I Find Your Lack of Faith… Well, Prudent.

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.

Discussion questions

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.

*Not really.

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?