I’ve been surprised to see how often historical topics or themes come up in TikToks. So I went ahead and pulled together this listicle of 22 history TikToks. Some of them are pretty funny. Some of them have gotten quite a few views. I think it’s interesting to see the way that young people are fitting historical info into the rhetorical forms that play out on TikTok.
One of them is not like the other. Can you spot the difference?
The first one, the print copy, is the outlier. It has a completely different picture than the latter two. It’s almost the same but not quite. The picture on the cover of the print book was taken by Jermaine Taylor and posted to instagram shortly after I got my floppy disk tattoo in 2017. The second is a photo I took of my arm, when I couldn’t source a higher resolution file of Jermaine’s instagram photo. I emailed both of them to the press as an idea for the cover of the book. I took the second photo because I was concerned that the instagram photo might not be at a high enough resolution to use in print.
The photo I took is, in all the places where book covers appear, the cover of the book. It is also the cover of the eBook version. With that said, all the print copies of the book actually have Jermaine’s photo on their cover. Which in all honesty I think is an objectively better picture. As far as I can ascertain, at some point whoever was actually doing the layout for the print book ended up deciding to use the photo from instagram instead of the photo I took. I think it was a good call.
I proposed that picture of my tattoo as a cover for the book because I thought it spoke to some of the themes in the book. The floppy disk is a medium on which we write digital content. Beyond that it’s now the save icon. Jermaine encoded an instance of that icon with ink in my skin. Much of the book is about how messy and complicated the world of digital content is, in large part, because it’s the result of the accrual of the work of people kludging together things on-top of the work of other people. The fact that there are now these variances in the book cover out in the world itself helps to further demonstrate that point. Online, and in its eBook form there exists one cover based on a photo I took. But based on decisions made in the workflow and process that created the physical copies of my book, the print copies all have Jermaine’s instagram photo on them. The messiness of the digital plays out through the workflows and processes that create digital books. Some of those files get printed out. I interacted with a ton of digital files in getting the book to the publisher and then a range of digital files had lives I don’t know about that resulted in the production of the tangible book.
From the Book.Files report you get a great sense of the handoffs that occur in the production, transmission, tracking and management of books as digital files. From all the handoffs of word files with track changes into processes with Adobe InDesign, through to XML files and or PDFs that become the basis of printing books or creating eBook files.
Below are some quotes I pulled out that I found particularly striking and relevant for thinking about collections for libraries and archives.
“As early as 1999, an article in Publishing Research Quarterly observed that publishing “is coming to mean producing digital content which can subsequently be delivered in different media, rather than producing books or journals””
“there is at least one simple, uncontestable fact that obtains for any book produced with commercial press processes in the last twenty years, and which will continue to obtain for the foreseeable future. That fact is this: a book is a file, which is to say it is a persistent digital asset stored in a digital repository somewhere.“
“A “book” is thus the born-digital potential for a file to become a book first, and a physical, tangible object in our hands only secondarily. Every new book on our shelves has its shadow in a digital file, or more precisely a set of digital files consisting of the various assets needed to bring the book into being. A physical book nowadays is a surrogate for a digital master.”
“Increasingly, this means that the EPUB file becomes the version of record for the book. If the publisher wishes to retain a separate format-independent rendition of the book, any changes or updates in the EPUB must then be back-propagated to the original XML in order to keep versions consistent.”
I think these observations, along with the rest of the report, offer an opportunity for folks that work with collecting, preserving, and providing access to books and records of the history of the book. My sense is that the results this kind of study in nearly any other creative industry would produce similar results. So I think the results here are relevant to anyone interested in the production and circulation of creative works and their histories.
Born Digital is the Norm, Born Analog is the Outlier
The report hits home that cultural heritage institutions interested in collecting and preserving contemporary cultural works need to be centering digital content in their approaches. Increasingly the physical objects that come into collections are themselves the digital surrogates and it’s worth asking when the print surrogate for the digital asset is good enough given that the source for that object is increasingly a digital resource.
History of Creative Industries is Increasingly Born Digital
The report illustrates the ongoing major shifts relevant to the records of cultural production. This has huge implications for special collections work that involves acquiring the archives of creative industries. At this point books are a key case study in this shift, but the same is true for photography, film, the performing arts, music, etc. Creative production has become almost an entirely digital set of workflow process and the future of archives of industries and creators in these media will involve engaging with these increasingly born digital content streams.
