Archives are places. They are institutions. But to archive is also an action. Web Archiving is a process that produces web archives and personal digital archiving is a set of practices for working to ensure longterm access to personal digital content.
When and how did archive become a verb? Webster’s dates the noun usage to 1603 and the verb usage to 1831, but I’m curious how obscure the verb usage was over time.
My sense/hunch has been that the verb form of archive, is tied up in the history of computing. A tape archive is a higher latency storage mechanism. There is a long standing use of “archiving” as a concept that involves writing to tape. The term tape is itself part of the name of .tar files. So, when did archive become a verb and to what extent is archiving related to the development of computing?
This kind of question is exactly the sort of thing that Google n-gram is useful for. Over time I’ve generated a few different graphs of trends around the verb usage of archive in Google books and posted them to twitter. It seemed like it would be worth taking a few minutes to explore that data a bit more. What follows is really just some initial notes on some searches. I’m curious to get other interpretations on what we learn from these charts and examples of usage.
When the archived and began archiving
The graph below, shows trends in usage of archive in the Google books corpus from 1920 to 2000. Overall, it would appear that the term archive has seen a good bit of growth in its relative frequency in appearing in the corpus over time.
If we take out the noun form of archive and extend this back to 1800, you can see that there are a tiny number of examples of the verb forms going back all the way to beginning of the chart in 1800, but that things don’t really start to take off until the late 1960s.
The Emergence of “Archiving”
One of the best parts of Google n-gram is that it is a book search tool as much as it is a visualization tool. That means that we can poke around and see the examples where these different usages emerge.
With that noted, there are two examples from 1969 that involve using the term archiving in relationship to folklore.
A longer past for archiving and archived
As noted in the beginning of this post, Webster’s suggests the verb form of archive came about in 1831. There are a range of examples of “archived” that show up, even earlier than 1831, for instance the example below from 1823 or this other example from 1816.
The snippet below is one of a series of documents from the turn of the 20th century in Texas that use the terms archiving and archived that appear to largely be related to usage of the term in the “Constitutions of Texas”
It would appear that archive has been a verb for more than two hundred years. With that noted, it does also largely appear to be the case that the verb usage didn’t really come into broader usage until the late 1960s when it was largely associated with data and computing.
I’m curious to see what other examples or perspectives others have though. I was a bit surprised to surface some of these earlier examples of uses of archiving and archived.
It’s hard to believe that another year has gone by. I’ve made it a habit to reflect on each year and post about it here. You can see my reflections at the end of 2017, 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012. I’m a big fan of the value of metacognition, so I tend to feel like I get a lot out of taking a little time to round up, reflect, and try and synthesize things at least once a year.
This year, I was able to build, support, and learn from the new Digital Content Management team at work. I made the list of Library Journal “Movers & Shakers” where I was given the headline “Access Forever,” which I feel like captures a lot of what I’m into. I had the chance to teach new iterations of two graduate seminars. I joined a few different boards that are helping me stay engaged in communities that matter a lot to me. Also, my book came out! I get into all of that a bit more below
Building the digital content management team
Over the first three months of 2018, the Digital Content Management section at LC went from seven folks to sixteen. Setting up the functions and structure of the new team and connecting out to all the great work going on across the organization was an exciting, exhausting, and invigorating adventure. I wrote about this a bit on The Signal. I’m really blown-away by how quickly everyone has jumped into things, and very excited by how quickly we transitioned from getting up to speed to doing meaningful and productive work.
As part of my work at the Library of Congress, I was lucky to get to participate in the pilot of a new intensive cohort program focused on developing leaders in the five core qualifications areas for Senior Executive Service; Leading Change, Leading People ECQ, Results Driven, Business Acumen, and Building Coalitions. The program involved 19 days of expert facilitated leadership workshops complemented by a sequence of three 360 reviews on leadership practices, emotional intelligence, and trust.
Workshops covered topics such as; Coaching and Mentoring, Crucial Conversations, Leadership Essentials, Leading at the Speed of Trust, DiSC, Getting Things Done, Leadership Practices, and Navigating Change in Turbulent Times. It was challenging to juggle the program and getting everything up and running. With that said, a lot of the training was particularly pertinent to the work at hand in getting things going. The 360 reviews were especially helpful in getting me feedback from the team on what I could improve on.
My third book dropped
It’s been a long time coming, but just this month my book The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation shipped. Most of the work on the book was done last year, but I did do a bit of work responding to some comments and making some revisions in response to comments that came up from the readers of it for peer review. Over the course of the year the pre-print was downloaded more than 2,600 times. I’m really excited to see what kind of reaction the print copy receives over the course of the year.
While I did a lot less work-related travel than I have in previous years, I did still get around a good bit. I was invited to give a talk as part of the National Library of Medicine’s History of Medicine Lectures series.
This year I moved into a series of new roles to serve and support a series of communities that matter to me. I joined the board for Anacostia Trails Heritage Area Inc which supports community development around history, culture, and nature in Prince George’s County Maryland. I also joined the Digital Library Federation Advisory Committee and have now participated in two of the advisory board meetings.
I became a member of the CLIR’s Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives standing review panel. I also helped to transition the Digital Cultural Heritage D.C. meetup to a model where it now is organized by a board of six of us working on digital cultural heritage issues in the metro area at different institutions. I really enjoy the opportunity to contribute my time and effort to these different groups and their efforts and I feel like it’s something that helps me keep learning and connecting with others working on issues that matter a lot to me.
Teaching digital history and digital preservation
In the spring I taught a revised version of my Digital History graduate seminar. This was the fifth time I’ve taught the course in the last seven years. Given that the course counts as a “tool of research” course for American University’s history and public history programs, I reframed it as “Digital History Methods.” I really like how the course ran. Students came up with a range of smart ideas for digital history projects. You can see links to their projects and reflections here. I’m now gearing up to teach another instance of the course this spring.
