The Signal: Digital Preservation
“Digital preservation makes headlines now, seemingly routinely. And the work performed by the community gathered here is the bedrock underlying such high profile endeavors.” – Matt Kirschenbaum
The annual Digital Preservation meeting, held each summer in Washington, DC, brings together experts in academia, government and the private and non-profit sectors to celebrate key work and share the latest developments, guidelines, best practices and standards in digital preservation.
Digital Preservation 2014, held July 22-24, marked the 13th major meeting hosted by NDIIPP in support of the broad community of digital preservation practitioners (NDIIPP held two meetings a year from 2005-2007), and it was certainly the largest, if not the best. Starting with the first combined NDIIPP/National Digital Stewardship Alliance meeting in 2011, the annual meeting has rapidly evolved to welcome an ever-expanding group of practitioners, ranging from students to policy-makers to computer scientists to academic researchers. Over 300 people attended this year’s meeting.
“People don’t need drills; they need holes,” stated NDSA Coordinating Committee chairman Micah Altman, the Director of Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries, in an analogy to digital preservation in his opening talk. As he went on to explain, no one needs digital preservation for its own sake, but it’s essential to support the rule of law, a cumulative evidence base, national heritage, a strategic information reserve, and to communicate to future generations. It’s these challenges that face the current generation of digital stewardship practitioners, many of which are addressed in the 2015 National Agenda for Digital Stewardship, which Altman previewed during his talk (and which will appear later this fall).
One of those challenges is the preservation of the software record, which was eloquently illuminated by Matt Kirschenbaum, the Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, during his stellar talk, “Software, It’s a Thing.” Kirschenbaum ranged widely across computer history, art, archeology and pop culture with a number of essential insights. One of the more piquant was his sorting of software into different categories of “things” (software as asset, package, shrinkwrap, notation/score, object, craft, epigraphy, clickwrap, hardware, social media, background, paper trail, service, big data), each of which with its own characteristics. As Kirschenbaum eloquently noted, software is many different “things,” and we’ll need to adjust our future approaches to preservation accordingly.
Associate Professor at the New School Shannon Mattern took yet another refreshing approach, discussing the aesthetics of creative destruction and the challenges of preserving ephemeral digital art. As she noted, “by pushing certain protocols to their extreme, or highlighting snafus and ‘limit cases’ these artists’ work often brings into stark relief the conventions of preservation practice, and poses potential creative new directions for that work.”
These three presentations on the morning of the first day provided a thoughtful intellectual substrate upon which a huge variety of digital preservation tools, services, practices and approaches were elaborated over the following days. As befits a meeting that convenes disparate organizations and interests, collaboration and community were big topics of discussion.
A Tuesday afternoon panel on “Community Approaches to Digital Stewardship” brought together a quartet of practitioners who are working collaboratively to advance digital preservation practice across a range of organizations and structures, including small institutions (the POWRR project); data stewards (the Research Data Alliance); academia (the Academic Preservation Trust); and institutional consortiums (the Five College Consortium).
Later, on the second day, a well-received panel on the “Future of Web Archiving” displayed a number of clever collaborative approaches to capturing the digital materials from the web, including updates on the Memento project and Warcbase, an open-source platform for managing web archives.
In between there were plenary sessions on stewarding space and research data, and over three dozen lightning talks, posters and breakout sessions covering everything from digital repositories for museum collections to a Brazilian digital preservation network to the debut of a new digital preservation questions and answers tool. Additionally, a CurateCamp unconference on the topic of “Digital Culture” was held on a third day at Catholic University, thanks to the support of the CUA Department of Library and Information Science.
The main meeting closed with a thought-provoking presentation from artist and digital conservator Dragan Espenschied. Espenschied utilized emulation and other novel tools to demonstrate some of the challenges related to presenting works authentically, in particular works from the early web and those dependent on a range of web services. Espenschied, also the Digital Conservator at Rhizome, has an ongoing project, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age, that explores the material captured in the Geocities special collection. Associated with that project is a Tumblr he created that automatically generates a new screenshot from the Geocities archive collection every 20 minutes.
Web history, data stewardship, digital repositories; for digital preservation practitioners it was nerd heaven. Digital preservation 2014, it’s a thing. Now on to 2015!
