Digital Preservation Reflections and Report

Digital Preservation is a course I had been looking forward to since I first looked at the iSchool Two-Year Plan. I’ve even moved classes around to make sure I could fit in Digital Preservation Fall 2018. My specialization is Archives and Digital Curation and I’m greatly interested in this field. I felt strongly that once I took this class, I would just “know” digital preservation.

I’m happy to have taken this course because it sort of lifted the veil for me. Digital preservation is not just one thing; there are many methods and approaches to preserving digital objects. I did not expect to learn so much theory, and kind of did not enjoy it at first, but now at the end of the semester I realize why it is so important.

Here are a few of the most important lessons I learned this semester:

Variability in digital preservation approaches

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to digital preservation. It always “depends.” It depends on the institution’s preservation intent, on their resources, on their audience, or other factors. These influences all shape the actual digital preservation plan. I enjoyed learning about different preservation approaches and the reasons behind them, like the benefits of emulating Salman Rushdie’s laptop or why screenshots can be enough to suffice for web archiving. Knowing about the different approaches makes me feel confident that I will be able to address unique digital preservation issues that I may come across in the future.

Scalability of digital preservation plans

Institutions don’t have to immediately follow every step in the OAIS model to practice digital preservation. I really appreciated learning about the NDSA Levels of Digital Preservation as it makes scaling plans a lot easier. It’s nice to know that organizations of every size are able to work on preserving their digital content. I also enjoyed class discussions on our consulting projects for this reason. We were all learning the same lessons and were able to apply them differently to suit the needs and resources of our institutions.

Digital preservation is ongoing and constant

Digital mediums and objects can become at risk for obsolescence and corruption, so preservation actions never stop. I was surprised to learn this, as I imagined there would be some one-and-done software application to ensure records were safe. As it turns out, digital preservation is more complicated than that. It’s not even wise to rely on a single software application because that can become obsolete and unsupported, too. Observation, migration, storing copies, and other habits are all important for ensuring the longevity of digital objects.

My favorite thing about this course was definitely the consulting project. Although we learned a lot from class and readings, actually being able to put our learnings to use made me feel more confident about my digital preservation knowledge and capabilities. This was also my first time learning about and writing policy, so that has been valuable for me, too.

Discussion Question

Now that we have taken this course and learned so much about the practice, how can we contribute to the field of digital preservation?


Reflecting on Digital Preservation is Still Digital Preservation

A teacher friend of mine once said that anyone can teach anything if they stay one chapter ahead of the class. My only real teaching experience has been as a native speaker teaching English to non-native speakers; a knowledge gap that gave me a lot of wiggle room, even with my more advanced students. My friend wasn’t talking about digital preservation and this project wasn’t exactly teaching, but you can see where I’m headed….

I’ve been fortunate enough to be partnered with two dedicated women at WheatonArts and Cultural Center who are only about a chapter behind me in digital preservation. It’s been fun and challenging. I won’t use the past tense because we’re still in communication and I hope to follow their preservation efforts for as long as they’ll put up with me.

One of the more satisfying aspects of digital preservation, if you’re partial to theory, is the way theory and practice are interwoven in this work. When I sat down with the staff at WheatonArts, they didn’t just want to talk about bit-level preservation…. When an artist says, “don’t digitize my work; don’t preserve it,” what’s a responsible curator to do? Does suggesting a more sustainable file format to artists constitute interference with the creative process? WheatonArts’ mission is to draw visitors into an exploration of creativity. So far, artists guide much of that exploration by providing their own documentation of their creative processes. Resources notwithstanding, should the Center take a more active role in that documentation process? How do you represent creativity faithfully? Is a video good enough? Our early readings in this course, like Documenting Dance, ask these kinds of questions.

But what about the bits? Shouldn’t we talk about storage first? Toggling between philosophy and hurricane recovery is the joy of this work. There’s real immediate work to be done but you’re never too far from epistemology or aesthetics, either.

Museums welcome not only the opportunity but the responsibility to think through these puzzles. And it is a responsibility. Enduring (and expanded) access will mean that eventually, most visitors to museums and other cultural heritage institutions will never step foot in their buildings. Visitors won’t have the chance to reckon with an analog artifact. As objects are increasingly born-digital, the idea of faithfulness, of whether an analog object could be reassembled, will drift further and further to the backs of visitors’ minds. So, part of the job of digital preservation must be to ask these same questions that thoughtful curators have always asked.

WheatonArts and Cultural Center’s Digital Preservation Project Report

Farewell Digital Preservation… For Now

As the semester draws to a close, I can confidently say that this has been one of most useful classes I have taken in this program. I found both the readings and the project to be very well organized, with the perfect mix of practical skills and the theoretical knowledge to back them up. MLIS classes tend to be very theory-heavy to avoid teaching tools that will be obsolete in a couple of years, but there is also so much value to be gained by working closely with a real-life problem, and seeking answers and solutions that you can learn from and use in the future. I was lucky to work with a super responsive and enthusiastic person at the Little Compton Historical Society, whose feedback and advice made this project much better. All of the nervousness I had at the beginning of the semester (who the heck am I to give advice?!) faded away as my ideas and suggestions were well-received. Look at us – we’re all digital preservation consultants now! On the other hand, there were times when I struggled by jumping too far ahead in the Levels of Digital Preservation, or making suggestions that were beyond the scope of what my institution could achieve. It helped to take a step back to the basics and remember that everyone has to start somewhere… even if that somewhere is not storing vital information on thumb drives!

