Saturday, February 8, 2014

Report on Paul Conway's "Preservation in the Age of Google: Digitization, Digital Preservation, and Dilemmas"

Although Preservation in the Age of Google started out as a keynote address for the “Persistence of Memory: Stewardship of Digital Assets” conference, held by the Northeast Document Conservation Center in 2006, it was then edited and published in its current format in 2010 for the Library Quarterly journal. The journal is published by the University of Chicago and has a primarily scholarly audience.[1]

The author, Paul Conway, is certainly an outspoken member of his field, if not one of its experts. He is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information and has been publishing reviews, articles, and book chapters on preservation, archives, and digital preservation since 1985[2] and presenting at conferences on archives and preservation since 1982[3]. Conway has been honored multiple times for his work in preservation[4], and currently teaches also multiple courses on digital preservation and archives at multiple university’s information science programs[5].

If Preservation in the Age of Google has one main topic, it would be that the profession and culture of preservation is at a pivotal moment, and that choices made now will shape the future, not just for the digital items begin created every day, but also for the countless “traditional” items that are currently archived, especially those that may be decaying outside the safety of environmentally controlled collections.  The article begins by distinguishing between digitization for preservation, which creates a new digital version of an existing item, and digital preservation, or the actions taken to preserve digital items regardless of whether they were created via digitization of a tangible object or born digital. This distinction helps with the dilemmas and recommendations Conway lists later in the article.

Conway also discusses a few other sources and some of the history of digital preservation, but spends most of the article discussing current issues in preservation and outlining his recommendations for the future. He says that the preservation community is facing dilemmas of four species, outlined here.

Environmental: deals with the prioritization of environmentally controlled storage for tangible preservation items over digitization of these same items, even when concurrent digitization efforts could create digital versions of items that are decaying while they wait for slots in storage facilities.

Quality: centers on the issue of digital preservation repositories accepting too many low-quality items in an attempt to save time (and due to a lack of qualified specialists and strict standards for them to follow).

Non-book: focuses on media (such as magnetic tapes and acetate-based films) which face unique preservation concerns and are generally being neglected in favor of books when it comes to the allocation of time and money in archival budgets.

Expertise: points out the current lack of highly qualified specialists in digital preservation today and the need for new programs and aggressive recruitment to increase their numbers quickly.

Conway’s suggestions to combat these dilemmas are generally to walk the middle road; keep environmental control as a top priority so we don’t abandon our tangible collections, but shake things up by moving money from preservation of individual items to large-scale digitization of those non-book items in greatest danger of immediate decay. He also calls for a revamp of digital collection building standards and practices and, most importantly, the building of “digital conversion factories” and the collaboration of these institutions with the cultural heritage community to build digital collections that complement each other without overlapping.

The reviews that I encountered for the article were generally positive. However, I agree with this blogger’s comment that, although Google is mentioned in the article, it doesn’t really have enough of the spotlight to pull a title slot; the focus is really on moving preservation culture, standards, and practices into step with the new developments in digitization and digital preservation.

The moment in the article that most caught my attention was in the section discussing the Preserving Digital Information report; Conway mentions that the report suggests that digital archives should deliberately “rescue” abandoned data, but says that that suggestion has never been taken (as of 2011). I checked around and found some things (mainly on Wikipedia, but that led me to other sources as well) about orphan works and the Internet Archive; to anyone else who is interested, I would recommend starting with the Wikipedia page for Abandonware and branching out from there.

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