Digital Preservation

As a person involved in both libraries and music, I have a great many high-stakes encounters with the digital world.  Overall, I think the tenor of the discussion about this world can be too feverish.  Digital media are neither the sky falling nor the second coming.  They are media that work well for access; that work problematically for preservation; and that uproot economies of the arts.

Regarding digital media and preservation, I often wonder what will happen in archives as more and more information is born digital, and as the pace of its creation continues to quicken.  How can we archives staff collect all the digital records of a government, or of an artist, or of a company, and reliably shepherd them through myriad instances of hardware and software obsolescence? 

Here’s an answer I’ve been trying on for size lately: we can’t.  At least, we can’t in the completist way to which we’re accustomed.  That’s not to say we won’t try.  But given finite and decreasing resources, especially in the public sector, humanities, and the arts, I can’t imagine how archives can reasonably keep up with seemingly exponential growth in digital data and ensure its availability in 50 or 100 years.  Digital data are far less stable than paper, and in our shift from paper to digital, we’ve traded relative permanence for ease of access.  Simplified, in this particular Faustian bargain, we can have everything right now, but we can’t keep it.

Surprisingly, this idea actually gives me some relief from digital anxiety, like a cease-fire in the giant Tetris game of incoming data for archives.  There’s something in it that implies a near-Buddhist acceptance of change and loss.  But if we’re to accept the idea of a patchier cultural record, then selection becomes all the more significant.  Collections managers will have to make very smart decisions about what to keep.  Records retention policies will have to reflect this reality.  And is it OK for future researchers to guide our collective cultural understanding with a more selective view of the past?

I could say much more about this and related topics, but I’ll stop here in hopes of encouraging the commentary of others.