I’m just wrapping up teaching my fall semester Digital Preservation graduate seminar for the University of Maryland’s iSchool. This is the fourth course I’ve taught for the iSchool and the second time I’ve taught the digital preservation course. It was also the first time I’ve been able to teach the course using the digital preservation book. Last time I taught the course the course syllabus largely became the format for the structure of the book. I think it worked out well to anchor the course in the book and then supplement it with additional readings each week. I’m really impressed by the results of the work that the digital preservation students were able to do as consultants for small cultural heritage orgs as part of the course. You can read the results of their work on the projects page of the course site.
NOLA, Central Europe, and some good shows
Alongside these various strands of work, Marjee and I also made some great excursions. We were graciously hosted by a good friend in New Orleans for a week early in the year and took off for two weeks for our tenth anniversary to visit Copenhagen, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, and Krakow. If you’re interested, both of those trips are rather well documented on instagram.
We also saw a bunch of great live music this year. I will likely forget something, but we saw; Chad Valley, Rasputina, Tash Sultana, Jack White, Andrew Bird with the NSO, Erasure, and RJD2.
It’s hard to believe, but the Digital Cultural Heritage D.C. Meetup is coming up on its 6th Birthday. Starting in September of 2012, the Meetup has hosted more than 60 events with more than 100 speakers. What started out as an event launched and coordinated by four folks shifted over time to be coordinated by myself and Atiba. In an effort to make the group more open and transparent and more sustainable, we’ve decided to try and slightly formalize the process for coordinating the group and invite others into the circle to coordinate this. To that end, we are announcing an opportunity for members of the D.C. Digital Cultural Heritage Community to join the two of us as members of the DCHDC Board.
What Will the DCHDC Board Be?
The DCHDC Board will be a a new group that will meet quarterly to coordinate planning the meetup. The core part of this involves coordinating with lightning talk speakers and being on hand for many of the meetups. Beyond that, there are also lots of other potential directions this could go. The group could try out any number of new things too.
Why You Want to Consider Volunteering for the DCHDC Board
We’ve gotten a lot out of helping coordinate these events. It’s a great community, and it’s a great way to learn about and network with other professionals in the area. We imagine this could be a particularly good way for some early career or graduate students in the area to get involved and get some experience coordinating and running this kind of programing.
What Participating as a DCHDC Board Member Entails
We imagine the board commitment working as follows. Each member will;
Participate in quarterly face-to-face board meetings to check in on things and work out a plan for the coming quarter.
Sign on for one or two year terms with the ability to stay on or rotate off.
Take the lead on programing at least 2 of the meetups each year, including picking a theme and wrangling a set of speakers.
Come to as many of the meetups as they can make it to, but commit to being at at least 2-3 of the meetups to help facilitate (ideally including the meetups they have programmed).
Envision, propose, and implement any new ideas for ways to further develop the community.
How to Volunteer for Consideration for the Board
Send Atiba and me an email before November 1st with the following (akpertilla & trevor.johnowens each respectively @gmail.com.)
A short bio or a link to your bio online
A few sentences about your interest in participating and any ideas you might have for the group (potential themes/speakers and any other ideas you’ve got)
Confirm if you would like to sign on to do this for one year or for two.
Plan and Next Steps
We are currently planning out the last set of meetups for the year and our idea is to bring this group together for a meeting in January. So we imagine that the first of these meetings would take place in January.
I’m in the hope stretch for the book to come out! It’s got a cover and it’s up on the Johns Hopkins University Press site. You can even pre-order it today, and it should get to you some time in November.
All told, this is bringing to fruition a project that I started back in 2016, It’s been a long road, but I’ve really loved it. The book largely brings together things I’ve learned in dialog with the digital preservation community and I can also say that the process of writing the book in the open felt like a genuine continuation of that learning through dialog process.
It has been really neat to see the book blurbs starting to roll in. I’m floored by the very kind and thoughtful comments I’ve received from people whose work I deeply respect and admire. To that end, below is advanced praise that the press has received for the book.
“Part of a long-standing and worldwide tradition of memory keepers” – David Ferriero
“Acknowledging that we are part of ‘a long-standing and worldwide tradition of memory keepers,’ Trevor Owens challenges us to use the lessons learned in traditional preservation as we approach digital preservation. Distinguishing digital preservation as craft rather than science, Owens provides reassurance to all of us worried about finding the ‘silver bullet.’ It does not and should not exist!” — David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, National Archives and Records Administration
“An indispensable handbook that will be kept close at hand—used, reached for, and above all really read by those seeking a conceptual framework through which to understand the practicalities of grappling with the complex new reality of digital objects. Opening up the most theoretically sophisticated body of research in digital platforms to an entirely new audience while simultaneously equipping that audience with the conceptual background they need to function as experts in today’s information environment, Owens’s book is a practical, even-handed, and clear-eyed walkthrough of day-to-day situations. I expect it will be widely adopted in library and information science courses.” — Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, University of Maryland, College Park, author of Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing
“His axioms for digital preservation will guide novices and experts alike.” – Deanna Marcum
“Digital preservation, unlike the one-time process for preserving print, is an ongoing, changing responsibility for those who bear the responsibility of preserving our history and cultural heritage. Trevor Owens, a leader in the field, uses his experience and deep knowledge to show how the tools of the futurist can document the past. His axioms for digital preservation will guide novices and experts alike.” — Deanna Marcum, Ithaka S+R
“An ideal text for anyone interested in archives in the digital era” – Steven Lubar
I’m revising my digital preservation graduate seminar for the University of Maryland’s iSchool for this coming fall.
I am a firm believer in learning-by-doing. I also think talking about digital preservation in the abstract, outside the very real resource and time constraints of organizations largely misses the point. So, as I did when I taught the course two years ago, I am planning to have each student work through a series of assignments where they serve as digital preservation consultants to small cultural heritage organizations.
My intention in this approach is to offer both a meaningful learning opportunity for the students, as well as a way for them to start building out a portfolio of work that will be relevant to potential future employers. Based on how this worked last time, I am also optimistic that this can be a way to provide some help to small cultural heritage organizations that could benefit from learning together with students in thinking through and developing plans to make the best use of resources to make their digital content more long-lived.
