Parsimony and Elegance as Objectives for Digital Curation Processes

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.

My points of entry into these conversations have been Bethany Nowviskie’s  Capacity and Care, Steve Jackson’s piece Rethinking Repair, Hellel Arnold’s Critical Work: Archivists as Maintainers, and Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel’s work in pieces like Innovation is overvalued: Maintenance often matters more. As I mentioned in a pervious post, I think there is a ton more that I need to sort through in Nell Nodding’s line of thinking on an ethics of care, and that is all tied up in this too. So take those as trail heads to what I think is going to grow more and more into a major part of our professional discourse. Notions of capacity and maintain all implicate notions of sustainability.

Less is More Sustainable and Mantainable

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”

and the definition of elegance as;

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.

Relevant Axioms

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.

2 Replies to “Parsimony and Elegance as Objectives for Digital Curation Processes”

  1. Trevor, nice thoughts. I’ve seen, also, that often individuals who are doing good work with handmade tools (e.g., in Excel or Access) are either scoffed at by others or caused to force their information needs into larger enterprise systems that do not meet their actual information requirements. In such cases you have a stand still, where a group is not supposed to use homemade tools that do what is needed, but then cannot appropriately use a central system to do what is needed for their specific work. The idea of simplicity is, of course, important and resonant, however, we also need opportunities to enable such choices. This philosophy has to be adopted at all levels of an organization, by all stakeholders. And, perhaps, it really is only the need to adopt a comfort with information at all levels of expression – whether in raw text, in rows/columns, in tables, or as unstructured blobs. For too long we have been distanced from information as such, and forced to see information through UI goggles – to forget the information-ness of information and to only see the interface that delivers the information. We confuse the complication of an interface, for the simplicity of data. Thanks for keeping these conversations going forward.

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