Greetings and musings

Hello all, this is Tricia Glaser. I’m starting my second year of the MLIS program, and I’m focusing on the Museum Studies and Material Culture certificate. My motivation to take this class is pretty simple–I’m both interested in and intimidated by learning more about digital preservation (and curation) issues in our field. The former because these topics greatly concern museum practices; the latter because I am very unfamiliar with said topics. So I’m looking forward to learning a lot this semester!

I’m originally from Michigan and moved here last July to attend UMD. My only experience in a GLAM organization prior to school was at a public library for three years, where I worked in both the Circulation and Reference departments. It felt like it took forever to figure out what I wanted to do post-undergrad (graduated in 2009!). I bounced around for a while in the service industry, non-profit work, and served in the Peace Corps in 2012. It wasn’t until my entry into public library work did I realize that I’d found a career path. I’m still very glad that I could also use grad school as a reason to move; the DMV area is pretty great!

small dog
A picture of my dog, Luna, just because.

The readings were quite fascinating. I appreciated the Kuny article and the introduction from the textbook for laying clear groundwork on what constitutes digital preservation and its challenges. Regarding those axioms, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I used to consider backing up data as part of digital preservation. I also liked that both readings recommended accepting the “archival sliver,” as Prof. Owens calls it. Acknowledging that nothing is permanent and that large quantities of digital content are already lost (and more will follow) seems necessary in order to accurately prioritize what to preserve. 

I enjoyed both of the Issues & Advocacy posts, but found the argument in “Institutional Silences and the Digital Dark Age,” by Eira Tansey more compelling. It makes sense that many archivists work at institutions that don’t give them say over things like records mandates or retention scheduling, and therefore, a digital dark age is a more realistic possibility. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and Tansey is right that there would need to be organization-wide buy-in to fully tack preservation issues.

Greetings and First Thoughts

Hello to all. I’m David Conway. This the start of the second year and second half of my MLIS program here at Maryland. This is the point at which I, and others I suppose, move from a general track (Archives & Digital Curation for me) and begin to personalize their path a bit more. It was a fascination with film preservation projects and realizing that so many films were already lost that started me down the road to pursuing a career in archives. Complacency and neglect aren’t new to the digital age and neither is ephemerality.

My main interest is, loosely, the preservation of artistic heritage. I’m involved in digital preservation projects where I work, The David C. Driskell Center (for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora) here at UMD, and at the National Council for the Traditional Arts, in Silver Spring. While I’ve dealt with issues in digital preservation, this is my first formal study of the subject and I’m hoping to frame my fragmented experience, expand my knowledge and hopefully, professionalize.

Our readings this week were a nice primer on the hysteria and misconceptions surrounding our topic. Simplistic solutions abound, as mentioned in the introduction to our course text. The moon-shot solution, “just hoover it all up and shoot it into space,” reminded me of the sort of silver bullet “technical solutions” that have been proposed for fixing climate change. Most of us agree that nothing’s quite that simple but neither is a digital dark age inevitable.

I like Bertram Lyons’ reframing of a digital dark age as the digital silence of underrepresentation. “The digital dark age will only happen if we, as communities of archives and archivists, do not reimagine appraisal and selection in light of the historical gaps revealed in collections today.” I think it’s tempting to imagine digital preservation as an entirely new arena, with practices and challenges of its own that don’t overlap with core practices and longstanding challenges to inclusiveness. Lyons reminds us that these problems are perennial. But, I share Eira Tansey’s doubts about the true autonomy of archivists, and not only in the institutional records management context she describes. The sort of introspection about appraisal that Lyons recommends is unlikely to reverse power dynamics that have traditionally favored certain groups over others.

I can’t say that I found much of what we read this week to be controversial. But, I’d be curious to know what others thought of axiom 13 in the introductory chapter to our text: “The affordances of digital media prompt a need for digital preservation to be entangled in digital collection development.” “That is, the affordances of what can be easily preserved should inform decisions about what an organization wants to go out and collect and preserve.” I hadn’t thought of digital preservation as being bound up in appraisal duties in quite that way.

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.

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.

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?