For context on the potential value of this work to an organization, consider this reflection from a preservation specialist at a state cultural heritage institution who worked with one of my students last time I taught this course.
Because of our participation in this course, we have concrete steps forward as we work to develop guidelines and implement good digital preservation practice. The open nature of your course and associated materials has allowed our staff to develop their own subject knowledge and continue research.
With that context, I’m happy to offer some more information about how you (or others you know) can reach out about having a grad student from the course work with you. While students are in the DC Metro area, the assignments can all be completed remotely, so your organization need not be located in the metro area.
Requesting a Graduate Student Digital Preservation Consultant
If you (and your organization) would be interested in having a University of Maryland graduate student in my digital preservation seminar focus their digital preservation consultant project on your organization please take a two minutes to fill in this 5 question form. I think this is a great opportunity for organizations for a few different reasons.
Here are some reasons to consider filling in the form for your organization. This project is a chance to:
Solicit assistance thinking through digital preservation issues and planning for your organization.
Provide a meaningful learning experience to someone just getting started in the field
Learn more about digital preservation as the student shares what they are learning through the class
Through the course of the assignments, students will;
Document and review current practices with an organization’s digital content
Draft suggestions for potential next steps to improve management of digital content grounded in the resources an organization has access too
Draft a digital preservation policy for consideration for the organization
On the first day of class (August 30th), I will present the organizations that have filled out the survey my students. In the first few weeks of class I will help to pair each student with an organization for the semester.
If you are matched up with a student, the idea would be that you would commit to doing an interview or two with them about your organization’s collection and current practices for digital material and that you would review and provide input on several of their assignments (listed below).
I should underscore that it is completely fine for organizations to be literally at square one in terms of digital preservation practices and planning. So many cultural heritage organizations are just getting started with their digital preservation planning, and while it can be a bit intimidating to take some first steps in this space. There are many simple and inexpensive things organizations can be doing to mitigate risks of loss . The assignment will be most valuable for both students and organizations in cases where there is little current work being done in digital preservation. As part of this project, students will be blogging about their work, so you and your organization will need to be OK with them sharing information about the project. This can be a bit intimidating, but by having students work on their public writing skills and inviting a broader audience into discussion about how to do this work in organizations it will help to ensure that the quality of that work is stronger and more useful. Through this public writing process, the results of the work will be more useful to both the student and to your organization.
What follows are details about the design of this assignment.
Digital Preservation Consultant Project
An academic understanding of the issues in digital preservation is necessary but not sufficient for professional digital preservation work. Digital preservation is fundamentally about making the best use of what are always limited resources to best support the mission of an organization. As such, to really learn how to do digital preservation you need to apply these concepts in the practical realities of an organizational context.
Aside from participating in discussion of the course readings through the course blog, the other course assignments will require you to act as a digital preservation consultant for a cultural heritage organization. For a variety of reasons I suggest this be a small institution. Below are the five assignments you must complete over the course of the semester as part of this project.
Identify Small Cultural Heritage Organization and Establish Partnership (by week 4): For most of the course assignments, you will need to find a small cultural heritage organization that you can work with as a digital preservation consultant. I have identified a list of organizations that are up for participating, but you are free to find other organizations as well. The key requirements here are that 1) they have consented to working with you 2) they have some set of digital content but 3) their collections are not so complex that you couldn’t possibly do the project. Example institutions include an independent organization (like a house museum, a community archive or library), a small department or subset of an institution (say the archives of a student newspaper or radio station, the special collections department at a public library, or the archives in a museum).
Deliverable: The output of this phase is to identify this organization and confirm that you have a commitment from them to participate. We will check in on this in class as we go, but by the date of this assignment you need to have confirmed participation of an organization that meets these requirements and have posted what organization you are working on in a list on the course website. On the site, post the name of the organization, your name (or handle) and two or three sentences about the organization and its digital content.
Institutional Digital Preservation Survey (Draft by week 6 and send to your org, publish with their comments incorporated by week 8): For your organization, interview one or two staff members to get a handle on their digital collections and practices. Draw from the NSDA levels of preservation as an overall framework for conducting your survey. You will want to focus on gathering information about their practices in five key areas.
First, what is the scope of their digital holdings?
Second, how is that digital content currently being managed?
Third, what are the staff at the organization’s perceptions of the state of their digital content (are they concerned about it, do they see it as mission critical or a nice to have, what do they see as their own self efficacy and their organization’s capacity for sustaining their content)?
Forth, what kinds of digital content would the organization like to be collecting but currently isn’t?
Fifth, what, if any resources, do they have that they could bring to bear on this problem (if they have some significant potential resources that’s great, but realize that there may well be very meaningful smaller resources that could be brought to bear. For example, could one staff member spend 2-4 hrs a week on digital preservation, could they bring in community volunteers, how much could they spend on things like extra hard drives etc.) Throughout all of this, it will be important to understand what the organization’s collecting mission is. You want to begin to probe all the questions above, but you need to be able to map their answers to the NDSA levels.
Deliverable: You will write and publish a post to the course blog (1200-3000 words) in which you present the findings of your survey. The post should first provide context, what is this organization what are its digital holdings what does it want to be collecting them. From there, work through presenting an accurate and coherent report of the themes and issues that came through in your interviews. At this point you are primarily interested in accurately representing the state of their work. Do not get into making recommendations. Simply do your best to succinctly and coherently explain what you found about the five areas of questioning discussed above. Before publishing this, you must present it to your org for their feedback to make sure you have their input on how you are describing the state of their work.
Institutional Digital Preservation Next Steps Preservation Plan (Week 10): Now that you have the results of your survey, it is time to take out the NDSA levels of digital preservation and the rest of our course readings and figure out what a practical set of next steps would be for your organization.
