When I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, I followed the advice of my mentors and sought out opportunities to work with digital material. This search resulted in an internship at the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), a consortium that maintains a data archive consisting of research in the social sciences. The project would have me working in what was then called the Digital Preservation Office where I would complete a research project on disaster planning for digital assets. When I walked in on my first day, my expectation was to see many people “preserving” stuff. The scene in my head was like a conservation lab with staff in lab coats bent over old books and manuscripts, except they would be bent over keyboards (and probably not wearing lab coats). I was soon to learn that my impression of digital preservation was not correct.
What it is not
Before we get into what it is, lets talk a bit about what it is not. Many people from both inside and outside the archive and library profession mistake digital preservation for digitization. Often, when first meeting people at cocktail parties (pretending I actually get invited to cocktail parties) they will respond to my job title of Digital Preservation Librarian with “oh, so you scan stuff?” I am not offended by that or anything, the folks here at the library who do scan stuff are super smart and know a ton about complex digitization requirements. I also understand where the confusion lies. The preservation of digital representations created through digitization processes is an important aspect of digital preservation. However, digital preservation is broader than creating representations of analog objects. In fact, most institutions are dealing with digital content that are both created through digitization processes, like scans of a book, and what we refer to as “born-digital,” like a document on your computer created by word processing software. So, what exactly is digital preservation?
Preservation of digital assets differs from the preservation of analog material in one very key way. As long as you can see the page and read the language, you are normally not dependent on anything external to read a physical book. You can look at a picture in a physical photo album by just, well, looking at the photo album. Digital material, however, has more dependencies than analog. Most often digital material is encoded in a file format that needs software that can read it, an operating system to run the software, and some kind of hardware to host the operating system. Unless you are reading this on your Apple Newton, you know that all of these things are prone to obsolescence. Digital content is also prone to unseen degradation where a 1 may randomly change to 0 due to aging media and other factors, a risk called bit-flip or bit-rot. As much as that term makes me giggle for some reason, if enough of your bits rot you are in digital trouble.
So, we need to come up with ways to mitigate the unique risks (there are a lot of others beyond obsolescence and bit-rot) to digital content. Staff in libraries and archives have been on the forefront of that development because, well, we have to so we can continue to be responsible stewards of content we have been entrusted to preserve. Since digital preservation touches on things like digital storage, fixity, file formats, and all sorts of other very nerdy stuff, it is easy to see this work as primarily technical in nature. However, digital preservation also goes beyond the in-the-weeds technical requirements of risk mitigation. In my opinion, a true digital preservation program establishes a framework, through policy and workflow development, that embeds good preservation practice into the daily work of the organization. That is why there was not a room full of dedicated people “doing” digital preservation at ICPSR. Good practice is used throughout the entire lifecycle, starting when possible at content creation, to proactively ensure the preservation of digital material under real-world resource constraints.
There is a trend developing in larger institutions like ICPSR and the University Library to have people in positions dedicated to digital preservation, people like me. While some of what we do is indeed very hands on, like recovering the contents of an obsolete form of media, much of our work is focused on the development of policies, projects, and workflows that incorporate aspects of digital preservation. Often, my role in a meeting is to say something like “what will that look like in 10 years?” This perspective is needed and (mostly) appreciated when implementing things focused on the long-term preservation of something as inherently in-flux as digital content.
This gets us (finally) to why we are starting this blog. The main purpose is to share the digital preservation work going on here at the library and on the UM campus. We have lined up authors to contribute to what we think will be broad view of digital preservation at an academic institution. The blog format will allow us to not only share established projects, but also in-progress work that includes the very real challenges we all are facing in one way or another. While we think this kind of thing will be interesting to librarians, archivists, students, and educators with an interest in current digital preservation focused implementations, we will also create content aimed at the general public interested in learning how to apply professional digital preservation practice to their personal material. So, expect to see posts on things like preserving personal digital photography and good home backup strategies. We will also post digital preservation related announcements, like conferences and training. We are very excited for the opportunity to share our work and practice, and most of all have some great discussions!
Sorry about the long post, I can go on and on about this stuff, which is probably why I don’t get invited to cocktail parties…