My Life as a Warning to Others

Hello, everyone. My name is Andy Cleavenger, and I am beginning my fourth year of this two year program.

My life up to this point has been spent as a photographer and multimedia specialist at a government contractor. I work in their Communications department. My interest in this class stems from my role as the sole caretaker of our department’s image collection. For over 17 years I have been the only one capable of performing image searches, and the only one concerned with the preservation of those images. I’m in the Digital Curation track to learn how to effectively turn my collection into a self-service resource available to all employees. And I’m in this class specifically to make sure I’m doing everything possible to ensure the long-term preservation of our image collection.

I must admit that the first axiom listed in Owens – “A repository is not a piece of software” – just about made me stand up from my chair and shout “see, I told you!” at my former boss. We have always treated the image collection as a problem that can be solved with a magic-bullet purchase of DAM software.

“We bought it… we’re done!”

This is of course, extremely common. Like most offices, they forget about the systems that will come after the present one, or the unceasing march of technological progress that dictates both the increasing complexity of the images as well as the expanding diversification of their use. This was nicely summed up in Owens’ last axiom: “Doing digital preservation requires thinking like a futurist.”  I fear that they may regret some of the decisions they’ve made such as stripping all filenames from their videos, throwing everything into a single directory, and then depending on an external proprietary catalog file to save all related metadata.

We are now married to that system… and it’s failing us.

The remaining articles on either side of the digital dark age debate made some equally compelling points. Ultimately, I felt that Lyons and Tansey both came closest to hitting the mark on what form a digital dark age would take, as well as the forces that would drive it. Lyons frames the problem as one of cultural blindness. That is to say that institutions that exist within and serve a particular society tend to have difficulty in recognizing the value in – or even being aware of – the records of other communities. As such, the digital dark age will manifest itself in the silence of these socio-politically disadvantaged communities within the archival record.

This is not an unfamiliar argument, but I tend to think the motivations for its reality are less a conspiratorial omission than they are due to a sad pragmatism driven by extremely finite resources. This point was reflected well in Tansey. She makes the point that the long trend of cuts to budgets and staff force institutions to set priorities that obviously leave gaps in the archival record. In other words, even if an institution has an awareness of fringe communities, and possibly even has a sympathetic collections policy for including those records, the pragmatism of limited resources may still dictate their omission as the institution focuses on its highest priorities.

I have certainly seen this in my position in the Communications department. I’m curious if others in class have seen examples like this in their own workplaces?

2 Replies to “My Life as a Warning to Others”

  1. Hi Andy. Thanks for the warning! Your experiences with managing this image collection sound frustrating. While the decisions your employer is making seem pretty egregious, it struck a chord with me because I often wonder about the future use of digital collections even under the best of circumstances.

    I attended a session on technical debt at the conference for the Society of American Archivists. I think the term has been around for awhile but I had never heard of it. During the session, speakers presented their experiences with trying to address deficiencies in metadata or image quality of their digitized collections based on decisions made in the past. In some cases, it seemed that their respective organizations were simply making decisions based on the technical or resource limitations they had at the time. Without explicitly saying it, each speaker suggested that the solution was to cut their losses and redo the work, either systematically or on patron request. This made me wonder how we as a profession would perceive our current decisions in 20-30 years. When I was reading Trevor Owen’s axioms, I added a note on technical debt next to axiom 12, “Highly technical definitions of digital preservation are complicit in silencing the past.” I’m interested in exploring the balance between making digital preservation accessible for people who can’t afford a team of technical experts and really being able to forecast the future use of collections without that expertise.

    This somewhat relates to your last question. I don’t have a specific answer to that based on my own experiences, but based on previous classes and this week’s readings, it seems that the hope of digital preservation is to help fringe communities preserve their own history. This might actually be preferable since they would be the ones most qualified to decide what is worth saving, and what perhaps shouldn’t be saved or at least not be made public.

    1. Hi Tina! “Technical debt”, eh? I love that. I’m totally stealing it. I too was previously unfamiliar with the term but boy am I ever familiar with its reality.

      I could probably think of half a dozen ways that decisions made for me as a much younger employee on issues such as editing platforms, camera choice, storage medium, file formats, and many other factors have basically locked a giant cache of about 14 years worth of images into a virtually impenetrable mountain of decaying CDs and DVDs. At the time it was considered annoying that I wanted to save the images at all. So I guess I’m lucky(!)? I wish I got the reaction you refer to, i.e. admitting the work needs to be redone. No, I get one of two reactions:

      1) “Just box them up and send them to Archives”, or…
      2) “We don’t really use images older than five years old, do we?”

      The first response is of course not as simple as it sounds, and the second just makes me fume.

      The expense of safely transferring the collection has been cost prohibitive for my management. Plus, there was the extended conversations with Archives staff to teach them how to access the older RAW files, some of which actually can’t be accessed anymore, however they are indiscernible from some that are still accessible, so they have to be gone through one folder at a time… on about 800 discs. And then the Archives leadership pushed back on the expense of getting the necessary software to read them.

      It all seemed like a conspiracy at the time.

      Although it has been a couple years and we have all new leadership now. I should try again. But one thing is for sure, I don’t need 20 or 30 years to know how I perceive those past decisions.

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