Thursday, November 10, 2011

Vocational training for Digital Curation?

The question of training is a big one that lingers around the edges of my own research and yesterday I attended a focus group to support a survey being conducted by the EC-funded project Digital Curator Vocational Education Europe (DigCurV).

So what does vocational training for digital curation mean exactly? A recent Dilbert comic strip mocked the title of 'digital curator', and in fact it's only the pomposity of the curator that's been introduced for comic effect - the digital curators I've met are adament that neither they nor anyone else understand what their job title really means. So 'digital curation' is an interesting starting point for beginning to define how a person would need to be trained for such a role. Rather than go over what we discussed yesterday, which will feature in the report, I was curious to explore how the enterprise was packaged.

It's interesting to note that such an important discussion brought forward by DigCurV remains couched in the language of the cultural heritage sector. Ideas like 'vocational', 'preservation' and, of course, 'curation' have been given prominence for describing the aims of what is, in the end, a very necessary process. The choice of this terminology certainly makes sense within cultural heritage institutions, to a certain extent it allows people within that domain to understand what these things are all about. But is that really what they are? And who should we really be looking to communicate most effectively with?

I say it's interesting that this type of language has been chosen due to the unprecedented manner in which digital content has opened up cultural heritage institutions to outside stakeholder groups in the last ten years or so. This may be stretching it a bit as an analogy, but it feels like a small country entering the UN General Assembly Hall to plead its case, yet refusing translation services. Their internal business has always been carried out in their own language, so why change now? The values held by that population make perfect sense to everyone inside that country, so they assume that such value is inherently communicable to anyone else they now come into contact with.

It actaully goes beyond simply being 'lost in translation'. Perhaps some of the biggest obstacles to functional digital collections in the cultural heritage sector come from the mindset of 'preservation', something that emerges from a model that was unsustainable when applied to anaolgue objects, never mind digital collections. In our hearts we all know that we're talking about sustainable access into the near future. By grafting the illusion of long-term preservation onto that, we've entered (or regressed, even) into a hopelessly unsustainable paradigm. Ironically, this choice of high cost digital collections strategy has been selected by the one sector least well-placed to carry it out.

As Dan Pallotta recently noted in an excellent Harvard Business Review blog, we need to "understand the nature of the box," if we ever want to get out of it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bridging the Gap: Digital collections, innovation and the user

I gave a presentation on my MA dissertation with the above working title a couple days ago, and thought it worth re-articulating some of the points I was trying to make here. This title replaces the more contentious 'Should Librarians Still be Running Libraries?' that got me through the initial planning stages. While previously I had considered that my research would explore the relation of digital collections to external stakeholder groups that could empower innovation with digital content (broadly falling under political, economic, social and technological concerns), it's become apparent that more fundamental goals are not being met by the digital resources currently on offer from libraries. These fundamental goals concern engagement with what I consider to be the primary stakeholder in the library environment, which is the user. This is the gap to which my title refers, while 'innovation' is perhaps the most likely means to bridge any gap between 'digital collections' and the 'user'.

Of course it's difficult to say categorically that there is a gap, but certain signs indicate that there might be. Within my presentation I made reference to a pair of competing views on digital libraries identified by Christine Borgman way back in 1999: (1) Researchers view digital libraries as content collected on behalf of user communities (2) Librarians view digital libraries as institutions or services. I would argue that this tension continues to be played out to varying degrees in a number of contexts. When Eric Meyer recently identified the 'gap' between web archives and users, this was describing a situation where significant web archives had been built over the last ten years, involving some impressive technological solutions, yet researchers were not particularly using them. Then, in the realm of digital libraries specifically, all funding was removed from the US National Science Digital Library by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in July. With an NSF annual budget of almost 7 billion dollars, this is not a 'cuts' situation as we face in the UK, but a simple acknowledgement that the project had failed on the grounds of utility and sustainability. Add to that Nick Poole's observation that we disempower users through mediated cultural collections and I think we have something worth exploring.

My methodology for investigating this has gradually emerged from a pilot interview I conducted back in August. Though a one-off, it clearly identified a general lack of strategy, with little integration of digital content within library culture and infrastructure, and no firm identification or understanding of users in a digital context. While I'm still interested in interviewing experts outside of the library domain (and specifically those who have funded or performed user studies), it seems important to establish some initial ground truths that identify the current position of digital collections within libraries and help to shed some light on the nature of any 'gaps' that may exist. To do this I'll be surveying individuals working within UK national and specialist libraries, institutions with which users choose to interact entirely under their own volition. For this reason I'm currently avoiding university libraries, who have a captive audience up to a point. A second part to the survey, which explores strategy, will then include external experts with whom the views of those working within library digital collections can be compared and contrasted.

