Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A fear of the digital?

We've spent the last week examining various documents concerning the future of digital collections and their associated technologies in cultural institutions over the next couple of decades. Specifically, two of the UK's national libraries have recently attempted to tackle the subject in separate scoping documents: the British Library's 2020 Vision and the National Library of Scotland's report on the library in 2030.

I've noted recently that, based on my brief experience so far, many cultural institutions don't seem fully prepared for digital (whether culturally, strategically or technologically), but the idea that institutions might actually be afraid of embracing digital is a slightly different angle that emerged from some recent discussion surrounding these documents.

There are certainly a few reasons to be fearful of launching major projects concerning digital collections and infrastructure. The one that springs most readily to mind is the existing perception of the impending obsolescence of analogue media. "Throw it in the Charles [River]" was one scientist's recent response to the collection storage problem at Harvard College Libraries. All of us access and use different information in different ways, so as a blanket solution the notion would be a bit absurd, but the idea of obsolescence is a pretty powerful one, not least because those who hold it often appear to have more influence on outcomes than the institutions in question.

Libraries, in particular, are stuck with the problem of at once appearing to be 'vital' by embracing digital, yet not letting go of core cultural elements within their institutions that in many instances stretch back hundreds of years (like storing books). While the scientific community requires an increase in the quantity of born-digital material to continue pursuing cutting-edge experiments, the cultural sector doesn't need digital in the same way, but rather appears to see it as complementary to their original mission of preserving analogue cultural collections (mostly, these are digitised items, so a direct link remains to the analogue). Digital can certainly promote learning and access, but in some cases it may be a necessary evil driven by economic and political factors.

Perhaps fear is also reflected in a reluctance to handle the really big questions associated with digital collections within these documents. It's slightly frightening for some to think that we can't save everything - indeed, that we can't save most things - so who tackles the problem of what to save? Then, with the Digital Economy Act passed in the UK in April, copyright will continue to be a significant hurdle, but this isn't usually explored in much depth, if it's broached at all. Finally, who will manage these projects, and with what technology? Certainly, it's a big unknown, but perhaps it's better to shoot first and ask questions later, particularly when you're under attack.

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