Variance Abounds Across Digital Instantiations of Works
The report includes a series of examples of how and where variances enter into the workflows and processes as various stakeholders “touch” book files over the course of their production and the varied output files that are produced. The example of my book cover is in this case not an outlier, it’s another example of kinds of variances that enter into the management of books as digital assets. In that cloud of files, it becomes increasingly difficult to talk about a definitive or authoritative copy of a work. My sense is that this issue of variance is going to become increasingly important for libraries, archives, and museums to figure out. On that front, I think some of Cathy Marshal’s work and Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito’s work is relevant for further exploring this issue.
Ultimately, Marshal argues for the need to step back from thinking of their being a canonical instance of a work and to instead embrace that what we are going to end up with is varied copies that instantiate important differences as those copies take on lives of their own. Significantly, this means stepping bak from the notion of “derivatives” to instead see each copy of a work as contributing to a distributed notion of it.
I think Marshal’s observations are relevant for thinking forward about how we likely want to approach all kinds of digital creative workflows; “we will not only want to see copies, but we‘ll also want to harmonize them, to harvest their metadata, to select among them. Instead of relying on a simple notion—the truth is in the cloud, embodied as a single reference copy—we will want to expand our sense of what is entailed by the notion of a reference copy and turn to a distributed, social model.”
In Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito also take a run at the idea of a canonical master file for any given work. They suggest that with digital media, in many cases instead of thinking about a master file it’s more important to be looking for what they call “mother files;” the editable files that enable a wide range of outputs. You can see more on their thinking in the pull quote from the book below.
Altogether I think the report makes for a great read and I think it helps to draw out some major issues facing libraries and archives for the future. More and more of the material of culture is digital from the start. The issues faced by the proliferation of variance and copies still something that we have a long way to go to fully understand and integrate into how we think about our work.
I’m curious for thoughts any and all of you have about the questions the report brings out.
In piecing that together, I’m realizing that I think it’s been six years since I’ve been to a THATCamp. So I went to 9 of them in one six-year period and apparently haven’t gone to any of them in the subsequent six-year period. Time is strange. The first one in 2008 feels like forever ago and the more recent ones feel like things that happened not that long ago. But I realize and recognize that the strangeness of time is also connected to how the camps fit into my career.
My First Camps
In 2008 I was finishing a masters degree and working on Zotero at CHNM. We got a lot of work done and we had a lot of fun. I kept buying shirts on Shirt.woot. I have fond memories of going out to lunch with the group, setting up websites, buying up domain names, going out on the road to push open source software for reference management. The first THATcamp was wild. People came from all over and it was invigorating.
The idea of the unconference felt really powerful. Reserve some space on campus, set up a wordpress instance, buy some coffee and donuts, and let people sign up to propose things they wanted to talk about and then all of a sudden there was a whole conference happening. It was a great conference too. Folks left with a whole bunch of new connections and awareness of a bunch of projects that related to work they were interested in.
That was very much my experience at least. At those first camps I found myself meeting all these new folks and connecting with new work and ideas. There were undergrads there that just figured out how to do some cool thing and they were teaching full professors about it. The ‘un’ ness of it was really strong. It felt like there was buy in that
There was just a lot of inversion of hierarchies. As I wrote about in 2011, it felt like there was this DIY spirit that animated many the work in the space and that was invigorating. It’s also funny looking back on that blog post and seeing that people left comments there. In a lot of ways the early days of blogging feel like part of the THATCamp heyday when we operated in some pretty fundamentally different conversation spaces.
My Later Camps
I have less vivid memories of some of the later camps. That said, when I did that run of them in 2012, 2013 and 2014 it felt like the concept of the camps had become a rather well-functioning system. It also started to feel like a lot of the same conversations were playing out again at some of the camps.
It was fun to take part in that. It felt great to become more of a facilitator of some of that. That said, in some of the later camps there would also be times when someone would pitch “Shouldn’t there be a thing like X, what if we started making it right now!?” and then one of the folks who had been coming for a while would chime in with something like “That sounds a lot like A, B, C, D, or E and four out of five of those letters ended up being unsustainable for somewhat intractable reasons 1, 2, and 3.” In that context, I think I burned out a little from some of the can do attitude of just roll yourselves up and make a thing ideals that I feel like were so central to THATcamp. The hustle of that DIY world and impulse gets exausting. It’s also clear that the big, hard, challenging seemingly intractable things keep coming up and don’t lend themselves well to the format. It also feels like we’ve lost a lot of the optimism that surrounded those events, I think in part as it feels like the community became more aware and engaged with how problematic the values at play in digital technology ideologies are.
