Join the Dark Side
I couldn’t help feeling that the underlying subtext to this week’s readings was an embracing of distrust and uncertainty. Distrust in physical media, file formats, third-party cloud services… even the computer’s ability to do what many take for granted: create an exact copy. Uncertainty manifested itself in issues such as the future adoption levels of formats, the continuity of tools, and even the motives and competency of our own staff. Rather than being dismayed by this somewhat dour outlook, I found it to be a heartening confirmation of my belief that pessimism can indeed be used as a force for good.
I guess I’m weird like that.
Owens Chapter 6 kicked off this theme of distrust with the recurring phrase “hedge your bets.” This one phrase was applied repeatedly to the first of three core processes for bit preservation: 1) creating and managing multiple copies, 2) managing and using fixity information, and 3) establishing information security protocols to keep accidents and attacks from occurring at the hands of staff or users. In the context of the first process – managing multiple copies – the “hedge your bets” approach necessarily results in a proliferation of file types, storage media, and a geographically sprawling network of storage locations. The point of this push for diversity being that no one disaster, bad actor, or system failure is likely to wipe out all copies.
The distrust also extended to seemingly mundane processes like the act of transferring data, and minimizing the number of people capable of accessing the objects. But the issue that interested me most was the emphasis to not put too much faith in any one tool. As Owens notes, vendor lock-in is a real concern that necessitates forming an exit strategy before acquisition is even complete (p. 115). I have seen this happen in my own career and know how dangerous it can be. Indeed, it was one of the catalysts that inspired me to seek this degree.
The theme of distrust continued in the NDSA Storage Report. This survey found that the majority of NDSA members’ desire for control over their own holdings tended to dissuade them from embracing commercial cloud services. The perception (or reality) of greater control of their data caused the majority to prefer joining institutional cooperatives where each member shares their data with a member organization in order to establish geographic diversity in their storage plan. Of particular concern among the group was the lack of transparency in the fixity checks performed behind the scenes by commercial cloud services. There was no proof offered that hashes provided at the time of access weren’t simply being replayed from the time of upload and thus providing a false sense of safety.
Again, I was struck by how issues of uncertainty and distrust could be harnessed to realize positive and productive ends. Perhaps I’ve finally found my people?
A New Hope
Not all the readings were gloom and doom. “From Theory to Action” in particular revisited many of the themes we’ve touched on in previous weeks emphasizing a simple and incremental approach to beginning a preservation program. As the subtitle of the piece indicates, they emphasize embracing the concept of “good enough,” and then building on it. Digital preservation is not a binary status requiring that an institution either be moving at light speed or standing completely still. Institutions should focus on near term goals that can immediately improve preservation, however small and simple they might be. But probably the biggest takeaway from this piece was the degree of confidence and self-efficacy the POWRR group members instilled in each other simply by choosing to assess and tackle their collective issues in a cooperative fashion. The creation of communities of practice is particularly effective at helping the entire group identify solutions to common problems.
In Chapter 6, Owens notes the importance of differentiating working files from files that have become static and thus ready for long-term storage. I have found that in practice this is more difficult than it would seem, particularly for video. In our multimedia department the concept of finality has been elusive at best, to the point that our manager gets angry if a file is actually labeled “final”, because it becomes untrue almost the moment it’s saved. Our company’s trend of editing-by-committee basically guarantees at least a few more rounds edits no matter what. Even an extended passage of time is no indication of finality. Customers will come back and ask for changes to a video many years after the first version, usually because they want to remove a staff member that has left, or change someone’s job title. Saving an editable version requires saving the non-linear editor project files and all associated source files. This is the most complicated version to save and the first to become obsolete. So, my question for the class is how should we as archivists respond to such a dynamic situation, where the concept of finality is tenuous and fluid?
And lastly, I didn’t discuss Dietrich’s “Emulation for Everyone” above because it seemed like something of an outlier relative to the others. I find myself fascinated with emulation as a practice, but wondering about its feasibility for all but the most extreme cases. For example, it was mentioned at the end of this piece that researchers looking at the Jeremy Blake Papers actually preferred using the modern OS and were really primarily interested in the informational value of the objects. Authenticity and fidelity were less of a priority. This seems like a lot of effort to have gone to for an experience that no one really needed. So my question for the class is, where do you see emulation fitting into the list of preservation options? Should it require a more rigorous examination of preservation intent to make sure the considerable extra effort is justified?
I’m also curious to what extent an emulated system becomes a digital object in itself, which then becomes exponentially more complicated to preserve? At what point do we decide that these towering platform stacks held together with scotch tape and shoe goo are no longer worth the expense of maintaining?
I formally apologize* for all Star Wars references.