Deliverable: Post your next steps plan to the course blog (1200-3000 words). After a brief introduction providing context about the organization and its collections, you should work through reviewing the organization’s current work on digital content using each of the areas of the NDSA levels of digital preservation. Complete by identifying three different levels (low, medium and high resource requirement) of next steps they could take to improve their rating on the NDSA levels of digital preservation. Be creative here, for example could they upload collection items to the Internet Archive or Wikimedia Commons? Or could they buy an extra hard drive and make copies and swap it with a backup buddy at another organization in a different region of the country, etc. The point here is to think about how to get them the furthest up some of the levels with the resources at hand. Before publishing this, you should present it to your organization for them to review and provide input.
Draft a Digital Preservation Policy for Your Org (Week 12): Now that you have put in place a set of recommendations, it is important to also draft up a set of digital preservation policies and practices for the organization. If this is to have any impact you are going to need to be able to articulate what the organization’s policies could be going forward.
Deliverable: Drawing on the example digital preservation policies we read in class, draft up a short policy document for your institution tuned to what you have learned from working with them. Draw from the examples for models for aspects of this document. Share it with them for some input and feedback. Then Post it to the blog (800-1500 words).
Reflecting on Lessons Learned (Week 13): After doing this work,presenting it, and getting feedback from your organization, you need think through what worked and didn’t work for the project. Taking time for reflection and teasing out the lessons you’ve learned about both digital preservation and working with a cultural heritage organization.
Deliverable: Return to each of the documents you created thus far and synthesize 3-5 points about what did or didn’t work or what your take away lessons are from this process. Think through what you will do differently the next time you help an organization improve its digital preservation practices. Bring in references to what you’ve learned from readings in the course and from what you have learned from your classmates work on their projects (800-1400 words).
All images from Digitalbevaring.dk, published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Denmark license and created by Jørgen Stamp.
When historians tell stories of life in the later half of the 20th and beginnings of the 21st century they will do so from an evidentiary basis of born-digital primary sources. Emails, websites, word documents, PDFs, video and audio files. It is from born digital objects like these that people of the future will come to understand our world. I continue to use the somewhat awkward phrase “born digital” because for most library, archives and museum professionals digitization remains their default conception of what digital collection content is. That needs to change. We need to catch up to the digital present and I think The No-Nonsense Guide to Born Digital Content can help us.
Librarians, archivists and museum professionals need to collectively move away from thinking about digital, and in particular born-digital as being niche topics for specialists. If our institutions are to meet the mounting challenges of serving the cultural memory functions of an increasingly digital first society the institutions themselves need to transition to become digital first themselves. We can’t just keep hiring on a handful of people with the word digital in their job titles. You don’t go to a digital doctor to get someone who uses computing as part of their medical practice and we can’t expect that the digital archivists are the ones who will be the people who do digital things in archives. The things this book covers are things that all cultural heritage professionals need to get up to speed on.
I am thrilled to have the chance to open Heather and Walker’s book. I have known both of them directly and indirectly through our shared travels through the world of digital preservation. In what follows I offer a few of my thoughts and observations for you to take with you as you work through this book on a journey into the growing digital preservation community of practice.
To kick off your exploration of this book I will lay out three observations I believe are essential to this journey; we will never catch up, our biggest risk is inaction, and we all need to get beyond the screen in our understanding of digital information. Together, I believe these points demonstrate the need to use this book as a stepping stone, a jumping off point for joining the community of practice engaged in the craft of digital preservation.
Forever catching up to the present
I’ve borrowed part of the title of my forward from a talk Michael Edson, then the Director of Web Strategy, gave several years ago. In that talk Edson implored digital preservation practitioners to help their institutions catch up to the present. I’ve heard many talk about “the digital revolution” like it was a singular thing that happened. It wasn’t. Instead we have entered something that for the time being at least looks more like a permanent state of digital revolution. Punch cards, mainframes, personal computers, the Internet, the web, social media, mobile computing, computer vision, and now things like voice based interfaces, and the internet of things; all varying and distinct elements in the continually changing digital landscape. It doesn’t seem like we will land in a new normal, or that if there is a new normal it’s to expect a constantly changing digital knowledge ecosystem. In this context, there is much for librarians to teach and much for us to learn. We need to move more and more into a state of continual professional learning. We need to be improving our digital skills and chops by engaging in professional development and by taking on ways to become experts in new areas. This book can help you do that. In what follows I will briefly suggest three
Inaction as one of our biggest risks
There is no time to wait. Digital media is more unstable and more complex than most of the media librarians, archivists and curators have worked with. We don’t have time for a new generation of librarians and archivists to move into the field. We don’t have time for everyone to do years of professional development. Instead, we need to make space and time for working cultural heritage professionals to start engaging in the practices of digital curation. This book can be a huge help in this regard.
Get beyond the screen
Digital information isn’t just what it looks like on the screen at a given moment. To be an information professional in an increasingly digital world requires all of us to get beyond the screens in two key ways. First, we all need to develop a base level conceptual understanding of the nature of digital information. This book is helpful in that regard by providing some foundational context for understanding bitstreams and data structures.Second, we need to up our game for working with command line tools and scripts. As the pace of change around digital information develops and changes we can’t depend on the development of tools with slick graphic user interfaces. We need to accept that all the systems and platforms we use are layers and interfaces to our digital assets. That is, your content isn’t “in” whatever repository system you use, that system needs to be best understood as the current interface layer that effectively floats on-top of the digital assets you are ensuring long term access to. The hands on focus of this book and the inclusion of methods and techniques for working with data at the command line is invaluable as a jumping off point for learning this kind of skill and technique.
Embracing the craft
When I started working in digital preservation more than a decade ago I was largely confused and befuddled by a field that presented points of entry to the work as complex technical specifications and system requirements documents. It felt like there were a lot of people talking about how the work should be done and not a lot of people doing the work that needed to be done. I’ve been very excited to see the field turn that corner in the last decade.
We are moving further and further away from the idea that digital preservation is a technical problem that the right system can solve toward the realization that ensuring long-term access to digital information is a craft that we practice and refine by doing the work. I think this book can help us all become better reflective digital preservation practitioners. However, it can only do that if you actually start to practice it. So do that. If you aren’t already, go ahead and start to participate in the practice and join the community that is forming around these practices.
