Preserving Information: It’s Not Magic, It’s People (And it takes a lot of work!)

A view of the archives of Alpine County, CA.
A view of the archives of Alpine County, CA.

Do you remember what it was like doing research and writing papers in the Stone Age? When the most accessible fonts of knowledge we had occurred the forms of gigantic sets of encyclopedias, miles worth of microfilm, and card catalogs so large that they could easily fill up one of today’s server farms? If you don’t, then we might not be able to be friends.

Okay, I’m just joking there.  (Or, am I?) But there is a strange yet noticeable divide growing between the traditional and the digital when it comes to accessing information. I see it all the time in my work. When people ask if we have a certain bit of historical data in our archives/library, the first question is not longer “is it available?” but “is it digitized?” (Or, likewise, “can I view it online?”) This question doesn’t just come from young students who grew up with iPads in hand, but seasoned scholars, those with well-preserved pasts in the information Stone Age and futures in the all-encompassing digital world. And it’s not something I’m immune to myself. I’ve done plenty of Internet searches for tidbits of information that I can’t see to find. There are still lots of (hidden) vital nodes of our culture that can’t be located online (yet).

Right now in the world of cultural institutions – museums, libraries, archives, and like organizations – there is a huge push towards digitization. It is literally (and I mean literally) on the magnitude of when historical collecting and preservation of the past became pastimes in this country. When gentlemen scholars (and yes, it was very much a boys’ club), of the early 1800s sought to safeguard America’s young history against forgetfulness by collecting the “things” that defined our past. Some men garnered personal collections that burst the seams of country cottages and city flats. Soon enough, these collections were placed in museums and libraries so they could be admired and/or used. And as those institutions were filled to the rafters with objects and papers, larger facilities were sought out or built. (And while I’m using America here as an example, it goes without saying that such happenings in historical preservation occurred elsewhere around the world, or had occurred in past civilizations.) Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single, historically-minding, collecting institution, from the Smithsonian down to your local library, that isn’t brimming with the stuffs of our past.

The same is becoming increasingly true of digital data. Just like artifacts and paper records, digital data must be safely stored and made accessible. And the problem of storing data is a big deal right now, because it is a problem. Have you ever filled up a floppy disk, CD, or hard drive? Multiply that by a bazillion (give or take) disks/CDs/drives, and you can see where I’m going. Digitizing our past isn’t the problem – storing its data and the information about it, the metadata, is. Take a librarian scanning a photograph. The item is placed on a flatbed scanner and some bit of software is used to take the image. It’s often standard practice to create both high resolution and low resolution copies of items, so the librarian does just that and creates a data-heavy TIFF (for preservation) and a much smaller JPEG (for public use) of the photo. The librarian then uploads the photos into the library’s digital database. Done? Nope. Now our intrepid librarian must enter in the database the photo’s metadata – its title, date of origin, size, description, location within the building, and any other administrative information that’s required. All of the metadata gets stored along with the digital photograph and is uploaded to a public system where library patrons or web surfers can view the (low-res) photograph and all of its information. This digital photo and its metadata only takes up a sliver of a decent storage drive – that’s fine and dandy. But say our librarian has another twenty, hundred, or thousand photographs to scan. That storage drive is going to fill up mighty fast.

In order to deal with the problem of data storage, some places turn to third-party vendors to manage and safeguard their data. Then, instead of worrying about filling up drives on-site, your data about your historical collections are kept in giant facilities all cloud-like, but not as questionable. And you can sit worry-free at your computer, scanning images and things and papers and creating metadata all day long without having to worry about reaching any sort of storage ceiling. Hooray and happy days!

Well…not really.