While this methodology remains somewhat ill-defined and fluid for the time being, a good research output would be able to conclusively reveal any gaps and how to act on them, establish the extent to which advice from experts has been taken up by the library community and what a research library needs to be in terms of digital resources in the future and how we get there. We often talk about Google and understandably so - no other entity has more categorically smashed the library monopoly on information dissemination - but what comes after Google and what are the alternatives? Above all, it feels like a time of great opportunity.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Sustainability and Post-Digital Culture

Last night Nick Poole, CEO of the Collections Trust and Chair at Europeana Council of Content Providers and Aggregators, spoke about 'Sustainability and Post-Digital Culture' at the Centre for Sustainable Heritage, UCL. The talk was aimed at museums, though the issues under discussion could easily be applied to the entire cultural heritage sector. What follows is a brief report of his talk. Nick's slides are available here.

I'll begin by taking a brief stab at explaining the title. 'Post-digital' references the established ubiquity of technology within society and the fact that technological solutions are ever-present. While our own attitudes may still be playing catch-up, the technologies over which we worry and place much hope in equal measure have been long-established.

So what's next? Reportedly, Jacques Attali, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, stated that museums could not provide a basis for sound investment, apparently lacking any understanding of their own value or how to leverage their content. In part, this is an understandable assumption - while museums certainly know the value of their content, it is the ability to communicate that value to outside stakeholders that is often lacking. It's an obvious parallel with libraries, though it's interesting to be reminded that museums have not even seen anything like the widespread public support that the libraries have managed to conjure up in the face of the UK Government's cuts.

In museums, the practice of collecting content has remained the same, more or less, from the beginning, but a profound change has occurred in the way museums engage with the public. At this point in time, a 'critical mass success' model applied to digital content creation is not going to work. In simply massing digital items online, this unprocessed content is akin to answering the user's call for bread by showing them a field of wheat. Above all, such an approach is unsustainable, when we define sustainability as directly linked to resilience, which in turn is linked to relevance. The obvious point is to get past the digitality of content and emphasise it's use instead (hence 'post-digital'), a strong commonality with issues reported in web archiving, described in my last post.

In closing, some key point were presented:
  • User facility and agency: a link was made to the exponential rise in gaming culture, which appeals to people's propensity to analyse large amounts of information and integrate that into the world. Facility is the competence to do so, also proving oneself to be adept technologically; agency is basically the expectation that one will be able to do these things. Facility and agency are essentially removed in the manner that cultural heritage content is usually presented - in disempowering users by removing this agency, the natural conclusion for many is to observe irrelevance in such institutions. We therefore need to articulate the value of curatorship to people who lead very different lives, and there is a balance to be found here between that and the more traditional mediated experience.
  • The role of (digital) preservation: Preservation is a by-product of use: the cost of those operations and the value of content within the 'long tail' of digital content cannot be squared. Rather, survivability is linked directly to accessibility (certainly when applied to material that exists for access, the term 'preservation' can seem like a bit of a non sequitor). For physical material, there is too much content and not enough people to look after it - the notion of maintaining these physical collections has become an artifice. That model is no longer sustainable and we can't afford a 'collect and preserve' attitude any longer.
  • Links to commercial content industries: When I asked whether the cultural heritage sector should build more bridges with the commercial content industries to move forward, the answer was an emphatic 'yes'. The idea that commercial and open ventures are irreconcilable is simply not true. Intelligent informed collaborations can happen that create content that is both commercially and freely available in its different aspects.  

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Future of the Past of the Web

'The Future of the Past of the Web' was a one-day international conference organised by the DPC, JISC and the British Library to discuss new trends in web archiving. There were two interesting issues that came up that reveal some of the challenges associated with creating digital content in a cultural heritage environment. First, recent work by the Oxford Internet Institute, presented by Eric Meyer, has observed a "persistent" gap between web archives and researchers (that is, the target user group); to paraphrase a bit, this means that few are really using web archives for social science or historical research, as one would expect. Second, Martha Anderson, Director of Program Management at the Digital Preservation Program, Library of Congress, compared web pages to books - less and less information is being held within web pages and accessed as such, but rather apps and social media aggregate the information we want, and researchers are more interested in underlying data trends, rather than exploring individual web pages.

