposed to learn from?! I think the reassuring part of what Chudnov is saying is that because digital preservation doesn’t have hard and fast rules, we should all feel better about making informed decisions and trying things out. Starting small is always a good idea, one I’m learning the hard way with my thesis project. Keeping the users in mind seems like such an obvious task, but it’s one that is so easy to forget as you dive deeper into these types of projects (and especially before they get to the user-feedback stage).