I mean, yes, more and more we’re seeing museums and libraries, and such embrace digitizing their collections, but that work takes a tremendous amount of the time, money, patience, tolerance, and maintenance behind the scenes. It’s easy enough to admire the Mona Lisa in the Louvre from the comfort of a web page, which is truly an amazing act in its own right, but how it got online and, more importantly, what’s keeping it there, are completely taken for granted. It’s like with those big, ancient sets of encyclopedias. Did you ever take a moment to think about who actually compiled them? Probably not. I don’t think I ever did.

The act of placing ourselves online is so commonplace these days, that if I was a computer-savvy adolescent, the thought of not finding something online would be completely inconceivable. Because everything is — it has to be. Otherwise, how would anyone get anything done? How would we write, read, learn, and communicate if it wasn’t for the Internet? How indeed. Should cultural intuitions be obligated to digitize their historical stuff for the sake of “educating” the next generation? That’s a question I don’t want to ask but face every day. No matter how to look at it, people are behind our information, all of it, from clay pots to dissertations. And until that changes…well…

For better or worse, we better hope it doesn’t. Ever.

Like what you’ve just read? Cary posts to Geek Force Network every Friday; and you can also find more words that she put together in paragraphs at Recollections of Play, United We Game, and 8bit Kitchen.

5 thoughts on “Preserving Information: It’s Not Magic, It’s People (And it takes a lot of work!)”

  1. The funny thing is, we’re probably the last generation to truly know what it is to not have all this technology. Many generations after us can’t even imagine a world without internet when we simply didn’t have it yet.

    I remember when I still had to go to the library, borrow books, and then bring them home to read and research for a paper I did in junior high. Now, everything is just a search and click away. I think we’re more likely to appreciate having all this information in an instant while most will probably take it for granted. I’m sure most kids would look at us funny when we tell them we had to borrow books for research and we didn’t have the internet to do this stuff just yet. Their minds would be blown!

    1. Yeah, it’s weird to think that our children will never know what it’s like to have to work to find something out! (Though I guess coming up with search terms counts as “work.”) It’ll be interesting to witness the next stage of information access. Will the Internet get bigger, faster, worse? Who knows!

  2. Reblogged this on Recollections of Play and commented:

    What does it mean to be a paper-pusher in the digital age? For librarians, archivists, and others who help preserve our many, many, many paper trails, it means having to toe the line between the needs of the records and the needs of those who want to use the records. It was with this notion in mind that I wrote the following post for Geek Force Network. Information is a valuable thing; preserving it for the future is, perhaps, more so.

  3. Even having grown up with going to the library to borrow books for fun and later to do papers and such in high school, I’ll admit that the thought of a world without the internet is now a strange one to me. I remember life without it, but I find it hard to imagine how I would live without it now. (I could of course, I just mean that I don’t really know what that would look like.)

    That said this article got me thinking about all those post-apocolyptic futures or those fantasy worlds in which the “ancients” were always so much more advanced than their descendants. Those scenarios always struck me as odd because I couldn’t imagine how a society could lose regress like that. Like you said though, it’s all about access. If we were to suddenly lose widespread access to our records, how would we be able to maintain what we have, much less continue to move forward.

    Digitization is indeed a monumental effort, but it is a good thing so long as we don’t come to see it as the only option. Data degrades just like everything else after all.

    1. Dealing with digital files is a huge headache for that very reason — degradation. We know that paper, when kept in a safeguarded environment, can survive for centuries with very little loss to the text written on it. We also know that a lot of modern tech, from magnetic tape to flash drives, is extremely sensitive and that data loss can be a huge problem. Our capabilities to create information have increased by leaps and bounds, but that only formulates more issues. It’s a real catch-22 for those involved in information preservation.

      Your mention of “ancient” civilizations immediately brought Mass Effect’s Reapers to mind. 🙂 It’s hard to imagine what might happen if the Internet just suddenly didn’t exist. I mean, we kinda see what life might be like through post-apocalyptic literature, but the actuality of it is very hard to visualize. Thinking about it kinda makes me what to go out in invest in a set of encyclopedias (or rescue a set from a thrift store).

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