XFR STN (“Transfer Station”) is a grass-roots digitization and digital-preservation project that arose as a response from the New York arts community to rescue creative works off of aging or obsolete audiovisual formats and media. The digital files are stored by the Library of Congress’s NDIIPP partner the Internet Archive and accessible for free online. At the recent Digital Preservation 2014 conference, the NDSA gave XFR STN the NDSA Innovation Award. Last month, members of the XFR collective — Rebecca Fraimow, Kristin MacDonough, Andrea Callard and Julia Kim — answered a few questions for the Signal.
XFR: Last summer, the New Museum hosted a groundbreaking exhibit called XFR STN. Initiated by the artist collective Colab and the resulting MWF Video Club, the exhibit was a major success. By the end of the exhibition over 700 videos had been digitized with many available online through the Internet Archive.
It was clear for all of us involved that there was a real demand for these services, that there are many under-served artists who were having difficulty preserving and accessing their own media. Many of the people involved with the exhibit became passionate about continuing the service of preserving obsolete magnetic and digital media for artists. We wanted to offer a long-term, non-commercial, grassroots solution.
Using the experience of working on XFR STN as a jumping-off point, we began developing XFR Collective as a separate nonprofit initiative to serve the need that we saw. Over the course of our development, we’ve definitely faced — and are still facing — a number of challenges in order to make ourselves effective and sustainable.
Eventually, we settled on a membership-based structure in order to be able to keep our costs as low as possible. A lot of how we’re operating is still very experimental — this summer wraps up our six-month test period, during which we limited ourselves to working with only a small number of partners to allow us to figure out what our capacity was and how we could design our projects in the future.
We’ve got a number of challenges still ahead of us — finding a permanent home is a big one — and we still feel like we’re only just getting started, in terms of what we can do for the community of artists who use our services. It’s going to be interesting for all of us to see how we develop. We’ve started thinking of ourselves as kind of a grassroots preservation test kitchen. We’ll try almost any kind of project once to see if it works!
Mike: Where are the digital files stored? Who maintains them?
XFR: Our digital files will be stored with the membership organizations and uploaded to the Internet Archive for access and for long-term open-source preservation. This is an important distinction that may confuse some people: XFR Collective is not an archive.
While we advocate and educate about best practices, we will not hold any of the digital files ourselves; we just don’t have the resources to maintain long-term archival storage. We encourage material to go onto the Internet Archive because long-term accessibility is part of our mission and because the Internet Archive has the server space to store uncompressed and lossless files as well as access files. That way if something happens to the storage that our partners are using for their own files, they can always re-download them. But we can’t take responsibility for those files ourselves. We’re a service point, not a storage repository.
XFR: This is a great question that confounds a lot of our collaborators initially. Access-as-preservation creates a lot of intellectual property concerns. Still, we’re a very small organization, so we can afford to take more risks than a more high-profile institution. We don’t delve too deeply into the area of copyright; our concern is with the survival of the material. If someone has a complaint, the Internet Archive will give us a warning in time to re-download the content and then remove it. But so far we haven’t had any complaints.
Mike: What open access tools and resources do you use?
XFR: The Internet Archive itself is something of an open access resource and we’re seeing it used more and more frequently as a kind of accessory to preservation, which is fantastic. Obviously it’s not the only solution, and you wouldn’t want to rely on that alone any more than you would any kind of cloud storage, but it’s great to have a non-commercial option for streaming and storage that has its own archival mission and that’s open to literally anyone and anything.
Mike: If anyone is considering a potential collaboration to digitally preserve audiovisual artwork, what can they learn from the experiences of the XFR Collective?
XFR: Don’t be afraid to experiment! A lot of what we’ve accomplished is just by saying to ourselves that we have to start doing something, and then jumping in and doing it. We’ve had to be very flexible. A lot of the time we’ll decide something as a set proposition and then find ourselves changing it as soon as we’ve actually talked with our partners and understood their needs. We’re evolving all the time but that’s part of what makes the work we do so exciting.
We’ve also had a lot of help and we couldn’t have done any of what we’ve accomplished without support and advice from a wide network of individuals, ranging from the amazing team at XFR STN to video archivists across New York City. None of these collaborations happen in a vacuum, so make friendships, make partnerships, and don’t be nervous about asking for advice. There are a lot of people out there who care about video preservation and would love to see more initiatives out there working to make it happen.
The following is a guest post by Nicholas Taylor, Web Archiving Service Manager for Stanford University Libraries.