You can use this book to help to start learning by doing. You will get the most value out of this book if you are trying to work through the process of getting, describing, managing and providing access to digital content. As you go you are going to need to write down what you are doing and why you are doing it the way you are. One of my mentors, Martha Anderson, would always describe digital preservation as a relay race. You’re just one of the first runners in a great chain of runners carrying content forward into the future. When those folks in the future inherit your content they are going to need to understand why you did what you did with it and the only way they are going to be able to do that is by reading the documentation you produced regarding the how and the why of all the choices you’ve made. So be sure to write that down. I would also implore you to share what you write as you go.
Around every corner there is another new kind of content. There is another challenging issue regarding privacy, ethics and personal information. There is another set of questions about how to describe and make content discoverable. There is another new kind of digital format, another new interface, and another new form of digital storage. You can’t do this alone. The good news is that everyone working on these issues in libraries, archives, museums, nonprofits, government, and companies can share what we figure out as we work through this process and build a global knowledge base of information about this work together. Take this book as a jumping off point.
It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this book as the starting point of a journey into our community of practice and realize that you are not alone. Even if it really is just you working on digital preservation as a lone arranger at a small organization the rest of us are out here working away at the same problems.
I’m working my way toward my goal of reading 30 books this year (here’s my list so far). I wanted to share the one so far that keeps rolling around in my mind. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, by Caroline Levine is a book about formal literary criticism that focuses spends a lot of time talking about The Wire. I’m increasingly thinking it has a lot of utility for sorting out how to go about working to maximize the impact you can have in supporting an organization meet it’s mission.
This post is a sharing out of some of my notes and reflections about reading the book and The Wire. There is a good chance that this post will be much more relevant and useful if you’ve read Levine’s book and or are familiar with The Wire. I’ve tried to make the post legible without background in both, but I think it will likely make far more sense if you have some experience with them.
Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network
Levine asserts that “Formalist analysis turns out to be as valuable to understanding sociopolitical institutions as it is to reading literature” (p. 2). I find that case compelling. The bulk of the book works to identify a set of literary and political forms and their affordances. In her words;
“Though we have not always called them forms, they are the political structures that have most concerned literary and cultural studies scholars: bounded wholes, from domestic walls to national boundaries; temporal rhythms, from reputations of industrial labor to the enduring patterns of institutions over time; powerful hierarchies, including gender, race , class and bureaucracy; and networksthat link people and objects, including multinational trade, terrorism, and transportation.” (21)
The book does a great job clarifying and articulating how these forms work and function both in literature and in society.
The more I’ve thought over the forms the more I see them in all kinds of every day decisions; who is in and out of a given group (bounded wholes), what is the right tempo for meetings and interactions around daily schedules (temporal rhythms), how are a given set of competing hierarchies playing out in any given situation, and what role are different social networks playing out in terms of how things get done.
There is no single “the system” there are colliding and competing forms
One of Levine’s central conceits is that forms collide. That in any given context there are a series of different competing socio-political forms at play which compete/struggle to resolve into maintaining or rupturing any given status quo. In her words;
“in practice, we encounter so many forms that even in the most ordinary daily experience they add up to a complex environment composed of multiple and conflicting modes of organization— forms arranging and containing us, yes, but also competing and colliding and rerouting one another.” (16)
In this context, Levine proposes that the central question for individuals working within these colliding systems is about how to navigate and work the forms. Fo her, this prompts a different set of tactical considerations for working toward any given set of goals. She asks;
“what tactics for change will work most effectively if what we are facing is not a single hegemonic system or dominant ideology but many forms, all trying to organize us at once?” (p. 22)
This line of questioning pushes us away straightforward notions of resistance or compliance with a system and toward a tactical framing focused on working through and across the collisions of forms.
Levine lands this analysis in an extended reading of the forms at work in one of my favorite works, The Wire, which I will explore further.
The Wire as a Life Coach on Forms
Like many, I’ve have been and remain compelled by the story of The Wire. I came to it late, I think Marjee and I watched the whole series four or five years ago. Since watching it I think of it often. Those who know me well will know I regularly bring it up in conversations about how systems and organizations play out in society. As a digression, I tend to think that the only other text I return to as much for understanding, explaining, and making sense of my world is American Gods.
I feel like Levine has given me a much more sophisticated set of tools for talking about how The Wire offers tools for reading our world. In Levine’s words, The Wire “conceptualizes social life as both structured and rendered radically unpredictable by large numbers of colliding social forms” (p. 23).
Central to the story is a dialog about the power and nature of the system. However, Levine nicely picks apart what that actual system is.
Both characters and critics bewail the power of what they call “the system” portrayed on The Wire, but it is crucial to note that “the system” is less an organized or integrated single structure than it is precisely this heaped assortment of wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks.” (148)
In this context, “the system” is an emergent outcome of the ongoing collisions of forms competing with each other. In Levine’s reading, the central focus of “individual decisions matter only within environments of colliding forms where no individual or elite group controls either procedures or outcomes” (p. 149).
Furthermore, Levine makes the case that the heroes of the story are the people that read and navigate the collision of forms to make their world bend toward being better or more just.
“The few characters who recognize the power and significance of multiple forms—Lester Freeman, Bunny Colvin, and Omar Little— all make strategic decisions which, temporarily at least, permit outcomes that frustrate or elude the conventional distribution of power.” (p. 149)
After finishing the book, and returning to my own reflections on The Wire, I find myself increasingly thinking about reading the various situations I confront in terms of these formal categories. How can I best work within and through the competing forms that work to organize my life and work? How do I establish a trajectory for action that accepts the collision and competition of these forms as a basis to act from and not a system to define myself in opposition to?
I’m curious for thoughts from other’s reading both the book and the show. I feel like the ecological conception of society and organizations that emerges in this approach is really valuable and I’m curious to talk with folks about it more.
