Framing digital preservation

Sep 30 2010 Published by under Jargon

It's not at all difficult to make me roll my eyes. There's one particular narrative that does it every time, with the reliability of the sunrise: the "digital preservation is impossible" narrative. Annoys the living daylights out of me.

I don't think this particular exemplar was the Library of Congress's fault, necessarily. Everything Brylawski is actually quoted as saying is true, and Brylawski is careful to point out that analog formats disintegrate too. Every time, though, nuanced conversations about preservation turn into "digital is bad."

It's nonsense. Preservation is hard. Digital preservation is no harder than analog; we just have better scaffolding in place for (some) analog preservation. (I said "some." Silver nitrate film, anyone?)

I like the way Kyle Felker puts it:

With regards to print material, the systems for archiving and preservation are so old and well-established by librarians, archivists, and publishers that they are practically invisible to scholars. It wasnt always this way, of course, the standards and processes that make it possible for published books and articles to make their way onto library shelves has taken decades to work out. But worked out they now are, so well in most cases that they are mostly invisible to scholars, if not the librarians and other professionals that work to keep them running on a daily basis.

We've worked out quite a bit with regard to preserving digital materials. We know about best practices. We know why spinning disk is to be preferred to CDs. Those of us with some experience and some common sense can make pretty sharp guesses about the preservability of digital materials handed us, just as a paper-preservation expert knows to look at the paper stock and the quality of binding.

Indeed, just as with analog preservation, most of the barriers are not technical; they are social and organizational. Nothing "preserves itself," not analog and not digital. (I keep hearing "benign neglect" put forward as an analog preservation strategy. I respectfully submit that there's a serious problem of survivorship bias in that mode of thinking.) Recently I read about the truly epic NDIIPP effort to save some gameworlds. Technical barriers, yes, but if you read carefully, you find that just about all of those were surmounted (the Second Life efforts are clever as all getout). What stopped them cold was usually copyright, and the lack of a Section 108 analogue.

(Oh, and while I'm thinking about Section 108, a word-for-word "Section 108 analogue" will actually not suffice. Section 108 doesn't usually kick in until the item in hand has essentially disappeared from view. This won't work for digital preservation: once it's gone, it's often really-truly gone. The Section-108 analogue that will do the job for digital materials that Section 108 does for analog materials will have to allow dark archiving before materials disappear.)

What I resent in all this is the sense of helplessness promulgated by the "digital preservation is impossible" narrative. It writes people like me out of the narrative, or even worse, presents us as deluded maniacs (which I really truly resent; I'm no madder than the next librarian). Digital preservation is possible. We just have to do it, build the legal and policy and technical space that lets us do it. Just as we—we librarians—do analog preservation. Kyle again:

When I still was a librarian, I was always a bit perplexed, though, at how the [digital preservation] issue didn't seem to register to most scholars, even those who were actively engaged in digital scholarship. When I spoke to faculty members about what was going to happen to their new whiz-bang digital resource once it was done and they needed to store and access it long-term, I usually got blank stares.

Library invisibility tends to harm libraries and librarians. As the Invisible Wallets, we lost the gravitas we needed to create necessary change in scholarly communication. As the Invisible Preservers, have we done the same with regard to preservation, digital and analog? I don't know… but throwing up our hands and saying "digital preservation is impossible" is surely not going to help us.

5 responses so far

  • Alex Grigg says:

    Very little is impossible, but there are all the brand new wrinkles with digital formats that still need to be worked out. I think some of those issues are a little easier to see when you look at video games. People will argue about whether or not we should bother preserving those sorts of games and I can make a decent argument that we should, but let's put that aside for a second and assume we want to preserve a video game and retain its playability.

    One of the tricky parts of that kind of preservation is that you have to maintain the software and the hardware, or at least some reasonable approximation of the hardware. Both of those will be owned and trademarked by a corporation (or several corporations) who will not be interested in the long term preservation, nearly as much as the short term sales. The hardware has the additional wrinkle of being protected by patents, such that attempting to reproduce it if the original electronics goes away can be problematic. Plus, even though porting the software to other systems and hardware may be technically feasible, it's not all that easy. Take the case in point of Sony eventually giving up on (or maybe never bothering to try) making some PS2 games work on the PS3 ( Plus with the continuing use of DRM and other software and hardware encryption it becomes even harder to preserve games or other media.

    So one of the most difficult problems I see is that many of the media producers are intentionally making it difficult for you to preserve their data. They assume that if you want it in a newer format, that is more compatible with newer hardware or software platforms, then they will sell that version to you in the future. They do not consider, or maybe even care, that eventually they may not exist and nobody may remember how to decrypt their files.

    At least with articles we're generally dealing with PDFs, which I know you are not a fan of, but which Adobe has started opening up as a more public file format with an ISO Standard. It's not just a couple of guys in computer lab somewhere who are sitting on the source code.

  • Dorothea, As you may recall, at Repo Fringe in 2008 I tried to build a discussion session around just this point (it didn't appear to animate many people, although I used the architecture of banks as models of stability, trust and authority - the buildings that is; yes, we knew what was going on inside them then), and I was once reprimanded for making such a point on the Digital-Preservation email list where apparently it was inappropriate. I don't like preservation scare stories either, and I think they have a negative impact on the wider efforts. After all, it's not the way to win trust to suggest a looming disaster. Better to emphasise the abilities to handle the problems. The main reason for these cases is big money. Where preservation is dominated by a few national organisations, they need big money to fulfil this type of work and responsibility. The question: is digital preservation going to be similarly structured or more distributed? If the former, then perhaps big money matters more than we do, whatever our sensitivities to such arguments.

    • I guess I wonder why anybody would give Big Money to people to solve a problem those very people appear to be claiming is insoluble.

      • Typically in these cases the claim is not that the problem is insoluble but the data is at risk. It's a threat rather than a prediction. But I agree, fund solutions rather than problems.

        • Okay, I get this. Still... I would think more hay could be made out of the continuity between analog and digital preservation than we're currently making out of our scare tactics.

          This is the tactic I am currently using to drive home truths about IRs. Expect physical shelves to fill themselves? No? Then why expect digital ones to?