The Internet Archive Wayback Machine has been mentioned in several news articles within the last week (see here, here and here) for having archived a since-deleted blog post from a Ukrainian separatist leader touting his shooting down a military transport plane which may have actually been Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. At this early stage in the crash investigation, the significance of the ephemeral post is still unclear, but it could prove to be a pivotal piece of evidence.
An important dimension of the smaller web archiving story is that the blog post didn’t make it into the Wayback Machine by the serendipity of Internet Archive’s web-wide crawlers; an unknown but apparently well-informed individual identified it as important and explicitly designated it for archiving.
Internet Archive crawls the Web every few months, tends to seed those crawls from online directories or compiled lists of top websites that favor popular content, archives more broadly across websites than it does deeply on any given website, and embargoes archived content from public access for at least six months. These parameters make the Internet Archive Wayback Machine an incredible resource for the broadest possible swath of web history in one place, but they don’t dispose it toward ensuring the archiving and immediate re-presentation of a blog post with a three-hour lifespan on a blog that was largely unknown until recently.
Recognizing the value of selective web archiving for such cases, many memory organizations engage in more targeted collecting. Internet Archive itself facilitates this approach through its subscription Archive-It service, which makes web archiving approachable for curators and many organizations. A side benefit is that content archived through Archive-It propagates with minimal delay to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine’s more comprehensive index. Internet Archive also provides a function to save a specified resource into the Wayback Machine, where it immediately becomes available.
Considering the six-month access embargo, it’s safe to say that the provenance of everything that has so far been archived and re-presented in the Wayback Machine relating to the five-month-old Ukraine conflict is either the Archive-It collaborative Ukraine Conflict collection or the Wayback Machine Save Page Now function. In other words, all of the content preserved and made accessible to date, including the key blog post, reflects deliberate curatorial decisions on the part of individuals and institutions.
A curator at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives with a specific concern for the VKontakte Strelkov blog actually added it to the Archive-It collection with a twice-daily capture frequency at the beginning of July. Though the key blog post was ultimately recorded through the Save Page Now feature, what’s clear is that subject area experts play a vital role in focusing web archiving efforts and, in this case, facilitated the preservation of a vital document that would not otherwise have been archived.
At the same time, selective web archiving is limited in scope and can never fully anticipate what resources the future will have wanted us to save, underscoring the value of large-scale archiving across the Web. It’s a tragic incident but an instructive example of how selective web archiving complements broader web archiving efforts.
The following is a guest post from Julia Fernandez, this year’s NDIIPP Junior Fellow. Julia has a background in American studies and working with folklife institutions and is working on a range of projects related to CurateCamp Digital Culture. This is part of an ongoing series of interviews Julia is conducting to better understand the kinds of born-digital primary sources folklorists, and others interested in studying digital culture, are making use of for their scholarship.
Anyone who has ever liked a TV show’s page on Facebook or proudly sported a Quidditch t-shirt knows that being a fan goes beyond the screen or page. With the growth of countless blogs, tweets, Tumblr gifsets, Youtube videos, Instagram hashtags, fanart sites and fanfiction sites, accessing fan culture online has never been easier. Whether understood as a vernacular web or as the blossoming of a participatory culture individuals across the world are using the web to respond to and communicate their own stories.
As part of the NDSA Insights interview series, I’m delighted to interview Henry Jenkins, professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and self-proclaimed Aca-Fan. He is the author of one of the foundational works exploring fan cultures, “Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture,” as well as a range of other books, including “Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide,” and most recently the co-author (with Sam Ford and Joshua Green) “Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.” He blogs at Confessions of an Aca-Fan.
Julia: You state on your website that your time at MIT, “studying culture within one of the world’s leading technical institutions” gave you “some distinctive insights into the ways that culture and technology are reshaping before our very eyes.” How so? What are some of the changes you’ve observed, from a technical perspective and/or a cultural one?
Henry: MIT was one of the earliest hubs in the Internet. When I arrived there in 1989, Project Athena was in its prime; the MIT Media Lab was in its first half decade and I was part of a now legendary Narrative Intelligence Reading Group (PDF) which brought together some of the smartest of their graduate students and a range of people interested in new media from across Cambridge; many of the key thinkers of early network culture were regular speakers at MIT; and my students were hatching ideas that would become the basis for a range of Silicon Valley start ups. And it quickly became clear to me that I had a ringside seat for some of the biggest transfomations in the media landscape in the past century, all the more so because through my classes, the students were helping me to make connections between my work on fandom as a participatory culture and a wide array of emerging digital practices (from texting to game mods).