As discussed in a previous post, there is an increasing switch towards local knowledge. To document an event these days, it's unlikely that you'll rely exclusively on a stand-alone web page, but rather aggregate comment from disparate groups of eye witnesses, from people who are interested in finer and finer aspects of experience. This content is obviously more challenging to get hold of, but EU-funded initiatives such as BlogForever and Arcomem are in the early stages of trying. Having been in operation for around ten years, the field of web archiving is starting to expand technologically and socially, away from simply collecting web pages and storing them in a box, a model that basically follows analogue principles. Yet there is a sense that web archiving and its associated technologies could have advanced much further had they been embraced by the cultural heritage community. Further, there is a large question mark over how even to engage with target user groups.

While there are fundamental differences between a web archive and other forms of digital content served up by the cultural heritage sector, a resistance to change and disengagement with the supposed user community appear to be recurring factors. It is these gaps that I would like to identify and address within my research.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The book as 'good'

Something that no doubt goes through every student researcher's mind is the idea that, quite possibly, their apparently novel concepts and lines of inquiry are actually already common currency. It was interesting then to read another article by Harvard librarian Robert Darnton that made the rounds in the office recently. The article in question is 5 Myths About the 'Information Age' (featured awhile back in The Chronicle of Higher Education). I'm not going to fill space discussing these five 'myths' per se - feel free to read the article yourself - but rather draw out a couple dominant themes that emerge from between the lines, which seem pertinent to a discussion on the future of libraries.

So what's a book for these days? Some things have changed and some things haven't. People, I believe, like to call it the 'Information Age' because, first, there's a lot more of it (though that growth trend prevailed long before the Internet) and, second, the way we access it and share it is a little different. I'm yet to do quantitative analysis on library mission statements, but I'm assuming that the word 'information' is usually in there somewhere, along with various indicators that such information is to be disseminated, shared, promoted and so on.

So what's a book for these days? Does it contain information? Sure. Is it the best means of learning and information transfer that we have at our disposal? Probably not. It's part of a mix. For anyone who read the special report on the future of the news media in last week's Economist, it will seem a very tenuous argument indeed to suggest that something that is printed and published, even when peer-reviewed, inherently holds more value than something even as apparently inconsequential as a Twitter feed. Why? In all sectors we are seeing the ascendancy of local knowledge.

An example I read about recently: an academic, published analysis of insurgency didn't turn things around for US forces in Iraq - the field manual that was eventually put together by David Petraeus required individual experience on the ground (and, thinking back to my last post, it required both significant elements outside of the US Army, along with dissenting officers within it), and some of the best insights and commentaries on the topic were first disseminated via email. Going back to Twitter, entire news articles were written around IT consultant Sohaib Athar's Twitter feed from Abottabad during the Osama Bin Laden raid.

The most important information out there is not in a book. Where is it? It exists in a state that Darnton's analysis of the information age doesn't mention at all: born-digital, often accessed via portable devices. The average person may actually be reading more now than they ever have before (I can't prove that, but I would be interested to know), it's just that they may not be reading books. There's a CEO in Spain who over the last 6 years has closed down 200 print publications and switched all his company's efforts to Internet advertising - the results seem to indicate that when he says "Paper has no future, it's in mobile applications," he's probably right.

For my part, I would enjoy the opportunity to be able to use my university library, it's just not relevant to the work I do anymore. I'm not the only one: there is an entire digital economy populated by individuals who will never (and indeed probably shouldn't) read a book on their field. Books are useful in certain contexts, they just move at a different pace. One medium isn't inherently better than another, but to shut out the emerging information patterns that exist in the world around us cannot be a positive step for the healthy future of libraries as engaged and relevant spaces.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The significance of the edge

Kurt Vonnegut said: "I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center." Now, people who know me pretty well will know that I've been listening for awhile to a show called The Bhangra Mixtape put together by a DJ named Sonnyji. Why do I enjoy this show so much? In a nutshell, for two hours each week through a live set, Sonnyji starts from the eponymous Punjabi Bhangra music of the show's title and sallies forth into Hip Hop, House, Techno, Drum and Base and musical styles the world over. At first the experience can be a little jarring, but you come to relish the twists and turns which can be both humourous and, mostly, illuminating. And this is why I find the Mixtape so interesting - it's a truly experimental space that has changed the way I listen to music, by forcibly removing me from my comfort zone as each transition pulls away the proverbial rug. There's a musical dialogue going on here, obviously appealing to a wide demographic; you get the sensation of having experienced something new and therefore of having learned something new.

