Let’s Start Trusting Archivists: A Response to the Reading

Hey everyone! I’m Margaret Rose, a first-year first-semester MLIS student.  I freely admit that I know very little right now about digital preservation, other than creating metadata, and I’m here to learn. I really love working with analog material, especially oversized collections, but I know I need to expand my archivist horizons into digital material (especially born-digital material). When choosing this course, I was thinking that it would have a mythical how-to manual for how to preserve things digitally. Well, that is now definitely a myth in my mind, and that’s not a bad thing — the problems of digital curation are not static, so our thinking cannot be either.

What really struck me about the outside readings (especially from the BBC and Lyons’ post) is that the general public may not realize all the work that has to happen for records to get archived. We all do our own advocacy work on behalf of our jobs, institutions, and dreams, but there is still a gap. I understood the fear of a “digital dark age” to be a fear that no digital preservation is happening at all. It might be true that it is happening at a rate that will result in a digital dark grey age, but not a black hole of an absolute loss of information.

Is this because they (the public) don’t know about the work that archivists do, or do they not trust archivists to be able to learn about digital systems and how to archive digitally? Is the fantasy of the archive and the archivist also to our detriment — will archivists be seen as secondary to the global powerhouse that is Google because this isn’t seen as our area? What future archivists are being taught in our MLIS programs is that this is definitely our area; it just needs to be broadcast as our area.

Changing public perception is only one part of it. The second part is for us as professionals: there is never a time to stop learning. Digital preservation, like the preservation of physical objects, is not ever permanent, just holding off an inevitable death. Preservation is about making material stable, instead of allowing it to decay. Digital preservation works not against the physical elements, but against a very robust cycle of innovation and obsolescence.  In my opinion, any conversation on digital preservation must be centered around the shorter long-term, maybe the next decade, but not more than that because there is no way to tell what will happen. This may be the most hated thing for anyone working through a backlog of material because it is daunting to think that all of it will have to be done again, but it is true even with analog material; those acid-free folders will eventually be exhausted and will need to be replaced. The same principle applies to digital materials, it’s just that the digital equivalent to an acid-free folder in 2018 is different from its equivalent in 1996 or 2035, making the inevitable decay not of its physical form but of readability.

I’m hoping that this course and my future courses at UMD will help me to create and form more solid opinions on how digital preservation works now and how it could work in the distant and not-so-distant future.

2 Replies to “Let’s Start Trusting Archivists: A Response to the Reading”

  1. Hi Margaret, You made a good point about the importance of public perception in our field. The Lyons piece in response to the NPR report was posted to a forum on outreach and advocacy for the Society of American Archivists. While I see the value of such forums, what I found more interesting was that Lyons responded directly to the NPR report in the comments section and included this response in the SAA forum. Unfortunately, it looks like NPR got rid of their comments feature later that year so his comments no longer appear with the article. That’s another topic that we could probably go on about. In responding directly to the NPR report, Lyons lost control of the content, but in the short-term his response was visible to anyone visiting that webpage.

    Nevertheless in order to change public perception and recruit external advocates, we need to respond publicly when we think our profession isn’t being fairly represented. This can be in the comments section of the article, through an editorial, or some other public medium.

  2. Hi Margaret,

    I agree with you that public perception is a critical issue. Part of the problem seems to be that we don’t always think about digital preservation until there is some catastrophe resulting in a loss of information. Ongoing efforts to preserve and maintain records don’t always receive as much attention as they should, perhaps because the work is not as visible when things are going well. We have a responsibility to communicate the value of this work to the public, but it’s tough to balance advocacy with all of the other parts of our jobs. I wish we didn’t have to spend so much time justifying our mere existence or explaining what we do, but that’s the reality. But this also reminds me of Tansey’s point that “advocating just hard enough” is not going to magically fix our problems. We still need the power and resources to convince internal stakeholders to comply with records mandates and prioritize digital preservation.

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