Studying games made sense at MIT because “Spacewar,” one of the first known uses of computers for gaming, had been created by the MIT Model Railroad club in the early 1960s. I found myself helping to program a series that the MIT Women’s Studies Program was running on gender and cyberspace, from which the materials for my book, “From Barbie to Mortal Kombat” emerged. Later, I would spend more than a decade as the housemaster of an MIT dorm, Senior House, which is known to be one of the most culturally creative at the Institute.
Through this, I was among the first outside of Harvard to get a Facebook account; I watched students experimenting with podcasting, video-sharing and file-sharing. Having MIT after my name opened doors at all of the major digital companies and so I was able to go behind the scenes as some of these new technologies were developing, and also see how they were being used by my students in their everyday lives.
So, through the years, my job was to place these developments in their historical and cultural contexts — often literally as Media Lab students would come to me for advice on their dissertation projects, but also more broadly as I wrote about these developments through Technology Review, the publication for MIT’s alumni network. It was there where many of the ideas that would form “Convergence Culture” were first shared with my readers. And the students that came through the Comparative Media Studies graduate program have been at ground zero for some of the key developments in the creative industries in recent years — from the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign to the community building practices of Etsy, from key developments in the games and advertising industry to cutting edge experiments in transmedia storytelling. The irony is that I had been really reluctant about accepting the MIT job because I suffer from fairly serious math phobia.
Today, I enjoy another extraordinary vantage point as a faculty member at USC, who is embedded in both the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and the Cinema School, and thus positioned to watch how Hollywood and American journalism are responding to the changes that networked communication have forced upon them. I am able to work with future filmmakers who are trying to grasp a shift from a focus on individual stories to an emphasis on world-building, journalists who are trying to imagine new relationships with their publics, and activists who are seeking to make change by any media necessary.
Julia: Much of your work has focused on reframing the media audience as active and creative participants in creating media, rather than passive consumers. You’ve critiqued use of the terms “viral” and “memes” to describe internet phenomena as “stripping aside the concept of human agency,” and that the biological language “confuses the actual power relations between producers, properties, brands and consumers.” Can you unpack some of your critiques for us? What is at stake?
Henry: At the core of “Spreadable Media” is a shift in how media travels across the culture. On the one hand, there is distribution as we have traditionally understood it in the era of mass media where content flows in patterns regulated by decisions made by major corporations who control what we see, when we see it and under what conditions. On the other hand, there is circulation, a hybrid system, still shaped top-down by corporate players, but also bottom-up by networks of everyday people, who are seeking to move media that is meaningful to them across their social networks, and will take media where they want it when they want it through means both legal and illegal. The shift towards a circulation-based model for media access is disrupting and transforming many of our media-related practices, and it is not explained well by a model which relies so heavily on metaphors of infection and assumptions of irrationality.
The idea of viral media is a way that the broadcasters hold onto the illusion of their power to set the media agenda at a time when that power is undergoing a crisis. They are the ones who make rational calculations, able to design a killer virus which infects the masses, so they construct making something go viral as either arcane knowledge that can be sold at a price from those in the know or as something that nobody understands, “It just went viral!” But, in fact, we are seeing people, collectively and individually, make conscious decisions about what media to pass to which networks for what purposes with what messages attached through which media channels and we are seeing activist groups, religious groups, indie media producers, educators and fans make savvy decisions about how to get their messages out through networked communications.
Julia: Cases like the Harry Potter Alliance suggest the range of ways that fan cultures on the web function as a significant cultural and political force. Given the significance of fandom, what kinds of records of their online communities do you think will be necessary in the future for us to understand their impact? Said differently, what kinds of records do you think cultural heritage organizations should be collecting to support the study of these communities now and into the future?
Henry: This is a really interesting question. My colleague, Abigail De Kosnik at UC-Berkeley, is finishing up a book right now which traces the history of the fan community’s efforts to archive their own creative output over this period, which has been especially precarious, since we’ve seen some of the major corporations which fans have used to spread their cultural output to each other go out of business and take their archives away without warning or change their user policies in ways that forced massive numbers of people to take down their content.