I’m increasingly convinced that parsimony and elegance are key values for the socio-technical systems that enable long term access to information. This post is me starting to try and articulate what I mean by that and connecting that back to a few ongoing strands of work and thinking I’m engaged in.
Now that the book as been circulating around a bit, I’ve been able to both reflect on it and get to have a lot of great conversations with people about it. Along with that, I’ve been participating (or at least trying to participate when my calendar allows) in some ongoing conversations about the role of maintenance, capacity, care, and repair in library work.
The specific prompt for this post was one conversation where I ended up saying something I’ve said a few times before. Something like; “If you can do it with an Access database then don’t gather requirements for a software engineering project.” Furthermore, “If you can do it with a spreadsheet, don’t build an Access database.” Beyond that, “If you can do it with a text file, then don’t set up a spreadsheet.” The general point in each of these situations is that you want to use the least possible tool for the job and then when the complexity of the work demands it, you justify the added complexity of the next thing.
If when you get to the point where you need something more complex you are going to know a lot about what you really need. Sneakerneting your way through a workflow end to end is going to enable you to figure out what the process really involves and needs. The last thing you want to do is spend three years in meetings gathering requirements based on what you think you might need.
I often recall some smart stuff that the 37 Signals crew have avowed, namely that “Until you’ve actually thrown the ball at the wall, you don’t know how it’ll bounce back.” It seems to be true for software, for workflows, for procedures, for org structures. You name it.
Parsimony and Elegance
I’m becoming increasingly convinced that concepts of parsimony, elegance, and simplicity have a core place as anchors in the work of digital preservation and curation.
For some context, here I intend the definition of parsimony as;
“Using a minimal number of assumptions, steps, or conjecture”
The beauty of an idea characterized by minimalism and intuitiveness while preserving exactness and precision
That is, our workflows, processes, and systems are parsimonious to the extent that they use “minimal number of assumptions or steps.” They are elegant to the extent that they are characterized by “minimalism and intuitiveness while preserving exactness and precision.” This isn’t to say that this infrastructure won’t become complex, but to say that it should only be as complex as it absolutely needs to be.
All Unnecessary Added Complexity is a Sustainability Threat
One of the core activities of digital curation and preservation work is imagining what happens when particularly things might go wrong. “What if this thing broke?” Or, “What if so-and-so took a different job, you know the one who built this really complicated piece of software?” Or ,”What if the the other organizations investing developer time in this complex application we are using shifted to invest their time in something else? Or, “What would happen if this company we are paying to provide this platform or service changed their business model?” In all of these cases, the more dependent you are on something the more risk you expose yourself to.
Significantly, you must expose yourself to risks. You’ve got to be dependent on a bunch of things, you just want to be deliberate about what you are being dependent on. You need exit strategies for your exit strategies. But in all of that you can take heart that the less complex the platforms, tools, services, processes you use are the easier it will be to move on to whatever the next thing of those is going to be. Believe me, the next thing is always coming. Whatever tools, processes, systems, methods you use today are just the things you use today. The shiny new thing of today will be the old crummy thing that you want nothing to do with tomorrow.
Below are the axioms from my book that I think are most relevant/imply some of the points I’ve tried to make about parsimony and elegance.
1. A repository is not a piece of software. Software cannot preserve anything. Software cannot be a repository in itself. A repository is the sum of financial resources, hardware, staff time, and ongoing implementation of policies and planning to ensure long-term access to content. Any software system you use to enable you preserving and providing access to digital content is by necessity temporary. You need to be able to get your stuff out of it because it likely will not last forever. Similarly, there is no software that “does” digital preservation.
3. Tools can get in the way just as much as they can help. Specialized digital preservation tools and software are just as likely to get in the way of solving your digital preservation problems as they are to help. In many cases, it’s much more straightforward to start small and implement simple and discrete tools and practices to keep track of your digital information using nothing more than the file system you happen to be working in. It’s better to start simple and then introduce tools that help you improve your process then to simply buy into some complex system without having gotten your house in order first.
4. Nothing has been preserved, there are only things being preserved. Preservation is the result of ongoing work of people and commitments of resources. The work is never finished. This is true of all forms of preservation; it’s just that the timescales for digital preservation actions are significantly shorter than they tend to be with the conservation of things like books or oil paintings. Try to avoid talking about what has been preserved; there is only what we are preserving. This has significant ramifications for how we think about staffing and resourcing preservation work. If you want to evaluate how serious an organization is about digital preservation don’t start by looking at their code, their storage architecture, or talking to their developers. Start by talking to their finance people. See where digital preservation shows up in the budget. If an organization is serious about digital preservation it should be evident from how they spend their money. Preservation is ongoing work. It is not something that can be thought of as a one time cost.
9. Digital preservation is about making the best use of your resources to mitigate the most pressing preservation threats and risks. You are never done with digital preservation. It is not something that can be accomplished or finished. Digital preservation is a continual process of understanding the risks you face for losing content or losing the ability to render and interact with it and making use of whatever resources you have to mitigate those risks.
12.Highly technical definitions of digital preservation are complicit in silencing the past. Much of the language and specifications of digital preservation have developed into complex sets of requirements that obfuscate many of the practical things anyone and any organization can do to increase the likelihood of access to content in the future. As such, a highly technical framing of digital preservation has resulted in many smaller and less resource rich institutions feeling like they just can’t do digital preservation, or that they need to hire consultants to tell them about complex preservation metadata standards when what they need to do first is make a copy of their files.
I’m excited to kick off 2018 teaching my digital history course for American University again.
I’ve been increasingly interested in the methodological aspects of digital history (the how not the what of history). Given that this course is on the books as a tool of research course for AMU history grad students it seemed to make sense to go ahead and slightly reframe it to focus explicitly on methods.
Like my previous courses, this course will run largely through a student written publication on the dighist blog. I’m always excited to have folks outside the class join in on our learning community. So please consider following along on the course blog and commenting if/when things pique your interest.
For some context, I’ve provided a rundown of the topics students will be blogging about below. I’ve also provided a full copy of the syllabus. Most of the readings are open access and the books are relatively inexpensive, so feel free to directly join in and follow along as we go.