If this example seems out of context for a thesis on the future of libraries, that's really the point. When tackling questions surrounding the future of organisations and the roles within them, it seems unlikely that you'll make much progress by only asking those who already occupy positions within that organisation. There is always a comfort zone, and it may not be helping; better then to step outside of it in order to appreciate its true function and the actual relationships that can make or break said organisation. It would seem that these relationships are best explored by actually engaging external stakeholders in a dialogue.

I mentioned before the 'larger picture' of political, economic, social and technological interdependency and this method of interrogation is already quite common, known as PEST analysis (or PESTLE, if you wish to add legal and environmental considerations) which identifies the above macroenvironmental factors for strategic management purposes. In examining relationships, you find a mutual exchange, with the greatest benefit from the point of view of a cultural heritage instution being that the acknowledgement of their actual role in national and international society can reveal what works, what doesn't and where an institution is heading in its development. An obvious question then is: can a library that doesn't engage in digital iniatives honestly claim that it is still fulfilling its mission statement?

A few days ago, during the public sector strike in the UK, I was walking past the British Library where PCS union members were manning the picket line. On the leaflet that one of them gave me was plug for a petition to 'save our cultural assets', launched through the PCS at the end of September last year. Once I had added my signature I was taken aback to learn that I was only the 543rd person to sign since the petition was launched 9 months ago. I wondered why an apparently high-profile campaign would fall so flat? This is pure speculation, but the cultural heritage sector feels isolated. It's incredibly hazardous to venture a definition of culture, but the days of powerful yet discrete cultural insitutions existing for a common good seem long gone. Continuing to subscribe to such notions only make the sector an easy target, lacking as it often is in a cohesive or informed voice for its true relevance.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Should librarians still be running libraries?

This is a provisional title question for my thesis. It could easily be "Should archivists still be running archives?" or "Should museum curators still be running museums?" and so on - the point being that with the growing influence of digital technology on the cultural sector, and all aspects of life, should the traditional roles that have always held dominion continue to do so? Should those roles be expanded upon, altered or relegated to sit alongside digital curators, digital librarians and the like?

And what is a library now anyway?

It can be observed that many cultural organisations have already ceased to be run by individuals trained inside the respective professions of the institutions they oversee, and, for good or ill, this decision often appears to have been made with fundamental business considerations in mind. The overall aim of this thesis is to examine the case for wider strategic considerations in digital library development specifically (in 'public' organisations), examining how digital collections can become linked to an organisation’s core business objectives while situating digital library activities within the larger picture of political, economic, social and technological interdependency in society.

Contained within this broad aim are various sub-objectives. A strong underlying question from a strategic point of view is whether current library organisational models should be adapted for digital collections or if an innovation model is essential to develop them. From another perspective: within the digital library domain (a largely collaborative environment with financial constraints), is it better to lead or to follow? If an organisation chooses to lead, what sort of strategy should they adopt, and with what level of risk? If they choose to follow, can they trust the accepted leaders in the domain? How does all this engage the next generation of users, in particular those from the massive majority that have no interest in a traditional library model?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Digital Think Drink at the British Library

A few observations on the Digital Think Drink on the future of libraries at the British Library last night.

This took place in the Growing Knowledge exhibition space in the main lobby where a snapshot of various pieces of interactive hardware and online digital initiatives from the cultural heritage domain are presented. It's generally impressive, and it raises a few questions. How much can this achieve as a pure research tool? I suspect that books are not going to just disappear, and in many disciplines research will still require a focused search of the library catalogue and perusal of dusty tomes. The great advantage of the digital tools presented at the BL is that they have the potential to provide an intermediary space between the public and a traditional library setting. These are interfaces that promote browsing, and in many cases do easily provide insights that only the very closest examination of an object might yield.