THATCamp Temporal Vertigo
Thinking back over the 12 years from the beginning of THATcamp makes me feel something a bit like a professional vertigo. When the first camp happened, I was 23 and half way through a master’s program and about two years into really working my first full-time job. It felt so exciting to be connecting with folks at all levels of their careers and getting positive feedback about ideas I had for projects. It’s hard for me to process through what parts of my feelings and thoughts about the camps are about the events themselves and what parts are really about my growth and development. So take all of my reflections on this with a grain of salt. I don’ t believe I can separate out what parts of this are about me and what parts of them are about the events.
Growing through and and from THATCamp
With that said, it does feel like things have substantively changed in the digital history and digital humanities spaces since those camps. As areas like digital history and the digital humanities went through a range of periods of growth and faced substantive criticism they changed. In many ways I think they changed for the better. It feels like a more critical set of approaches and thinking going on across these spaces these days. As the fields THATCamp helped to energize have grown up it feels OK that we may have outgrown it as a tool.
With that said, I also accept that I can’t extract my history and experience from this perspective. I grew up professionally in dialog with those THATCamp events and I know they were formative in shaping how I think about and approach things and many of the collaborations and relationships that my career is anchored in.
A told, I think I mainly am left with a lot of gratitude for the chance to be in the place and time where THATCamp came together. I owe so much to the people who I was able to learn from in those events and they are going to forever be a foundational part of my career.
As the end of the year comes to a close, I make time organize and synthesize what I’ve been up to across different parts of my work each year. You can see my reflections at the end of 2018, 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’ve organized things into work managing and coaching teams at the Library of Congress, work communicating about digital preservation, and broader engagements in teaching, learning, and scholarship in digital history and digital curation.
This year I was continually impressed by how the team was able to deliver results, continuously improve our approach to planning, tracking, and executing projects, and at the same time have a lot of fun. You can get some sense of the kinds of things folks have been up to on the team through posts from the group on The Signal.
As our section moved out from its start-up phase into highly productive teams this year, we also worked through a series of transitions. Over the course of the year, four of the original ten team members that came on board in the beginning 2018 ended up advancing their careers into other roles at the Library of Congress or other libraries. Since then, two new team members have come on to fill their shoes and are already making great contributions to the work, and we are in the process of bringing on additional team members as well. I’ve been thrilled to see how throughout those transitions the teams have done a great job of prioritizing, rebalancing, shifting, and supporting each other as we review what we are able to pull off. I’m personally very proud of the culture and values we have established which I think is working to ensure that we can respond to change and ramp up and put on hold work as needed.
Continuing to get the word out on Digital Preservation
This year I continued to spread the word about digital preservation and digital collections management. My third book, the Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, came out at the end of 2018. I’ve been thrilled with the great response it received over the course of 2019. In 2019 the book won two major awards the Association for Library Collections & Technical Services 2019 Outstanding Publication Award and the Society of American Archivists 2019 Waldo Gifford Leland Award. I found it deeply rewarding to win this kind of recognition from both the librarians of the ALA and the archivists of the SAA.
In the Fall I taught a new course on Digital Curation Policy and Ethics for the University of Maryland’s iSchool. This was the first fully online course I’ve taught, so I was curious to see how it would go. Overall, I was consistently impressed by the quality of work students did. I hope many of those students go on to refine and revise some of the excellent papers they worked on for the course for publication. Students wrote about everything from ethical issues in algorithmic curation of news, to legal issues in digital reproductions of artworks, to ethical issues surrounding labor practices relating to digitization contracts.
Teaching those two courses brings the total number of graduate seminars I’ve taught since 2011 to ten. I continue to enjoy the way that working in the classroom helps keep me sharp and offers me a chance to stay fresh on some of the fundamentals in both digital history and in digital curation.
Beyond all these aspects of work, Marjee and I had a lot of fun with other projects, friends, and family. She was the maid of honor and I was the best man at my Mom and Todd’s wedding outside Milwaukee. We both caught up with my family at an Owens’s family reunion in Holly, Michigan. I had a ton of fun backing up Marjee on two days of shooting footage at the Small Press Expo for what will be an amazing forthcoming documentary film. Last but not least, I think we made a pretty good Kurt and Courtney for Halloween.
Overall, this has been a great year. I very much enjoy the ability to work inside a huge cultural heritage organization and at the same time manage and develop teaching and scholarship along with that work. It seems like I’m hitting a good balance there. As far as goals for next year, the biggest thing I’ve been trying to focus on is being very deliberate about what kinds of projects I take on. I ultimately aspire to be able to spend more time focusing on fewer things.
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.