The reality is that it is probably already easier to write the history of the first decade of American cinema, because of the paper print collection at the Library of Congress, than it is to write the history of the first decade of the web. For that reason, there has been surprisingly little historical research into fandom — even though some of the communication practices that fans use today go back to the publication practices of the Amateur Press Association in the mid-19th century. And even recently, major collections of fan-produced materials have been shunted from library to archive with few in your realm recognizing the value of what these collections contain.
Put simply, many of the roots of today’s more participatory culture can be traced back to fan practices over the last century. Fans have been amongst the leading innovators in terms of the cultural uses of new media. But collecting this material is going to be difficult: fandom is a dispersed but networked community which does not work through traditional organizations; there are no gatekeepers (and few recordkeepers) in fandom, and the scale of fan production — hundreds of thousands if not millions of new works every year — dwarfs that of commercial publishing. And that’s to focus only on fan fiction and would does not even touch the new kinds of fan activism that we are documenting for my forthcoming book, By Any Media Necessary. So, there is an urgent need to archive some of these materials, but the mechanisms for gathering and appraising them are far from clear.
Julia: Your New Media Literacy project aims in part to “provide adults and youth with the opportunity to develop the skills, knowledge, ethical framework and self-confidence needed to be full participants in the cultural changes which are taking place in response to the influx of new media technologies, and to explore the transformations and possibilities afforded by these technologies to reshape education.” In one of your pilot programs, for instance, students studied “Moby-Dick” by updating the novel’s Wikipedia page. Can you tell us a little more about this project? What are some of your goals? Further, what opportunities do you think libraries have to enable this kind of learning?
Henry: We documented this project through our book, “Reading in a Participatory Culture,” and through a free online project, Flows of Reading. It was inspired by the work of Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, the head of the Mixed Magic Theater in Rhode Island, who was spending time going into prisons to get young people to read “Moby-Dick” by getting them to rewrite it, imagining who these characters would be and what issues they would be confronting if they were part of the cocaine trade in the 21st century as opposed to the whaling trade in the 19th century. This resonated with the work I have been doing on fan rewriting and fan remixing practices, as well as what we know about, for example, the ways hip hop artists sample and build on each other’s work.
So, we developed a curriculum which brought together Melville’s own writing and reading practices (as the master mash-up artist of his time) with Pitts-Wiley’s process in developing a stage play that was inspired by his work with the incarcerated youth and with a focus on the place of remix in contemporary culture. We wanted to give young people tools to think ethically and meaningfully about how culture is actually produced and to give teachers a language to connect the study of literature with contemporary cultural practices. Above all, we wanted to help students learn to engage with literary texts creatively as well as critically.
We think libraries can be valuable partners in such a venture, all the more so as regimes of standardized testing make it hard for teachers to bring complex 19th century novels like “Moby-Dick” into their classes or focus student attention on the process and cultural context of reading and writing as literacy practices. Doing so requires librarians to think of themselves not only as curators of physical collections but as mentors and coaches who help students confront the larger resources and practices opened up to them through networked communication. I’ve found librarians and library organizations to be vital partners in this work through the years.
Julia: Your latest book is on the topic of “spreadable media,” arguing that “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” In a nutshell, how would you define the term “spreadable media”?
Henry: I talked about this a little above, but let me elaborate. We are proposing spreadable media as an alternative to viral media in order to explain how media content travels across a culture in an age of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, etc. The term emphasizes the act of spreading and the choices which get made as people appraise media content and decide what is worth sharing with the people they know. It places these acts of circulation in a cultural context rather than a purely technological one. At the same time, the word is intended to contrast with older models of “stickiness,” which work on the assumption that value is created by locking down the flow of content and forcing everyone who wants your media to come to your carefully regulated site. This assumes a kind of scarcity where we know what we want and we are willing to deal with content monopolies in order to get it.
But, the reality is that we have more media available to us today that we can process: we count on trusted curators — primarily others in our social networks but also potentially those in your profession — to call media to our attention and the media needs to be able to move where the conversations are taking place or remain permanently hidden from view. That’s the spirit of “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead!” If we don’t know about the media, if we don’t know where to find it, if it’s locked down where we can’t easily get to it, it becomes irrelevant to the conversations in which we are participating. Spreading increases the value of content.
