Greenbelt Museum project & course reflection

Considering how oblivious I was to digital preservation practices prior to this course, I feel like I learned so much in one semester. At the very least, I will no longer be reduced to a mild panic attack at someone asking me to explain the basic tenets of digital preservation. 🙂
I truly appreciated the consultation project, as it was a useful, practical exercise with a real organization that was (hopefully) mutually beneficial for everyone (Unfortunately, this kind of assignment has been somewhat rare in my other courses…but I digress). I often can process and learn new concepts and skills better by simply doing them as opposed to having abstract discussions about them.
It was also very enjoyable to work with the Greenbelt Museum on this; the Director was very enthusiastic about their digital preservation efforts and was quite candid about their lack of strategy and expertise. Being focused on museum scholarship, it was fascinating to learn about their practices and what they are attempting to do with a limited amount of staff and resources. Crafting recommendations and policy for the museum also helped me to understand that digital preservation is an iterative process, and that starting small is alright (and often preferable).
With all that in mind, my three takeaways from this class are:

  1. Again, small steps are alright.
    It really is going to depend on the institution and where they are in their digital preservation processes. The emphasis should be on the state and needs of their digital collection and what the organization values most, then go from there.
  2. It’s all about context.
    The “essence” of digital content differs depending on its purpose and functionality, therefore it’s unwise to apply the same digital preservation strategies to, say, image scans of rare manuscripts and the email archive of a famous politician. In hindsight, this is an obvious statement, but prior to this course I sort of thought digital preservation was more of a “one size fits all” practice.
  3. We can’t preserve everything, so let’s stop pretending we can.
    This might just be my own personal interpretation of some of the readings, but I stand by it. Everything ends. We can’t save it all. Being obsessed with trying to save it all is a fool’s errand. Let’s focus on what’s of value. Yes, “what’s of value” will always be highly subjective according to organization, stakeholders, the community, etc. But no matter the kind of institution or the kind of content, it can’t all be saved. There needs to be a deliberate strategy & intent to this work so that it can be prioritized.

5 Replies to “Greenbelt Museum project & course reflection”

  1. Hey Tricia, I really responded strongly to your last point. In this age of big data (jeez, I’m sick of that term!) I think we’ve inherited this assumption that just because something is digital it is easy to save, and therefore should be saved. Forever. But the costs of that approach in time and resources aren’t always so easy to see. The saving part is almost trivial. It seems better to ask who’s going to *care* for this stuff after we’ve saved it? Who’s going to make it mean something? As you point out, we really can’t afford to invest the time in material of only marginal value. I’ve had a similar ongoing debate with a colleague at work about the saving of RAW image files. He wants to save them all in perpetuity, arguing that processing software gets better all the time, and that he might be able to reprocess a shot and make it look better 10 years from now than he could with today’s software. Then I asked if he’d ever been asked to do that for images from 10 years ago. Crickets. Basically, anything older than 5 years isn’t of much interest to our department. Archives is certainly interested in it, but they don’t want to reprocess RAW files. So, they really don’t have as much long term value as they might seem.

    1. “The saving part is almost trivial.” I agree, Andy! If there’s not intention behind that, or organizational agreement on what needs to be saved and how best to do that, it just feels like hoarding to me. And thinking about who will care for the content in the future is important as well – something that could even maybe be more of a focus in classes like this.

  2. Tricia, I too was previously under the assumption that digital preservation had a “one size fits all” approach, because it’s all digital, right? Wrong. I think one of the parts I appreciated most was the creativity that was involved in this class. It wasn’t just, they make a copy, but where do they save that copy? Is that copy safe? Where else could they put it? Nice overview, and I also am VERY thankful for the way this project was designed and executed. I finally feel like I’m semi-qualified to do something because I already did it!

  3. Hi Tricia,

    I strongly agree with you and Andy about the futility of trying to save everything. I took the preservation course in the spring semester and it was one of the very first things my professor said to us. I think going into any preservation project with that mindset is liberating. If you are so obsessed with trying to make everything work, you’ll never find a practical solution to your problem. Learning how to identify what should be saved, on the other hand, is a much more complicated process.

  4. Tricia, I think you were really lucky to work with the Greenbelt Museum. I joined the class late and I was a little bit bummed out that the Greenbelt Museum had already been taken. I love the art and architecture of the city, and it has such a fascinating history. I’m looking forward to reading over your report, because I would love to volunteer or do some project with them in the future. Although as a very busy grad student, I’m not sure when or if that will be a possibility.

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