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Magazines > Searcher > April 2010
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Vol. 18 No. 3 — April 2010
SEARCHER'S VOICE
One More Thing
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

The Searcher's Voice Podcast As if our lives weren’t busy enough, as if we didn’t have enough to do, as if we needed one more set of tasks for our schedules … but here it is anyway. The future. We have to protect the future. Actually, we have to protect the past for the future. Well, when you think about it, we actually have to protect the past, the present, and the future for the future.

What the heck am I talking about? You may well ask. It’s the digital future and the future of digital. It’s the call of the ancient mandate for all librarians and information professionals, the reason underlying the creation of all libraries, crying out anew — Archive! Retain all knowledge! Archive! Maintain all content! Archive! Lose nothing! ARCHIVE!!!

Only now that cry refers to digital content, a content whose invisibility makes it easy to forget while its profusion makes its retention seem impossible to handle. Libraries have lived through the centuries with a format — paper — that remains stable and obvious. You walk by a stack of books or magazines or newspapers and there they are. Take one down, flip through the pages, find what you want, and start reading. That’s how you use the paper format today and that’s how they used it in ancient Rome. Well, alright, in ancient Rome, the material might have been parchment instead of paper, and you might have had to unroll a scroll rather than flip through pages, but you get the idea. Of course, any preservationist has tales of woe about acid eating through pages within a few years of a book’s publication, of water damage turning paper back to pulp, of insects chomping away, of libraries burnt to the ground. And then, of course, there are the libraries never built in the first place or libraries with funding so depleted they could not do the job.

When it comes to digital archiving, it’s those last two tales of failure and inadequacy that ring the death knoll for the future.

So how did I get onto this grim subject? As so often these days, while working on a NewsBreak for Information Today, Inc.’s website. This NewsBreak covered the final report of a 2-year research project by the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access. (For a copy of the full report, entitled “Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information,” go to http://brtf.sdsc.edu/biblio/BRTF_Final_Report.pdf.) In the course of my journalistic prowling, I had a lengthy conversation with the consulting digital archivist, Victoria McCargar. She has the broadest view of digital preservation, which, she is quick to point out, involves more effort than just digitizing content. You have to make sure it remains accessible. Too often these days, people have retreated to a “Just grab it before it vanishes and we’ll figure out later how to access it” mentality. But formats for images and multimedia and even text (“Where are the snows of WordPerfect’s yesteryear?”) change so frequently that the software or hardware needed to reach the content may have vanished and left retained content practically useless.

Incidentally, McCargar’s perception of archival duties is profound. She talks of medieval monks and newspaper morgues with equal authority. (It’s not often you hear Cassiodorus, the 6th-century statesman, monk, and builder of one of the first monastic libraries, referred to almost as an intimate friend.) McCargar recommended the Blue Ribbon Task Force report to all librarians. The Task Force involved a wide range of key players from the federal government to academe to the entertainment industry. But the primary value of the study, according to McCargar, lay in its focus on the economic issues motivating and inhibiting the different players from taking on the responsibilities of the enormous task.

Even with the practical, realistic focus of the study, however, McCargar admitted that it, like too many other studies, would probably only reach the niche-sized community of people already interested in digital preservation. I could confirm this somewhat from personal experience. The week after the press release announcing the study appeared, Google News only had two listings for it — one carrying the press release itself and the other from a blogger mainly anticipating the April 1 follow-up conference sponsored by the Task Force.

The greatest problem at present for the task that remains before our society is the awareness of the problem at all. People need to know how dire the problem is, how essential it is to solve it, and how to get started. Before you can get anyone to roll up their sleeves and get to work, you first have to ring the alarm clock and get them out of bed. That’s what librarians should be doing. We should be alerting our client communities to the need and the potential. At the same time, we should be learning how to archive ourselves and follow archival developments closely. We should start by reading the Blue Ribbon Task Force report cover-to-cover and Googling that conference.

Put it into perspective. What was life like in 1910? How did people dress? Who governed and how? What events occurred? What were life’s issues? Check the books written, the magazines and newspapers published, the photographs and early silent movies. Youget a fairly good idea. What about 1810 or 1710 or just 10 AD? Not as much information, surely, but some. Now try to imagine what sources we will need to have even the same level of information in 2110 or 2210? And think how much more detail people will expect then after multiple generations of digitized populations have ensued. We’ve already lost most of the “digital-only” content from the mid-’90s through the 2000s for established content sources such as newspapers. Gone and lost forever, never to be found again, not even on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

No one can do the task ahead better than information professionals. We know user needs. We know content structure. We bear the mandate of archiving in our M.L.S. genes.

Sorry, guys. When the job gets tough, the tough get going.

— bq


Barbara Quint's e-mail address is bquint@mindspring.com.
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