Conserving and Preserving, This Month and Beyond

My shortage of January posts can be attributed to my thorough immersion in the planning stages of a significant effort to digitize TSLAC’s collection of cassette recordings of the proceedings of the Texas Senate, from 1972 – 2006.  These recordings document the laws and the lawmakers that shaped our state.  Listen to a sampling of the topics and colorful personalities in the collection here.

My work in the last month draws attention to the contrast between preservation strategies for books and paper vs. audio media.  For example, in January, most of the time I normally would have spent working with my hands at the workbench was instead spent working with the computer at my desk.  Conservation strategies for books and paper more frequently involve physical repair; for audio media, they more frequently involve transfer to new media, or, in my case, planning for that transfer.  While I’ve advocated in lectures and research for the artifactual value of audio media, practical realities dictate rapid transfer in the face of chemical decay and format obsolescence.  Digitization is just one reality for books and paper; it’s often the only reality for audio.

What’s interesting is that our decisions about whether to preserve original media route books and paper into the practice of conservation, while they route audio media into the practice of preservation.  Conservators are trained to work physically, and to use both science and craft knowledge to sustain cultural materials in their physical form.  Preservation administrators – note that extra word in the title – are trained to manage environment, storage, exhibition, people, money, etc., to sustain cultural materials in viable forms.   In theory, it’s much the same; in practice, it’s all different.

My feeling is that as the print and digital worlds continue to negotiate their territories, conservation and preservation approaches will continue to unify.  In libraries and archives, one sees many examples of this: conservation treatment supports digitization projects; then, digital access drives increased physical use and, presumably, wear.  But no one person can know all facets of such disparate practices.  That’s why hybrid library-conservation-preservation training programs like the one at the University of Texas were so important, and why we can hope they may be again in the future.

In the meantime, I’m glad for the opportunity to help prolong the lifetime of the Senate tapes, and I look forward to returning to the book and paper workbench in the near future.

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.