Rather than simply re-examining current collections, the real potential for digital could be actual collection expansion in a way that could not have been previously imagined. Historical models, for example, have changed, and people are intrigued by personal history and culture in a way that they never were before. From now on, for the most part, this material will lie exclusively in the born-digital domain. Rather than creating museum-style exhibits for libraries, why not use these technologies to present information that could not be presented via any other medium? Perhaps such digital collections could also be linked into the main collection to become part of a whole, rather than investing in hardware that, presented on its own, feels like only a temporary solution that interrogates historical objects using digital tools without acknowledging the dynamic digital society that is creating culture now.

Given the recent furore over tensions between the Internet, the sovereignty of Parliament and the judiciary in the UK, it's interesting to see just how far behind and inadequate the law is regarding the digital domain. People willl probably be aware of the UK Web Archive, an initiative to archive all UK domain websites which currently has to seek permission from each website's creator on an individual basis in order to archive a site. Even once the BL can obtain legal deposit for UK websites, readers will still have to visit the BL building in order to access that archive, just as they do the collection of legal deposit paper publications. My colleague who recently attended a copyright workshop at CILIP noted that if we all kept to the letter of the law, we would have to shut down operations. This is perhaps the best example of where libraries can lead and shape legislation. It sounds like the ethics of a modern comic book superhero, but perhaps you do need to break the law to defend something more important.

Finally, on the future and relevance of libraries, I've noticed that in working for a digital library and studying the topic as I am, probably 90% of my learning is online, or through face-to-face conversation. The other 10% has been made up by formal lectures, and perhaps 1% by published books. I like libraries, I work in one, and yet I would never walk into a traditional library to educate myself on most aspects of my life. I wonder how prevalent that is?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Are digital initiatives just a technicality?

The double meaning here is of course that developing and holding digital collections are often analysed from a mostly technical perspective, and, by extension, their full potential and impact may not be fully appreciated and utilised.

I've come at this project with the attitude that the biggest challenges in digital collections development are probably not technical. How so?

A conference paper that a colleague passed to me the other day gives a nice example. As most people reading this will know, XML is an open standard markup language that provides a technological basis for interoperability across library systems. One reason for focusing so much on technical aspects of digital collections has been an ongoing effort to achieve interoperability - unlike some other sectors, libraries and the cultural heritage sector are essentially non-profit and, importantly, collaborative. It is therefore important that information should be easily searched, accessed and shared.

Interoperability is rightly held as a priority, and XML is a great basis for achieving it, but what is actually happening in practice? The paper I mentioned, by Jerome McDonough, notes an experiment by the Library of Congress in which digital objects were exchanged between institutions in the US. Despite all of these institutions correctly using the same XML-based encoding format, exchanges failed based on what might be described as differing syntax applied to the same grammar, rather like regional dialects that manifest from a common language. McDonough concluded his paper by noting that, while individual institutions may well need local flexibility to best serve their users, and must balance that with a need to share information within the sector, "If libraries are to survive and thrive in this new information society, they must alter their own value structure to prioritize communication with other communities [that do not share libraries' standards practices or values]...."

This example shows that even within the technology itself, there are social factors. This makes sense, since technology is made and used by people. It's also tempting to go a bit further and make the assertion that unless many non-technical factors are accounted for (including, critically, funding), technical concerns would never have the opportunity to exist in the first place. The lessons from McDonough's observations, and the economic, social and political crunch that libraries face now, is that they need a strategy that goes beyond technological concerns, linking digital initiatives to the real business drivers of the organisation, which in turn connect the organisation with new users and new communities.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

New digital roles, new digital models

I'm almost at the point of completing the final proposal for my thesis, so it's time for a new focus. I've re-launched this blog as a research tool: I'll get ideas down, but I hope that others will join in with comments, questions and critique. It seems apt for the project I'm embarking on, so let's see if it works.

My research surrounds a central question of whether the digital world necessitates innovation, or if adaptation will suffice. It's a large topic that I need to whittle down, so my first efforts at that are a plan to examine smaller organisations, such as public libraries, that increasingly face a watershed within a society where knowledge transfer now occurs almost exclusively via digital media.

What do I mean by adaptation and innovation? Adaptation refers to using digital media and collections within a traditional analogue model. These collections are characteristically 'bolted on' to the established analogue collection format as an extra that probably doesn't represent the core goals of the organisation. The value of digital formats are mostly recognised for the levels of accessibility they provide, but not much else.

Innovation looks at digital media and collections in their own right. These actually don't have to be presented as separate to analogue collections, but they certainly present new possibilities, such as using collections in entirely different ways, particularly user creativity, ownership and even funding. Innovation operates outside of the traditional established box. In many respects, the choice of innovation or adaptation (or both) will depend on an organisation's appetite for risk.

