Student Digital Preservation Consultants Looking for Small Cultural Heritage Organizations

For many, this is where we find ourselves in organizations just starting to work on digital preservation.

I’m working on drafting up the syllabus for 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. As a result, 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 hope is that this will be 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. I am also optimistic that this can be a way to provide some help to small cultural heritage organizations that could  benefit from having the additional manpower  think through and develop plans for helping to make the best use of resources to make their digital content more long-lived.

I wanted to share a draft of the series of assignments I am putting together for two reasons:

  • First, to get feedback and input on how to improve the assignment.  I’ve posted it as a Google Doc too, so if you have suggestions for it please feel free to write comments or suggestions directly into the doc.
  • Second, pairing students with individuals who are interested in participating in this work is going to be key. I wanted to circulate this document as a means to identify people and organizations interested in working with a student as a digital preservation consultant for their organization.

Requesting a Graduate Student Digital Preservation Consultant

I think the finish line for digital preservation is a little too close to the starting line here. But it get's at the idea :)
I think the finish line for digital preservation is a little too close to the starting line here. But it get’s at the idea 🙂

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:

  1. Solicit assistance thinking through digital preservation issues and planning for your organization.
  2. Provide a meaningful learning experience to someone just getting started in the field
  3. Learn t more about digital preservation as the student shares what they are learning through the class

Through the course of the assignments, students will;

  1. Document and review current practices with an organization’s digital content
  2. Draft suggestions for potential next steps to improve management of digital content grounded in the resources an organization has access too
  3. Draft a digital preservation policy for consideration for the organization

On the first day of class (September 1st), 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. This is also available in the google doc if you would like to suggest edits or make comments.

Digital Preservation Consultant Project

Here you can see a student, working synthesizing what they have found and drafting a plan.
Here you can see a student, working synthesizing what they have found and drafting a plan.

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.

  1. Identify Small Cultural Heritage Organization and Establish Partnership (by week 3): 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).
    1. 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.
  2. 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.
    1. First, what is the scope of their digital holdings?
    2. Second, how is that digital content currently being managed?
    3. 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)?
    4. Forth, what kinds of digital content would the organization like to be collecting but currently isn’t?
    5. 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.
    6. 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.
  3. 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.
    1. 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.
  4. 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.
    1. 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).
  5. 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.
    1. 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, published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Denmark license and created by Jørgen Stamp.

“But That’s Not Preservation!” Notes on Preservation’s Divergent Lineages

I’ve found that interdisciplinary dialog about digital preservation often breaks down when someone protests “but that’s not preservation.”

Preservation means a lot of different things in different contexts. Each of those contexts has it’s own history. Those histories are tied up in the changing nature of the mediums and objects for which each conception of preservation and conservation was developed. All to often, discussions of digital preservation start by contrasting digital media to analog media.  This contrast forces a series of false dichotomies. I’m feeling like better understanding a bit about the divergent lineages of preservation could help to establish the range of competing notions at play in defining what is and isn’t preservation.

I’m curious to start building out some of my understanding of the lineages of different kinds of preservation. So I would love if folks could share any examples of writing in this area that might be helpful. I think a lot of this context looks to be in something like Preserving our Heritage: Perspectives from Antiquity to the Digital Age (which I am still digging into.) However, I also think the story is even broader here, and that there is a media archaeology aspect that is missing. That is, my sense is that a series of old new media; like photography, film and recorded sound technologies have been interacting with ideas about what preservation is or should be for more than a century. 

What follows is not so much a coherent final product as it is me openly sharing some of my notes on different strands I see at play in this space.

