Ignoring Our Visual Heritage
I recently ran across Digital Storage: Losing Our Virtual Heritage over on the (surprisingly interesting) SAA Archives & Archivists discussion list. Strangely, the editorial struck me as both emblematic of a problem in the archival community, and a guidepost for how archives need to move forward.
The key point Bromberg makes is that archives will no longer be able to function if our collections (specifically photographic collections) become digital:
Once I do basic work to care for my collections, I can put them on the shelf and pretty much not have to put any more money into their care. You cannot keep a digital file, however, without continually having to put money into it for the constant migration to new forms.
You have to buy new software and equipment, and pay for the labour to migrate them to be able to continue to get access to your images. Right now, I can just walk to the shelf and open a box to get access to my photographs.
This high cost of caring for digital files means that archives and museums which hold much of the world’s recorded history will most likely not be able to afford to care for them. We already have small budgets to care for our materials and that is unlikely to change.
Fear of format obsolescence is real and justified. But as David Rosenthal has been pointing out for a while the shared information space of the Web, and its open-source viewers (browsers), have mitigated some of these concerns. We have yet to see evidence that prospective format migration actually helps preserve content. But our continued obsession with format migration, and describing resources so they can be migrated is making the task of archiving digital content (like photographs) cost prohibitive, especially for smaller archives. Do we really think that billions of JPEGs are going to become unreadable overnight?
Bromberg’s piece contains a useful example:
I can get the Smith family photographs that Grandmother Smith put into a shoebox 50 years ago and forgot about it until her family cleaned out the house. I have packed up photo collections from families, businesses and organisations that contained images well over 100 years old that are perfectly fine. But if Grandmother Smith sticks some photo disks in her shoebox, by the time an archive gets them, they will be long gone.
Is it really useful for us to put our collective head in the sand and say that digital photography is going away? Or would we be better off helping photographers take care of their digital collections, so that when it comes time to donate them, they have a digital equivalent of a box of photographs to hand over? I’m reminded of the rich literature about the post-custodial archive where there is an emphasis on helping content owners manage their content, which in turn makes it easier to eventually transfer to an archive if desired. Personal Digital Archiving Day and DPLA’s Community program are good examples of this sort of effort.
I’m not suggesting that there isn’t work to do on this front. Bromberg is right. In our quest for the holy grail of digital preservation our content management systems have raised the bar way too high, for everyday people, and small libraries and archives to continue to do for digital content what they have for physical content, like photographs. To succeed I think archives and libraries need simple solutions that let them easily collect digital content, manage it, and let it feed into larger collections like DPLA.
By simple solutions I mean mostly a process that content owners and archivists can keep in their heads, that involves very little software, and mostly represents an investment in digital storage and backup systems in the same way that they have invested in physical space, containers, etc. I suspect many individuals and small archives already have storage solutions in operation for their business data, so this won’t be as big a leap as they imagine. But as long as we keep promulgating things like Fedora, DSpace etc as pre-requisites for doing real digital preservation Bromberg will be right.
To put it another way, we need a digital equivalent to the More Product, Less Process manifesto. This is the spirit that BagIt was created in at the Library of Congress. We needed to start processing an influx of digital content from NDIIPP partners, and we didn’t have the time, resources, or collective will to describe everything with METS, PREMIS, MODS and put it into Fedora or iRods, or whatever.
You can think of a Bag as a digital analog for a physical container. It’s just a directory with files in it, that includes a manifest, and some (optional) high level, human readable metadata. Certainly PREMIS, METS, etc can be layered on top of this, and we’ve done just that at LC with some of our some of our internal systems … but BagIt helps with the absolute basics of bundling up data so that it can be moved through space and time.
So I’m not suggesting that people should start using BagIt to manage their digital photographs. I actually think BagIt could be simplified even more (look for more on that later). My point is rather that we need super simple solutions, like BagIt, that involve very little working software, and that everyday people and archives can use. We need to educate, and move forward. A new army of archivist computer scientists isn’t going to solve this problem. In a lot of ways, the computer savvy (but not Luddite) archivists we have are perfect for the job of educating artists, business people, and Grandma Smith since the solutions we give them need to fit inside their heads too. We are doing a disservice to them if we just say we can’t handle the new medium, and pine for the good old days. Or as my colleague Bill Lefurgy said in response to this post:
… archivists at smaller institutions also need to push beyond digital fear and build capacity, even if slowly