Julia: What does spreadable media mean to the conversations libraries, archives and museums could have with their patrons? How can archives be more inclusive of participatory culture?
Henry: Throughout the book, we use the term “appraisal” to refer to the choices everyday people make, collectively and personally, about what media to pass along to the people they know. Others are calling this process “curating.” But either way, the language takes us immediately to the practices which used to be the domain of “libraries, archives, and museums.” You were the people who decided what culture mattered, what media to save from the endless flow, what media to present to your patrons. But that responsibility is increasingly being shared with grassroots communities, who might “like” something or “vote something up or down” through their social media platforms, or simply decide to intensify the flow of the content through tweeting about it.
We are seeing certain videos reach incredible levels of circulation without ever passing through traditional gatekeepers. Consider “Kony 2012,” which reached more than 100 million viewers in its first week of circulation, totally swamping the highest grossing film at the box office that week (“Hunger Games”) and the highest viewed series on American television (“Modern Family”), without ever being broadcast in a traditional sense. Minimally, that means that archivists may be confronting new brokers of content, museums will be confronting new criteria for artistic merit, and libraries may be needing to work hand in hand with their patrons as they identify the long-term information needs of their communities. It doesn’t mean letting go of their professional judgement, but it does mean examining their prejudices about what forms of culture might matter and it does mean creating mechanisms, such as those around crowd-sourcing and perhaps even crowd-funding, which help to insure greater responsiveness to public interests.
Julia: You wrote in 2006 that there is a lack of fan involvement with works of high culture because “we are taught to think about high culture as untouchable,” which in turn has to do with “the contexts within which we are introduced to these texts and the stained glass attitudes which often surround them.” Further, you argue that this lack of a fan culture makes it difficult to engage with a work, either intellectually or emotionally. Can you expand on this a bit? Do you still believe this to be the case, or has this changed with time? Does the existence of transformative works like “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” on Youtube or vibrant Austen fan communities on Tumblr reveal a shift in attitudes? Finally, how can libraries, museums, and other institutions help foster a higher level of emotional and intellectual engagement?
Henry: Years ago, I wrote “Science Fiction Audiences” with the British scholar John Tulloch in which we explored the broad range of ways that fans read and engaged with “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who.” Tulloch then went on to interview audiences at the plays of Anton Checkov and discovered a much narrower range of interpretations and meanings — they repeated back what they had been taught to think about the Russian playwright rather than making more creative uses of their experience at the theater. This was probably the opposite of the way many culture brokers think about the high arts — as the place where we are encouraged to think and explore — and popular arts — as works that are dummied down for mass consumption. This is what I meant when I suggested that the ways we treat these works cut them off from popular engagement.
At the same time, I am inspired by recent experiments which merge the high and the low. I’ve already talked about Mixed Magic’s work with “Moby-Dick,” but “The Lizzie Bennett Diaries” is another spectacular example. It’s inspired to translate Jane Austen’s world through the mechanisms of social media: gossip and scandal plays such a central role in her works; she’s so attentive to what people say about each other and how information travels through various social communities. And the playful appropriation and remixing of “Pride and Prejudice” there has opened up Austen’s work to a whole new generation of readers who might otherwise have known it entirely through Sparknotes and plodding classroom instruction. There are certainly other examples of classical creators — from Gilbert and Sullivan to Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle — who inspire this kind of fannish devotion from their followers, but by and large, this is not the spirit with which these works get presented to the public by leading cultural institutions.
I would love to see libraries and museums encourage audiences to rewrite and remix these works, to imagine new ways of presenting them, which make them a living part of our culture again. Lawrence Levine’s “Highbrow/Lowbrow” contrasts the way people dealt with Shakespeare in the 19th century — as part of the popular culture of the era — with the ways we have assumed across the 20th century that an appreciation of the Bard is something which must be taught because it requires specific kinds of cultural knowledge and specific reading practices. Perhaps we need to reverse the tides of history in this way and bring back a popular engagement with such works.
Julia: You’re a self-described academic and fan, so I’d be interested in what you think are some particularly vibrant fan communities online that scholars should be paying more attention to.