Another way to look at this is chronologically. Ten years ago, the idea of huge digital libraries of scanned books seemed incredibly exciting. In 2011, are millions of books made available on screens really the height of a library's achievement? Books on a screen are, after all, still books, and the models haven't changed. The fate of public libraries in the UK suggest that more drastic measures may be required to connect with a new generation of users. We're in a 'second wave' of digital content beyond mass digitisation that acknowledges the importance of born-digital content and a more user-centric approach to collection discovery and engagement.

As additional food for thought, a couple recent blogs by Joseph Esposito and Seth Godin have tackled innovation vs. adaptation and the library digital watershed, respectively, in a pithy manner. These issues raise many questions, and I'll be trying to address as many as I can right here on this blog.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Entering the IT jungle

I had the opportunity last night to attend a meeting of the Data Management Specialist Group of BCS, the Chartered Insitute for IT. I wish my classmates had been there because my learning outcome from this experience was special indeed.

With three talks taking place at BCS simultaneously, I had to peer through cracks in the wall in order to determine the correct venue for An Evening of Metadata. There was an acronym on the door that I didn't recognise, and the evening went from there. Arriving as the talks began, the only accessible seating was on the front row, where I noticed on either side of me some interesting gadgets that I hadn't actually seen before - someone's large personal microphone connected to a digital recorder, that seemed disproportionate to both the size of the venue and the occasion, and a computer writing tablet of some description.

Shortly into the first talk, I felt confident that I had no idea what was being communicated here. I couldn't tell you what metadata this was, or what it was for; I couldn't tell you who had designed it or why; I certainly didn't know how it functioned. It was a strange feeling of registering every word that was being said, writing most of that down in my notebook, and yet not understanding the meaning behind any of it. While the talk was in English, I had so little grasp of any context that I may well have benefitted as much had I received the talks in an antique dialect of the jungles of Yucatan.

So, was a semester of metadata a total waste of time? I had, after all, registered for this event at the recommendation of my tutor. Actually, for me, feeling like some kind of undercover agent about to be smoked out if he opened his mouth, there was something much more interesting going on here. In a simplistic way, DAM lies at a convergence between traditional information science and information technology. It would seem that both are employed more or less equally, with some solid management thrown in. I've already thought a great deal about the meeting of traditional preservation and digital preservation - I see it all the time (it's in my last posting, in fact). But until last night, I had never engaged with the IT sector in any way. My realisation was that, if one drew a line between the traditional information sciences and IT, then I was very much clinging to the former extreme, and much more so than I had realised previously.

This is important, because I feel that DAM needs to operate amongst all of these sectors. Increasingly, I am beginning to appreciate the importance of mediation in DAM. It's hard to imagine communicating the content of last night's event to a rare books librarian, for example, but at times, that's exactly what you need to do. We're 'migratory animals', as my colleague put it, and a good understanding (or sensititivy, at least) for information science, IT and business is just the beginning. From there, you can get on with the actual task of doing your DAM job.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Digital Preservation Coalition: Getting Started in Digital Preservation

This event was hosted by the Digital Preservation Coalition and British Library Preservation Advisory Centre (all the presentations I mention are available on the DPC website here). Its purpose was to provide an introduction to the main issues of digital preservation. Part-way through a course in Digital Asset Management, an awareness of digital preservation is something that I’m trying to cultivate and this course provided a useful way in to a difficult subject. The rest of the audience was composed of information professionals trained in traditional library and archive environments, their common link being that they had found themselves responsible for digital collections, but lacked the digital preservation literacy to tackle that challenge.

The workshop also addressed another problem: how do you break down something as complex as digital preservation for an institution with no in-house expertise or funding to buy it in? Before solutions were presented, the point was made several times that traditional collections management can deal with most of the conceptual hurdles brought up by digital preservation. There was a sense here that many of the delegates would not be engaging with digital material if they had the choice.

William Kilbride, Executive Director at the Digital Preservation, therefore began by making three key points on digital preservation that probably cannot be overstated:

1. It won’t go away.
2. It won’t do itself.
3. You already have many of the skills you need.

He then pointed out that digital data have value and create opportunities. This seems obvious, particularly as a student of DAM, but it’s frequently surprising to hear proclamations from relatively senior members of the cultural sector who seem unaware of modern research methods and user behaviour. Of course, the real value is based on access, or, as William put it, “It’s not about the data.” Coming from an ‘analogue’ background (in my case, conservation), it’s a new mindset that shifts primacy from the physical object to the information that it carries.