If I have to choose three lessons I’ll take from this class, they are these:

  • The work of digital preservation is never-ending, but this should not prevent us from doing all we can to ensure the longevity of our historical collections. The line in the first part of Trevor’s book: “The primary enablers of preservation for the long term are our institutions,” was stuck in my head every time I was working on my project. Reminding us that our digital holdings have the potential to outlive us and survive for future generations to enjoy is a great way to hammer in the importance of taking action now –they will only last if we prioritize their care in our lifetime!
  • The nature of the digital world is that much more is lost than is saved. I had a professor last year who works in preservation and always said that you will always have to make hard choices, and then you go to therapy. As terrifying as it was to hear that my institution stored its entire oral history collection on CD-Rs, the fact is that important information is lost everyday because there just aren’t enough resources to go about preserving it all. In an ideal world – perhaps we would (or could), but sometimes you just have to prioritize and do your best.
  • Digital preservation is a team effort. Although I have learned a ton from this course, there is absolutely no way that I could have completed this project without input from my classmates. Sharing our experiences not only helped to complete the project itself, but to see all the different ways that we have approached different problems and challenges reminds us that “there is no one size fits all” approach. Not only from you all, but the input from my institution’s director helped me to see what is doable and what is not when faced with a shortage of funds and people.

I already said it, but I’ll say it again – I really enjoyed this class! Good luck to everyone next semester!

LCHS Digital Preservation Full Report

Reflecting and Reporting on this Semester

Coming into this class, I was terrified. I was in my first semester of grad school, I had wedged my way into this class, making the pre-requisite class into a co-requisite. I was here to figure out if I was on the right path into digital curation or if I absolutely hated it. That was definitely a lot to put onto 3 credits, but it fulfilled its goal. I figured out that I didn’t hate digital materials as much as I expected to – even figuring out that I enjoyed working with digital information. That being said, I didn’t learn what I expected to. Maybe this was a symptom of my first-semester-first-year mindset, but I thought that we were going to be learning about how to do digital preservation, the nuts-and-bolts of migrating files and using software to preserve these materials. That thought was quickly replaced with a more theoretical mindset. What we learned was how to approach digital preservation; how to take a collection that managed to have some digital assets and how to preserve those files at least for another 10 years.

We looked at the philosophical problems of digital preservation before ever attempted to work with actual files. It may not seem to be productive to delve so deeply into the concept of “sameness” but this helps us determine the goal of digital preservation before it determines us. Is the point to preserve the test of the item or the look of it? While these two items may be determined to be the same as its earlier form, the idea of what the same means determines how the item should be preserved. If the text needs to be the same, then the text is the more important component; if it is the image, then that is the priority. Having this background gave us a framework to be able to approach our digital preservation projects, which gave a tangible representation of what digital preservation can look like.

Working with our organizations was probably the closest we came to doing digital preservation (whatever that means – another component of the theoretical portion was learning how many different ways there are to do digital preservation). While we may not have gotten to work with the individual files, we did have the chance to create frameworks about how other people should work with the files. Working within that we also had to realize that while we might think that the only way to do digital preservation is by making everything to the highest standard, even putting files on a separate hard drive counts as digital preservation. We got some of that information through our readings, but actually being in a place or watching our classmates deal with floppy discs and completely unorganized file trees, gave a very concrete idea that some digital preservation is better than none.

While I can’t say that I want to only do digital preservation for the rest of my life, I can’t say that I don’t and that’s part of the problem. I came into this course and into this program completely decided on being an archivist. That path is now the least clear it has been since August of 2016. I can’t say that I’m happy that my carefully ordered plan has been thrown into jeopardy but, I am happy that this change has been the result of learning and understanding more about how digital objects work and how we can work to preserve them.

The culmination of this semester is in the report linked below:

Digital Preservation Report for the National Trust for Historic Preservation

Reflection and Archeology Program Office Report

This class has been eye opening for me. There are a lot of possible directions that you can take with a preservation plan. One recurring theme in our readings was that digital objects are not defined by everyone in the same way. This came through early in our readings when Owens wrote of digital objects’ “fuzzy boundaries” (p. 6) and “screen essentialism” (p. 46). We went on to discuss what it means to authentically render an object and how this informs preservation intent. Thinking of digital objects in different ways also means that we can open our minds to different types of access in order to observe restrictions based on privacy, copyright and cultural norms (Owens, p. 164).

It’s important then not to start with assumptionsabout what preserving a digital object means. Getting stakeholder input early in the process can help identify what aspects of digital content are of value to preserve. This will help an organization flesh out realistic goals based on their available resources. In working on my class project, I got a lot out of my discussions with my organization, and I think that process of talking it out was helpful for them as well. However, I think my involvement was just the beginning for them since I didn’t speak with anyone within their parent organization and user needs mainly focused on those for staff. Hopefully, my report can be a basis for further discussion.

This leads to my last takeaway. This is an iterative process. Preservation never ends. There may be a lot of things you’d like to accomplish, but think about what you can do that’s sustainable in the long term. At the same time, don’t feel overwhelmed by that commitment. The Levels of Digital Preservation includes recommendations for what to do at a minimum to preserve digital content. You can start small if necessary and have ideas in place to expand when the time is right. Additionally, things will change. Storage media will need to be replaced and formats can become obsolete. Digital media has changed how we think about information and different formats may come along that challenge your current approach.

In the case of my organization, there is so much potential for what they can do with their digital content once they get past the initial effort of consolidating and organizing their content. I suggested conducting an annual review in my preservation policy draft to encourage further reflection.

So here’s a question to ponder about our consultations. Having been through this process, what was one thing you would do differently if you did it over again?

Digital Preservation Report Archeology Program Office