Dispatches: Digital Preservation 2017 conference

Photo of Amiga computer exhibit at the Andy Warhol Museum

The Andy Warhol Museum's Amiga computer exhibit, photo by Scott Witmer.

On October 25, I travelled to Pittsburgh for Digital Preservation 2017, the annual conference of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) held in conjunction with the Digital Library Federation (DLF) Forum. This was my first time attending the NDSA Digital Preservation conference, which always seems to have a decent line-up of presentations each year. 

This year's theme, "Preservation Is Political," was pointedly expressed in the conference's keynote by University of Cincinnati Digtial Archivist/Records Manager Eira Tansey. Through an examination of the impact of fracking on Pennsylvania communities, Ms. Tansey addressed the vital importance of record-keeping to environmental and public health. Information is essential to establishing a link between human activities and their impact on both our environment and our own bodies, which is why records are often the first target of environmental deregulation efforts. The keynote ended with a call for librarians to fight for environmental information if we care about the communities we serve.

Many of the sessions I attended described ongoing projects, workflows, and services at various institutions. These sessions are great for providing a survey of the digital preservation field, but at conferences I'm often hoping to learn something that I can take back and apply to my day-to-day work. In this sense, the most helpful session was the panel discussion Evangelizing for Digital Preservation Across Your Organization: Reaching Out to IT. Although digital preservation work and IT share a lot of common territory, many misunderstandings can arise over terminology and roles. Before starting a project, the digital preservation team and IT should define both general and project-specific terms, as the same words can mean different things to each field. Some examples include: copies, back up, archive, fixity, electronic records, etc. It's important for archivists/librarians working in digital preservation to have a sense of who in IT to call with questions about finding and accessing digital files, as this is different from support requests. A good relationship with IT is also necessary for understanding why certain preservation activities can or can't be done because of technical requirements. This session offered many practical tips for navigating these relationships.

With time to kill before the conference started, I stopped by the Andy Warhol Museum. Among the usual shrines to celebrity and commercialism is a tiny back-room exhibit of Warhol's 1985 experiments in creating digital art with ProPaint software on an Amiga 1000 home computer. These works are accessible today through digital preservation efforts, as they were once trapped on obsolete hard drives after Amiga manufacturer Commodore went bankrupt in 1994. The exhibit includes a replica workstation with examples of Warhol's digital art, but interaction with the interface is sadly limited to point-and-click. Anyway, the vintage equipment in the Amiga exhibit is worth checking out if you find yourself at the Warhol museum. I also highly recommend spending some quality time in the Silver Clouds room.