Patricia Sleeman, from the University of London Computer Centre, did an excellent job of introducing the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) in a genuinely engaging way. Because digital problems are larger than any one institution (or sector), OAIS was presented as a common shared vocabulary to support collaborative solutions. This is never more pertinent than for those institutions which lack digital resources and OAIS carries the potential to provide community support and direction. The flip side of OAIS, judging from the room’s response to a visual representation of the model, is the barrier of its apparent complexity. It does take some dedicated time and effort to appreciate its usefulness, and unfortunately this is only one of several tools, models and standards for digital preservation which share that characteristic.

Following on from useful models, Bram Van Der Werf of the Open Planets Foundation presented their preservation planning tool, Plato. Open, non-proprietary tools like Plato provide access to digital preservation planning for anyone with a sincere interest and Bram emphasised the need to serve diversity in the community, speaking out against standardisation as a solution for long-term access challenges. His reasoning was that digital preservation was pushed along by technical innovation and development, and therefore beyond such controls, adding that ‘best practice’ was fine if you could trust the group providing it, but if we all follow, then we all make the same mistakes. There is probably a middle ground here, but Bram’s team do seem to be making a particular effort to accommodate a diverse group, including those with the least available resources to carry out digital preservation.

Ed Fay of LSE Library concluded the day with a candid discussion surrounding his institution’s efforts to audit and preserve their digital content. As he put it: “Digital preservation is hard!” Indeed, this is one of my personal lessons from the day: the sheer complexity of variables involved in any digital preservation plan, and the time and effort involved in learning how to deal with them. Ed’s closing advice was to learn by doing. Digital preservation is intimidating, but the level of support is also high and the communication channels are open. Without previous experience, Ed managed to come up with a stripped-down model of OAIS to suit his institution, while also employing DRAMBORA for risk management and Archivematica to characterise their collections; he’s now starting to use Plato for long-term planning with a Fedora repository. In other words, Ed provided an inspiring example of what's possible.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The book is history

Today it was announced that Amazon's sales of e-books for Kindle in the US surpassed their sales in paper copies during the last three months of 2010. In socio-economic terms, the book (or more precisely, paper) is now largely obsolete as a format for information transfer. In society, information interactions of immediacy are conducted electronically (whether or not they are retained in hard copy for preservation purposes is another matter). In our economy, well, information interactions of immediacy are the economy.

In the final analysis, a paper document as a format for information transfer is analogous to any other largely obsolete format, such as vinyl records, or the cassette tape. Vinyl, in particular, has a unique quality to be sure, and can arguably enhance the listening experience. Similarly, reading a paper document is often far more comfortable for many. But this isn't the point. If you hear a new song you enjoy these days, you're unlikely to hit the record shops, much less purchase a vinyl record - you'll probably search YouTube and, if you like it, download the track in one way or another to a digital device. Even from the angle of comfort or nostalgia, Amazon's example proves that attitudes are changing.

Going back to the point on preservation: where a retroactive decision is made to preserve a document, common sense still indicates that this will need to be hard copy; the digital preservation challenges of storage, migration, emulation &c. have yet to become either simple or reliable. This is why the book, or paper, is literally history - it's a tool for engaging with the past, and a critical one, but no longer common currency for an information of immediacy. The book as a social and economic force has had its day.

Despite the fact that I invest time in exploring digital technologies, it is difficult to keep pace. I've just noticed that, in the few years between my current degree and the last, hard copy submissions of coursework are no longer accepted (at least at my university). In prioritising traditional models in the information sciences, this could have a detrimental impact on an institution's capacity to deliver information, turning what purport to be centres of current knowledge into museums very quickly indeed.

I suspect that the principal reason why some still give books so much currency in a digital world is because they've had such an unusually long run of dominance as a format. Even before the codex, there was the scroll and the bamboo fragment, and a clear chain of technological development can be traced from antiquity. But an appreciation of books for their own sake is not something that many people in the world have the time or money to share in. While digital technologies carry the potential for a digital divide to further separate develop and developing economies, or even citizens within a single country, there's also the huge potential to leap-frog dated communications technologies and create education initiatives, in particular, that could never have been possible before. More on that later.