Introduction and Reflections on Week One

Hello everyone! My name’s Gwen Coddington. I recognize some of the names from the sign-up for the discussion post moderators so to those I’ve met before, glad to be working with you again for another semester! To those I haven’t met yet, I’m looking forward to getting to know you as we dive into the world of digital preservation together. Just a little bit about me, I’m a third year (and hopefully last) in the HiLS program. I’m starting my thesis in the history program and am writing about public libraries in Maryland during WWII, focusing specifically on Baltimore and the Enoch Pratt but also drawing on the experiences of rural Marylanders and state initiatives. So if you like the history of libraries, print culture, or just want to geek out over our profession, let me know!

The readings this week are a nice way to introduce why digital preservation matters not only in the archive/library profession, but to the flow and maintenance of information in society as a whole. Thinking about our readings as a unit, I’m struck by the diversity in where this conversation is taking place. By that I mean, this isn’t a topic limited to academic journals but is impacting discussions across major news outlets, blog posts, and professional organizations. In other words, everyone can and should have a stake in digital preservation.

This, I think, gets at one of the themes in the readings: bridging the divide between information professionals and the general public when it comes to demonstrating why our profession matters and how the work we do has real-world stakes. I don’t think it’s a secret that librarians and archivists often have an image problem. In the popular media, we are often portrayed as out-of-touch, a remnant of a bygone era guarding musty tomes and shushing people. I think we all would agree that that representation is a far-cry from what we do (though I’ll freely admit to shushing undergrads when trying to study in McKeldin). But image and popular misconceptions have real consequences as some of the articles we read demonstrate. Bertram Lyons’ blog post rightfully identifies that librarians and archivists are often a “hidden element” in the general conception of how information is preserved and made accessible to researchers. Eira Tansey’s response expands upon this idea by noting institutional deterrents in bringing archivists’ perspective to the table when appraisal decisions are being made. How do we get in “the room where it happens?” How do we assert our role more visibly to the public? To quotes Terry Kuny’s article, “The challenge in preserving electronic information is not primarily a technological one, it is a sociological one.” It’ll take a reordering of priorities and assumptions to make digital preservation a cultural norm and not simply a specialized responsibility.

A final note, I’ve been going back and forth about how I feel about the term, “digital dark ages.” I’m not a Medieval historian but if I recall properly that label is a bit of misconception for the survival of knowledge and culture in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. I kind of wanted to roll my eyes every time it crept up in our readings this week. Is drawing this parallel an unhelpful way to characterize what are, what I think, some true challenges facing archivist and librarians as the digital age expands? Am I being overly sensitive to what is really a cosmetic issue in this discussion? I’d love to know other people’s thoughts in how terminology and language is shaping the debate around this topic.

3 Replies to “Introduction and Reflections on Week One”

  1. Hi Gwen,

    I was particularly struck by your thoughts on the term “digital dark age” itself. I was so busy addressing the issues that Lyons and Tansey discussed that I completely disregarded the hyperbole of the initial premise.

    To answer your question, no, I don’t think you’re being oversensitive. The language surrounding this topic, like much of today’s media, is designed to dramatize and polarize topics that would otherwise appear as subtle shades of gray, all for the purpose of capturing our fleeting attention. For better or worse we are a clickbait society. The good part about that is that we are here discussing the issue and working through possible approaches and remedies. The bad part is that, as you point out, it distorts our perception of reality, perhaps making what is a significant challenge into an overwhelming catastrophe. In fact your point made me realize that the term “digital dark age” has the curious effect of giving the impression that traditional physical archives are somehow a solved problem. My impression is that they are far from a perfected science. I’d venture a guess that a hard look at either analog or digital repositories will find similar gaps formed by the same lapses in foresight.

  2. Hey Gwen! I just had to pop in to say that I totally agree about the terminology. Something about the way Vint Cerf (could they have made him seem more stuffy in his suit and tie?) spoke about it made me want to roll my eyes. I’m not a Medieval historian either, but it sounds dramatic. Maybe it’s that we’re so used to all the dramatic misuses of historical terminology in the media that we automatically dismiss any reference we think sounds like a stretch. (For the last time, “let them eat cake” is NOT a Marie Antoinette quote!) Ha.

  3. Gwen, I already talked to you a little bit about your thesis in person, but let me reiterate that I am very interested in reading your work when it is completed (or before, if you need an extra set of eyes while revising). I am still toying with the idea of doing my thesis on archives and record management during World War II (probably with a focus on national institutions). I also did an essay for Freund’s Long Twentieth Century class on library history, including a segment on libraries in World War II. So I think we have a lot of overlapping interests. Apologies if I’ve already asked this, but who is your advisor?

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