Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Preserving Digits

The notion of digitizing archival and print collections and the function of preserving such materials has been thought by many to be contradictory activities. The debate about this has simmered down somewhat, partly because of the recognition of the necessity of digitization as a means of enhancing access to our documentary heritage and partly because there has been substantial progress in making digitization a safer, more reliable approach for administering the documents of our past. If nothing else, archivists and others concerned with preservation must deal with digitization because so much is being digitized and society, government, businesses, and the public have become reliant on what they can download from the Internet.

A new collection of essays provides some sense of the progress made in digital preservation, suggesting that this phrase is no longer an oxymoron. Marilyn Deegan and Simon Tanner, eds., Digital Preservation (London: Facet Publishing, 2006), ISBN-13: 978-1-85604-485-1, provides a good window into how digitization has been transformed in archival, library, and museum spheres in recent years. The essays also convey the sense that we are dealing with a moving target, and, because of this, such periodic overviews as offered in this volume are essential if we are to take a breath and consider just what has been accomplished and what needs to be done.

Written by a variety of experienced digital preservation managers in the United States and the United Kingdom, the volume provides essays on key issues and strategies in digital preservation, the utility of preservation metadata, the challenge of archiving web sites, financial considerations affecting digital preservation, and descriptions of a variety of case studies. The Deegan and Tanner volume also includes a useful bibliography on digital preservation.

This is not a basic manual or handbook, although it does provide some useful reference functions, most notably the assessment of digital preservation projects compiled by Jasmine Kelly and Elisa Mason. If anything, the book is both a progress report and a call to action. For example, in their introduction the editors write: “In the past, ephemera such as playbills, advertisements, menus, theater tickets, broadsheets, etc. have survived, albeit sometimes rather haphazardly, and are now collected, stored, conserved and valued as vital witnesses to political, economic, social and private aspects of the past. Today, these artifacts appear on the web for a matter of days, to disappear from view as if they had never existed” (pp. 4-5). This is, of course, nothing new in terms of highlighting the immediate danger to what is being created digitally. However, I especially like the notion of “vital witnesses” because it elevates our idea of what we may be losing in the shift to a reliance on the digital world.

The essays here are framed around the questions concerning what should be preserved (and for whom) and whether it is the objects, not just the information, needing to be preserved. These are the right, if difficult, questions. Selection, what archivists term appraisal, is hindered by the fact that we can never fully anticipate the use of anything in the future. Does this mean that we should be conservative or cautious in our approaches to using digitization? As the editors suggest, we must strive to answer them with the understanding about the alternatives: “Creating surrogates can never replicate or preserve everything about an original object, but creating no surrogates could mean that everything is lost in the case of fragile or compromised originals: brittle books printed on acid-based paper, older newspapers, ancient and medieval books and manuscripts, crumbling sculptures, ruined buildings, photographs on glass plates, explosive nitrate film stock” (p. 10). This is also a way of suggesting that preservation approaches without digitization is fraught with challenges.

This is a book reflecting many of the debates about preservation and the use of digitization for such ends. David Holdsworth, for examples, questions the need for selection, noting, “Much of what survives had a period when its survival was purely by accident. Archaeologists spend much of their time shifting through the rubbish bins (and worse) of ancient settlements. Things which survive tend to do so because there is little to be saved by destroying them. If it costs very little to keep digital data, we might resist the temptation to discard those items of little interest to us, but which later researchers might find valuable” (p. 57). Other commentators provide a degree of common sense when considering digital preservation issues, such as Peter McKinney’s approach to some sectors as needing little more than “good records management.” Considering the telecommunications industry, where most records are rarely kept beyond a decade, he sees little need to fret about a digital archive, instead believing there only needs to be some attention to occasional migration (p. 157). Of course, McKinney arrives at a different place than Holdsworth: “There is a clear difference between the requirements of, say, a humanities, text-based computing world, and that of astronomical observations or pharmaceutical records. But one thing unites them: the question of value. It is neither practical nor desirable to keep everything. Indeed, this attitude is counter-productive when trying to make a case for sustained funding; no organization, whether private or public, will give money to an activity that does not have beneficial outcomes” (p. 162).

Those interested in the preservation of our documentary heritage should add this volume to their basic library.


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