Weekly Course Topics
Becoming digital public historians (Jan 17th): This is our first class; we will introduce ourselves to each other and spend a lot of time reviewing the syllabus. I will make sure everyone leaves with an understanding of how to register, post and work with the course blog. By the end of class everyone will have signed up for the weeks they are blogging/presenting on. We will then take a bit of time to quickly read short posts about blogging as an academic practice.
Defining digital history (Jan 24th): This week is largely about developing a perspective on what people mean when they say “digital history” and more broadly “digital humanities.” It’s also about what the stakes in all this are. Across all of the readings consider both the arguments and the genre of writing they are being presented in. Format and genre are critical components of our work this semester and the differences between blogging, books and articles are as much on the table for discussion as the points in these pieces. PhillaPlace is an example of the kind of projects folks are creating in digital history and Wordle is here as a kind of toy for starting to think about visualizing texts and the possibility of visualization as a mode of history communication.
The Web: Participatory? Collaborative? Exploitive? (Jan 31): In history we work to connect audiences and publics with the past. In this vein, the participatory and collaborative rhetoric that surrounds the web fits many of the values of public historians like a glove. This weeks readings explore issues around crowdsourcing and public participation in history on the web. This includes both the potential to connect with the missions and values of cultural heritage institutions and opens questions about what constitutes participation and what becomes exploitive.
Digital analysis: Distant reading, text analysis, visualization (Feb 7th); One of the most active strands of digital history and the digital humanities more broadly focuses on computational analysis of texts and the interpretations of abstractions of those texts. For the most part, “texts” has meant words, but we starting to get into computational modes of engaging with images and audio too. This week is about all of that, in particular, under the heading of distant reading. Throughout this week’s readings think both about the subject (visualization) and about the formats of the readings (blog posts, books, open review publications, etc.)
“Project” as scholarly genre: Designing digital projects: (Feb 14th): It’s likely that many of you don’t have experience with planning and developing projects, in particular digital projects. So, this week is about planning projects and drafting the documents involved in making a digital project, in particular a web project, happen. Brown’s book is our main text, providing a roadmap for what decisions get made when. The NEH guidelines contextualize the format for a project proposal in a humanities context. The section from Digital_Humanities offers consideration of “project” as a unit of scholarship. Kirshenbaum’s piece get’s at the vexing issue of sustainability. Scheinfeldt’s explores differences between common digital collection platforms.
Proposal pitch week (Feb 21st): Everyone in class is going to give the elevator pitch for the project that they intend to finish. No slides or anything. Just stand up, and in three minutes present the elevator pitch. Answer what you are going to do? Why it’s worth doing? You’ll explain how it is like things before, but also how it’s different. It’s important to be able to give the “MTV Cops” level explanation of your work. So work on that. After discussing the proposals, we will use remaining time in this session to check in on how the course is going. Think of it as a formative evaluation of the content and process of the course. It is great to get this kind of information in the middle so that it is still possible to tweak parts of the course going forward.
Digital archives: What are & aren’t they? (Feb 28th ): Public historians and other humanists have been exuberant about the possibility of providing broad public access to primary source documents and the contents of archives. In this context, the use of the term “digital archive” has become a bit fraught. With that said, there is some valuable productive friction in that fraughtness. Something useful is emerging in the blending of sources, analysis, and intrepretations. This week we figure out what different folks mean by the term in different situations and explore some exemplars of different notions of digital archives and their potential as modes of scholarly output.
Understanding Digital Content: Media, materiality & format (March 7); To really do digital history, we need a very solid understanding of what exactly digital stuff is. This week we try to figure out more about what digital things are. We likely all have a sense of what things like documents, spreadsheets and digital photos and videos are, but it is essential that we go beyond their appearance on the screen to understand a bit about what bits, bytes, files, and file formats are.
Digital exhibition, hypermedia narrative & bots (March 21): What does it mean to collect and exhibit/present/interpret digital objects? This week we explore this issue across new media art, source code and digitized materials. Along with thinking through issues of presenting digital objects we also explore the potential of turning our interpretations and exhibitions over to the machines themselves.
Digital audio: Oral history and sound studies (March 28): A huge area of work in history is oral history and at this point that is basically entirely a digital affair. This week we explore what it means to do oral history in the digital age. Aside from the great work tied up in that particular program, we need to think about how computational approaches to working with audio can change what it is that we do in this space (bring in some pop-up archive links). Similarly, it’s critical to remember that all formats and media have histories and politics, hence why we are using this as an opportunity to better understand that through the introduction to Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format.
Mobile media, place & mapping (April 4th): Increasingly, the screens people are turning their attention to are in their hands and their pockets. In this vein, there is tremendous potential for mobile media and mobile media has a direct and clear connection to place and location. There are projects like the Museum from Mainstreet app and the Will to Adorn app that try to enable participatory collecting, projects like Histories of the National Mall that work to situate events in historic sites. This week we look at these, and related projects, and read Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media to add a theoretical layer/framework for thinking about this work. We haven’t talked much about maps and place in general yet either, so we will also consider the “spatial turn” as one of the ongoing developments and areas of interest in digital history scholarship.
Playing the Past: Videogames, interactivity & action (April 11): Videogames have rapidly become potent media for communicating ideas about the past. Historians, librarians and archivists have begun creating games and a range of interactive transmedia modes of communicating about the past. At the same time, many very successful commercial games, like Sid Mier’s Civilization, SimCity or Assassin’s Creed have invited a generation of players to enact or replay models of the past. In this session we will spend half of the class discussing Gee’s book, which will help us unpack a range of ways to think about games and learning and how to read games and the other half discussing how ideas are represented and enacted in games that are specifically about the past.
Opening & Expanding Forms of Scholarly Communication (April 18): Digital technology has changed the possibilities for scholarly communication in the history profession. Historians have long produced scholarly works in a range of media. However, monographs and to a lesser extent journal articles and conference papers have largely persisted as the primary forms of scholarship that “count.” This week we will learn a bit about the development and history of scholarly presses and explore a range of novel approaches and technologies for scholarly communications.