Henry: The first thing I would say is that librarians, as individuals, have long been an active presence in the kinds of fan communities I study; many of them write and read fan fiction, for example, or go to fan conventions because they know these as spaces where people care passionately about texts, engage in active debates around their interpretation, and often have deep commitments to their preservation. So, many of your readers will not need me to point out the spaces where fandom are thriving right now; they will know that fans have been a central part of the growth of the Young Adult Novel as a literary category which attracts a large number of adult readers so they will be attentive to “Harry Potter,” “Hunger Games,” or the Nerdfighters (who are followers of the YA novels of John Green); they will know that fans are being drawn right now to programs like “Sleepy Hollow” which have helped to promote more diverse casting on American television; and they will know that now as always science fiction remains a central tool which incites the imagination and creative participation of its readers. The term, Aca-Fan, has been a rallying point for a generation of young academics who became engaged with their research topics in part through their involvement within fandom. Whatever you call them, there needs to be a similar movement to help librarians, archivists and curators come out of the closet, identify as fans, and deploy what they have learned within fandom more openly through their work.
Each year, the NDSA Innovation Working Group reviews nominations from members and non-members alike for the Innovation Awards. Most of those awards are focused on recognizing individuals, projects and organizations that are at the top of their game.
The Future Steward award is a little different. It’s focused on emerging leaders, and while the recipients of the future steward award have all made significant accomplishments and achievements, they have done so as students, learners and professionals in the early stages of their careers. Mat Kelly’s work on WARCreate, Martin Gengebach’s work on forensic workflows and now Emily Reynolds work in a range of organizations on digital preservation exemplify how some of the most vital work in digital preservation is being taken on and accomplished by some of the newest members of our workforce.
I’m thrilled to be able to talk with Emily, who picked up this year’s Future Steward award yesterday during the Digital Preservation 2014 meeting, about the range of her work and her thoughts on the future of the field. Emily was recognized for the quality of her work in a range of internships and student positions with the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research, the University of Michigan Libraries, the Library of Congress, Brooklyn Historical Society, StoryCorps, and, in particular, her recent work on the World Bank’s eArchives project.
Trevor: You have a bit of experience working with web archives at different institutions; scoping web archive projects with the Arab American National Museum, putting together use cases for the Library of Congress and in your coursework at the University of Michigan. Across these experiences, what are your reflections and thoughts on the state of web archiving for cultural heritage organizations?
Emily: It seems to me that many cultural heritage organizations are still uncertain as to where their web archive collections fit within the broader collections of their organization. Maureen McCormick Harlow, a fellow National Digital Stewardship Resident, often spoke about this dynamic; the collections that she created have been included in the National Library of Medicine’s general catalog. But for many organizations, web collections are still a novelty or a fringe part of the collections, and aren’t as discoverable. Because we’re not sure how the collections will be used, it’s difficult to provide access in a way that will make them useful.
I also think that there’s a bit of a skills gap, in terms of the challenges that web archiving can present, as compared to the in-house technical skills at many small organizations. Tools like Archive-It definitely lower the barrier to entry, but still require a certain amount of expertise for troubleshooting and understanding how the tool works. Even as the tools get stronger, the web becomes more and more complex and difficult to capture, so I can’t imagine that it will ever be a totally painless process.
Trevor: You have worked on some very different born-digital collections, processing born-digital materials for StoryCorps in New York and on a TRAC self-audit at ICPSR, one of the most significant holders of social science data sets. While very different kinds of materials, I imagine there are some similarities there too. Could you tell us a bit about what you did and what you learned working for each of these institutions? Further, I would be curious to hear what kinds of parallels or similarities you can draw from the work.
Emily: At StoryCorps, I did a lot of hands-on work with incoming interviews and data, so I saw first-hand the amount of effort that goes into making such complex collections discoverable. Their full interviews are not currently available online, but need to be accessible to internal staff. At ICPSR, I was more on the policy side of things, getting an overview of their preservation activities and documenting compliance with the TRAC standard.
StoryCorps and ICPSR are an interesting pair of organizations to compare because there are some striking similarities in the challenges they face in terms of access. The complexity and variety of research data held by ICPSR requires specialized tools and standards for curation, discovery and reuse. Similarly, oral history interviews can be difficult to discover and use without extensive metadata (including, ideally, full transcripts). They’re specialized types of content, and both organizations have to be innovative in figuring out how to preserve and provide access to their collections.
ICPSR has a strong infrastructure and systems for normalizing and documenting the data they ingest, but this work still requires a great deal of human input and quality control. Similarly, metadata for StoryCorps interviews is input manually by staff. I think both organizations have done great work towards finding solutions that work for their individual context, although the tools for providing access to research data seem to have developed faster than those for oral history. I’m hopeful that with tools like Pop Up Archive that will change.