  • The manuscript tradition: A situation where the allographic nature of a work is primary what matters, that something is the work if it has the same spelling and where copying is the basis of preservation. In this case, something like the Evolution of Manuscript Traditions could be useful.
  • The history of archival traditions: In this case, something like What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift is useful. Also, publishing records in documentary editions vs. arranging and describing records and ideally a bit on the interventions that came with microfilming. That is, while we generally think of archives as holding unique and original records in this space there is a lengthy tradition of documentary edition work focused on publishing records and a history of photographic reproduction of records for both access and preservation purposes.
  • The history of art conservation and restoration: For example, Changing Approaches in Art Conservation: 1925 to the Present. I’ve seen a lot on the history of conservation of things like paintings. However, the history of the development of variable media art works, art installations, and works made of materials that rapidly deteriorate has resulted in very smart thinking about what it is about art works one wants to conserve. In this space, Re-collection Art, New Media, and Social Memory,
  • Preservation of dance and live performance:  There are, at this point, long standing traditions in how to preserve and document works of art that produce lived experience. In this space, the Dance Heritage Coalition‘s Documenting Dance: A Practical Guide nicely illustrates the continuity that exists between a variety of modes of documentation technologies, from textual notation, to moving image technologies to new digital methods like motion capture.
  • The history of conservation of living creatures: Everything from taxidermy and insect collecting to living collections like butterfly gardens and zoos as well as things the Svalbad Global Seed Vault. I don’t really have good resources on the history and theory here. Thinking about digging into some history of science journals. In any event, I think there is an interesting story about which techniques are intended for what purposes and what is significant about a living thing that must be preserved toward that particular purpose. That is, when and why do you pin and preserve butterflies as a collection and when and why would you choose to run a butterfly garden. So looking for any ideas folks might have for work in this space.
  • The development of historic preservation of the built environment: I know some good stuff here, like Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States. In this case, it’s interesting to me that some newer technologies like photogrammetry  or 3D point cloud technologies are being explored as ways to “digitize” or create recordings to preserve and document physical spaces. I find historic preservation particularly interesting in that it often focuses on turning back the clock on a particular building to make it appear as it was at a particular moment in time. In this vein, it can involve recreation and fabrication. Similarly, historic preservation connects in interesting ways to reenactment and living history. In this space, I am a huge fan of Abraham Lincoln as Authentic Reproduction: A Critique of Postmodernism which explores fascinating sets of issues around authenticity in the New Salem Historic reconstructed village and outdoor museum in Illinois.
  • The advent of recorded sound technology and the development of oral history: There is some good stuff on recorded sound technology in Gramaphone, Typewriter, Film and MP3 the Meaning of a Format but they aren’t really explicitly about oral history. In contrast, The History of Oral History isn’t so much focused on the role that recorded sound media have played in the history of oral history. The Media Archaeology work points to how our conceptions of “memory” have themselves been shaped by the advent of these new technologies. That was said of Edison’s phonograph “Speech has become, as it were, immortal” or as an article on Memory and the Phonograph from 1880 would “define the brain as an infinitely perfected phonograph”.
  • The development of photography and microfilming and preservation reformatting: There is some good stuff on this in Lisa Gitelman’s  Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of DocumentsIn particular, discussion on the work of the “Joint Committee on Enlargement, Improvement and Preservation of Data” a joint effort of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council. Which ended up publishing Robert Binkley’s 1931 Manual on Methods of Reproducing Research MaterialsThe book is, to some extent particularly interesting in that it is a cover-page over a photo-offset printing of a type-written manuscript. To this end, the book itself illustrates how changes in the technologies for photo-duplication of documents was effecting access to documents.
  • The history of newspaper conservation: Closely related to the last point, the push to microfilm newsprint based on some of it’s inherent vices. While Double Fold is over the top, it did prompt some really great reactions, like Don’t Fold Up: Responding to Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold 
  • Scientific data and records of observations: Astronomers draw on records of observations of the motion of celestial objects dating back to the ancient world. Lorraine Daston’s “Sciences of the Archives” research group has produced some facilitating work in this vein. I like how this quote from Datson’s research group captures the continuity that exists in these traditions which bridges analog and digital practices and incorporates other new media like photography. “Since ancient times, cultures dispersed across the globe have launched monumental data-centered projects: the massive collections of astronomical observations in ancient China and Mesopotamia, the great libraries from Alexandria to Google Book Search, the vast networks of scientific surveillance of the world’s oceans and atmosphere, the mapping of every nook and cranny of heaven and earth.” They have a great 2012 paper in Osiris that works through this in more depth.

So in all these contexts, I think a few preliminary points start to emerge that I keep thinking about.

  1. Preservation’s meaning is contextual and tradition dependent: As a concept, preservation  has situated meanings in particular traditions and contexts so it’s important to really articulate what one means by the term and what traditions one is drawing on. In this vein, the different traditions have emerged in dialog with the development of media and have their own ideas of what is significant about objects for their use.
  2. Digital vs. Analog Preservation is a false dichotomy: There were already a lot of divergent ideas of what preservation meant in play before digital technology came in to play. In this vein, the intervention of digital technology is just one of a series of technological interventions which has disrupted preservation practices and traditions.
  3. New media is older than digital media: Related to the last point, various media/ technologies of reproduction (and their affordances) have had significant impacts on the traces of the past that can be created and our ability to preserve them. In this vein, scholarship in Media Archaeology focused on reinterpreting and understanding these old new media is likely of considerable value for unpacking those impacts.

So those are some working thoughts and rough notes. Curious and interested for 1) other resources you think are relevant in some of these areas 2) other ways of slicing and characterizing these points 3) other ideas about what the take aways are.