Class Conference Poster Presentations (April 25): Bring a poster reporting on the results of either your research project or your digital project. We are going to run the classroom as a conference and I will see if I can get folks from around the
The end of 2016 was hard. I half- wrote that post. I tried to tell an optimistic story about where I’d been and where I was going but it just wasn’t happening. Instead, I ended up recording an album with my own original compositions that was largely about processing the end of 2016. So Before You Remember, will count as the post for last year.
The world is not really a better place today. But I refuse to be overcome by events and I am here to recount some of the good in this life well lived just inside the beltway. Despite the state of the world, Marjee and I, along with Bowser and Zelda have carved out our niches in this mad world and we are loving the lives we are building together.
So to that end, I return to my regularly scheduled programing of sharing out about various and sundry things that have come to pass in the last year of my research, writing, and work.
The three jobs: Niche building inside the beltway
In early 2017 I was hitting my stride as a manager, leading the team of program staff running the National Digital Platform initiative at the Institute of Museum and Library Services. In the middle of the year I found myself as the Acting Associate Deputy Director for Libraries at the Institute of Museum and Library Services. As an aside, “Acting Associate Deputy Director” is such an amazingly federal government name for a job. In particular, such a 2017 federal government title for a job. I loved working at IMLS, but a chance came to return to the Library of Congress that was just too good to pass up.
At some point across those shifting gigs, I may also have done the rounds on the whole job-talk-campus-visit-thing for being the Digital AUL at an ARL library. I haven’t talked about this much and I won’t talk about it further. I will say, it was a great opportunity to see our lives and work through a different lens. To see how we and how others would see us in the academy. We ended up reaffirming our love and commitment to our lives here just inside the capital beltway.
For us, 2017 ended up being a year for finding and building the context that we want to live in, for this world we find ourselves in. I’m feeling like I’ve found a niche that I really love. A place where I can do good things. A place where I can be the kind of person I want to be. A place where I can grow. A place where I can support others in learning and growing. I’m thinking a lot about maintenance, repair, emotional intelligence, and cultivating an ethic of care and I aspire for 2018 to be a year where I bring more and more of that thinking into the practice of both my work and my life outside of work.
The National Digital Platform turns three
I devoted three years of my professional life to helping bring about the National Digital Platform for libraries. Looking back at it, I feel extremely proud of the results. In May, I gave a talk Maura had been slated to give at the Digital Initiatives Symposium in San Diego. That talk, Digital Infrastructures that Embody Library Principles, was a presentation based on a (still) forthcoming chapter in an ACRL book that the NDP team wrote on the role that library values play in the design, development, and implementation of technology in libraries.
By the end of my time at IMLS, I had had a hand in investing more than $33 million in 100+ projects in support of a vision of a National Digital Platform. It is something that I will be forever proud of. The ability to work part of my public service career for the IMLS was truly a gift. It’s an amazing place with an amazing mission and I will treasure that I was able to chart a part of the institution (and the field’s) course. In 2017 we were also able to put out a whole special issue of D-Lib focused on various NDP projects.
Before I left IMLS, I was working on the start of planning NDP@3, a report and summit reflecting on the first three years of the National Digital Platform initiative at IMLS and a look toward to it’s future. I’d left a few months before the summit, which I will note was expertly managed and run by the IMLS NDP team. I was lucky to get the chance to participate in the event. I was able to get my copy of the report signed by the team as pictured to the right.
Visiting the place you were, just for a day, and seeing everyone doing it all without you feels complicated. You miss it all. At the same time, you get to see others step up and take things in their own directions. I was so proud to see the team that I had had a hand in building running with what Maura and I had worked to establish.
Starting in February, I posted drafts of sections of the book. By June, I delivered it to the press. In the fall I got back reader reports, and at this point I’ve sent the revised manuscript back to the press to move into the next phase of the process. I anticipate it will come out late in 2018.
In rereading the draft for this final hand-off to the publisher, I feel like this is the most authentically “me” of anything I’ve ever written. At some moments, pithy, at others fiery. Sometimes completely eschewing “fancy writing” conventions. At points nerding out about wonky aspects of media theory or the structure of digital information. Sometimes saying something smart. Generally at my best when I’m talking about the smart work that other people have done. I see so many of the places and the people that I know, that I’ve learned from, evident in the stories I share in it. It’s still got the semi-breathless run-on-sentence-hedging that is part of conversations where I get caught-up in thoughts and ideas. It’s hard to express how affirming, revealing, and disarming it is to return to a piece of writing that you feel like exposes many of your quirks and vulnerabilities in it, but that you see people responding so positively to.
Building a Digital Content Managment Team
The last quarter of the year has found me back at the Library of Congress. When I started at the end of August I kept running into colleagues in the tunnels that connect the three buildings on capitol hill who would say things like “Hey Trevor, good to see you! It’s been a while. What have you been up to?” To which I would say something like, “Yes, it has! I worked for another federal agency for the last three years.”
The Library of Congress is a big place, the kind of place where you could really have not seen someone for three years. It’s also the kind of place where three years can seem like a blip of time. Library time really is a different kind of time. Being back now there are moments where I feel like I never left. I’m back with many of the same people talking about many of the same things. At the same time so much has changed for the better. I find myself having a chance to help support the development and implementation of a vision for the digital present and future of the institution and it’s extremely exciting.
My first run at all of this has been a really amazing experience. The idea of building out a team of staff for the digital content management section around the web archiving team has been really exciting. Part of my new job involves hiring ten people to round out the new section I’m setting up. In keeping with the nature of the federal hiring process, this ended up involving conducting more than fifty hour long structured interviews from a pool of hundreds of candidates for these positions. It’s a challenging privilege to be present and and supportive for people putting themselves out there in interviews. As the year closes, and this process inches closer to completion I’m excited about the prospect of transitioning from being a planner and hiring manager for this new section to being a coach and a mentor in supporting this team do great work on behalf of the public.