Trevor: Most recently, you’ve played a leadership role in the development of the World Bank’s eArchives project. Could you tell us about this project a little and suggest some of the biggest things you learned from working on it?
Emily: The eArchives program is an effort to digitize the holdings of the World Bank Group Archives that are of greatest interest to researchers. We don’t view our digitization as a preservation action (only insofar as it reduces physical wear and tear on the records), and are primarily interested in providing broader access to the records for our international user base. We’ve scanned around 1500 folders of records at this point, prioritizing records that have been requested by researchers and cleared for public disclosure through the World Bank’s Access to Information Policy.
The project has also included a component of improving the accessibility of digitized records and archival finding aids. We are in the process of launching a public online finding aid portal, using the open-source Access to Memory (AtoM) platform, which will contain the archives’ ISAD(G) finding aids as well as links to the digitized materials. Previously, the finding aids were contained in static HTML pages that needed to be updated manually; soon, the AtoM database will sync regularly with our internal description database. This is going to be a huge upgrade for the archivists, in terms of reducing duplication of work and making their efforts more visible to the public.
It’s been really interesting to collaborate with the archives staff throughout the process of launching our AtoM instance. I’ve been thinking a lot about how compliance with archival standards can actually make records less accessible to the public, since the practices and language involved in finding aids can be esoteric and confusing to an outsider. It has been an interesting balance to ensure that the archivists are happy with the way the descriptions are presented, while also making the site as user-friendly as possible. Anne-Marie Viola, of Dumbarton Oaks, has written a couple of blog posts about the process of conducting usability testing on their AtoM instance, which have been a great resource for me.
Trevor: As I understand it, you are starting out a new position as a program specialist with the Institute for Museum and Library Services. I realize you haven’t started yet, but could you tell us a bit about what you are going to be doing? Along with that, I would be curious to hear you talk a bit about how you see your experience thus far fitting into working for the federal funding for libraries and museums?
Emily: As a Program Specialist, I’ll be working in IMLS’s Library Discretionary Programs division, which includes grant programs like the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program and the National Leadership Grants for Libraries. Among other things, I will be supporting the grant review process, communicating with grant applicants, and coordinating grant documentation. I’ll also have the opportunity to participate in some of the outreach that IMLS does with potential and existing grant applicants.
Even though I haven’t been in the profession for a very long time, I’ve had the opportunity to work in a lot of different areas, and as a result feel that I have a good understanding of the broad issues impacting all kinds of libraries today. I’m excited that I’ll be able to be involved in a variety of initiatives and areas, and to increase my involvement in the professional community. I’ve also been spoiled by the National Digital Stewardship Residency’s focus on professional development, and am excited to be moving on to a workplace where I can continue to attend conferences and stay up-to-date with the field.
Trevor: Staffing is a big concern for the future of access to digital information. The NDSA staffing survey gets into a lot of these issues. Based on your experience, what words of advice would you offer to others interested in getting into this field? How important do you think particular technical capabilities are? What made some of your internships better or more useful than others? What kinds of courses do you think were particularly useful? At this point you’ve graduated among a whole cohort of students in your program. What kinds of things do you think made the difference for those who had an easier time getting started in their careers?
Emily: I believe that it is not the exact technical skills that are so important, but the ability to feel comfortable learning new ones, and the ability to adapt what one knows to a particular situation. I wouldn’t expect every LIS graduate to be adept at programming, but they should have a basic level of technical literacy. I took classes in GIS, PHP and MySQL, Drupal and Python, and while I would not consider myself an expert in any of these topics, they gave me a solid understanding of the basics, and the ability to understand how these tools can be applied.
I think it’s also important for recent graduates to be flexible about what types of jobs they apply for, rather than only applying for positions with “Librarian” or “Archivist” in the title. The work we do is applicable in so many roles and types of organizations, and I know that recent grads who were more flexible about their search were generally able to find work more quickly. I enjoyed your recent blog post on the subject of digital archivists as strategists and leaders, rather than just people who work with floppy discs instead of manuscripts. Of course this is easy for me to say, as I move to my first job outside of archives – but I think I’ll still be able to support and participate in the field in a meaningful way.