Catching up to the Present: Join the Born Digital Community of Practice

I was thrilled to have the chance to write the forward to Heather Ryan and Walker Sampson’s new book The No-Nonsense Guide to Born Digital Content. I wrote it last year, but the book just rolled out last month. It’s full of hands on practical guidance that I think complements my own forthcoming book The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (free OA preprint here). I checked in and Heather was Ok with me sharing it here. Excited to see work like this getting out there! 

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.  

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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

For more on the idea of digital preservation as craft check out my forthcoming book.

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.

It’s dangerous to go alone, take this community with you.

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.

Join digital preservation focused organizations like the National Digital Stewardship Alliance, the Research Data Alliance, the International Internet Preservation Consortium, the Electronic Records Section of the Society of American Archivists, and the Digital Preservation Coalition. Go to their conferences, start following people involved in these groups on twitter, follow their journals, their blogs, and their email lists.

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.

Build Some Rep for Digital Preservation

A quick update on the digital preservation stack exchange site proposal. As I mentioned before, there are a series of ways you can help make this proposal a reality, at this point the big task is to get 100 people to commit who have more than 200 reputation on another stack exchange site. We already have 32 people who have achieved this, so we are about a third of the way there.

This will likely be a bit of a long haul, but considering that we have managed to get this far in only about a month I think we are well on our way.

How you get reputation:

You get reputation by asking and answering questions on any of the stack exchange sites. I’ve pasted in a table from their guidelines on reputation below. You will notice that you really get reputation from having your answers or your questions voted up.

This can stack up very quickly,  for example, i’ve asked three questions on the Academia site and answered two, but those questions and answers were pretty good, so they got voted up multiple times and I ended up getting more than enough reputation to get over 200. You can see exactly what questions I asked and answered and what points I got for them here.

answer is voted up +10
question is voted up +5
answer is accepted +15 (+2 to acceptor)

Where to get stack exchange reputation

I built up my 200 reputation on the Academia site, but you can do it anywhere. The important thing is that you pick a site and get 200 rep on that site (you need 200 rep on a single site so getting a little bit on a bunch of different sites isn’t going to cut it.) The full list of sites can be a little bit intimidating, so I figured I would point folks to a few sites they could think about.

  • English Language and Usage Q&A for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts
  • GamingQ&A for passionate videogamers on all platforms
  • Board and Card Games Q&A for people who like playing board games, designing board games or modifying the rules of existing board games
  • Travel Q&A for road warriors and seasoned travelers
  • Photography Q&A for professional, enthusiast and amateur photographers
  • CookingQ&A for professional and amateur chefs

Take a few minutes and look over the unanswered questions on any of the sites you think you might be interested in. Take a minute to try responding to a few. Then think up some questions you might have, search to see if they are already there and if not post them. In all seriousness, you can get 200 rep on one of these sites in a very short period of time and in the process you end up getting a better understanding of how this system works.

How You Can Help Launch a Digital Preservation Q&A Site

Stack Exchange Q&A site proposal: Digital PreservationTL;DR- Please consider clicking the commit button for the proposed site. The biggest hurdle is getting people who already participate in stack exchange sites to commit, here are three ways you can help with that.

1) If you have over 200+ rep on any stack exchange site we really need you, please commit.

2) If you don’t, consider answering, asking and commenting on any one of the 80 some stack exchange sites that relate to your other interests.  It won’t take long to get 200 rep and you will learn about the system. After answering and asking two questions on the Academia site I had more than two-hundred rep.

3) Please send a link to the proposal out to others in your organization or email lists that you are on. In particular, please share this with groups of folks at your org likely to have participated in stack exchange sites, like software developers, system administrators, and folks in the sciences who you think might be interested

Now for some Background on this Idea

A few of my colleagues at a range of different national and international organizations working on digital preservation have put together a proposal for a new Stack Exchange question and answer site focused on Digital Preservation. You can see the initial definition for the site below.

At different conferences, and different projects I’m associated with I keep hearing a lot of the same kinds of questions. I feel like there should be a place where I can point folks to a solid Q&A knowledge base. While there is an abundance of good research on digital preservation, great standards documents, and a range of different levels of solid technical guidance there isn’t really a place to go where you can ask and find answers to the kinds of straightforward questions seen below.

Why Stack Exchange?

I’ve talked with folks about starting our own site, like what DH Answers did. However, in further discussion we thought it would be better to first try and see if we could get something started through the Stack Exchange process. Here are some reasons to do this thorough Stack Exchange.

  1. Built in network effects:  Many of the existing stack exchange sites, while very distinct from digital preservation, have people who overlap between them. Being on Stack Exchange means being in an integrated network of sites that others already participate in.
  2. Open Data Dumps and CC-BY Knowledge:  Importantly, all the content of Stack Exchange sites is open data in several levels. We can take it, move it, share it and build from it.
  3. Not having to support technical infrastructure is nice: Stack Exchange has a dedicated staff working on refining and enhancing their platform, so the folks who want to participate can focus on the Q&A.
  4. Outreach and Big Tent Digital Preservation:  Promoting the proposal is a chance to reach out to members of other professional and technical communities to raise awareness of digital preservation. Further, if the site is launched, being part of Stack Exchange’s network would help to generate more traffic to discussions and could help lead to a broader base of digital preservation professionals.
  5. The process of proposing the site helps conceptualize it: I already think of this as a win. Just the existing prioritized list of questions that folks have is a great resource in and of its self. Even if the proposal fails and we end up needing to think about standing up our own Q&A site the process we went through on Stack Exchange will be helpful.
  6. Getting some seasoned Stack Exchange folks involved will help digital preservationists cut their teeth on best practices for participating in Q&A sites: There is an art to composing good questions and a related art to composing good answers. Getting some seasoned Stack Exchange folks in the mix would be helpful in getting us to do this in the best and most useful way.

Background on Stack Exchange

For anyone unfamiliar with Stack Exchange their about page is a nice quick read. I’ve copied some of their info below to give a bit of context for how they describe themselves.

Stack Exchange is a growing network of individual communities, each dedicated to serving experts in a specific field. We build libraries of high-quality questions and answers, focused on each community’s area of expertise. From programmers sharing answers on parsing HTML, to researchers seeking solutions to combinatorial problems, to photographers exposing lighting techniques, our communities are built by and for those best able to define them: the experts and enthusiasts.

Other ideas? Places to Reach Out To?

If you have some other ideas for how to make this happen I want to hear them! Are there other groups to contact? I bet there are, share your ideas in the comments and I will follow up with them, or just take the lead and go contact some folks yourself.