The Signal: Digital Preservation
The following is a guest post from David Gibson, a moving image technician in the Library of Congress. He was previously interviewed about the Library of Congress video games collection.
The discovery of that which has been lost or previously unattainable is one of the driving forces behind the archival profession and one of the passions the profession shares with the gaming community. Video game enthusiasts have long been fascinated by unreleased games and “lost levels,” gameplay levels which are partially developed but left out of the final release of the game. Discovery is, of course, a key component to gameplay. Players revel in the thrill of unlocking the secret door or uncovering Easter eggs hidden in the game by developers. In many ways, the fascination with obtaining access to unreleased games or levels brings this thrill of discovery into the real world. In a recent article written for The Atlantic, Heidi Kemps discusses the joy in obtaining online access to playable lost levels from the 1992 Sega Genesis game, Sonic The Hedgehog 2, reveling in the fact that access to these levels gave her a glimpse into how this beloved game was made.
Since 2006, the Moving Image section of the Library of Congress has served as the custodial unit for video games. In this capacity, we receive roughly 400 video games per year through the Copyright registration process, about 99% of which are physically published console games. In addition to the games themselves we sometimes receive ancillary materials, such as printed descriptions of the game, DVDs or VHS cassettes featuring excerpts of gameplay, or the occasional printed source code excerpt. These materials are useful, primarily for their contextual value, in helping to tell the story of video game development in this country and are retained along with the games in the collection.
Several months ago, while performing an inventory of recently acquired video games, I happened upon a DVD-R labeled Duke Nukem: Critical Mass (PSP). My first assumption was that the disc, like so many others we have received, was a DVD-R of gameplay. However, a line of text on the Copyright database record for the item intrigued me. It reads: Authorship: Entire video game; computer code; artwork; and music. I placed the disc into my computer’s DVD drive to discover that the DVD-R did not contain video, but instead a file directory, including every asset used to make up the game in a wide variety of proprietary formats. Upon further research, I discovered that the Playstation Portable version of Duke Nukem: Critical Mass was never actually released commercially and was in fact a very different beast than the Nintendo DS version of the game which did see release. I realized then that in my computer was the source disc used to author the UMD for an unreleased PlayStation Portable game. I could feel the lump in my throat. I felt as though I had solved the wizard’s riddle and unlocked the secret door.
The first challenge involved finding a way to access the proprietary Sony file formats contained within the disc, including, but not limited to, graphics files in .gim format and audio files in .AT3 format. I enlisted the aid of Packard Campus Software Developer Matt Derby and we were able to pull the files off of the disc and get a clearer sense of the file structure contained within. Through some research on various PSP homebrew sites we discovered Noesis, a program that would allow us to access the .gim and .gmo files which contain the 3D models and textures used to create the game’s characters and 3D environments. With this program we were able to view a complete 3D view of Duke Nukem himself, soaring through the air on his jetpack and a pre-composite 3D model of one of the game’s nemeses, the Pig Cops. Additionally, we employed Mediacoder and VLC in order to convert the Sony .AT3 (ATRAC3) audio files to MP3 in order to have access to the game’s many music cues.
Perhaps the most exciting discovery came when we used a hex editor to access the ASCII text held in the boot.bin folder in the disc’s system directory. Here we located the full text and credit information for the game along with a large chunk of un-obfuscated software code. However, much of what is contained in this folder was presented as compiled binaries. It is my hope that access to both the compiled binaries and ASCII code will allow us to explore future preservation options for video games. Such information becomes even more vital in the case of games such as this Duke Nukem title which were never released for public consumption. In many ways, this source disc can serve as an exemplary case as we work to define preferred format requirements for software received by the Library of Congress. Ultimately, I feel that access to the game assets and source code will prove to be invaluable both to researchers who are interested in game design and mechanics and to any preservation efforts the Library may undertake.
Providing access to the disc’s content to researchers will, unfortunately, remain a challenge. As mentioned above, it was difficult enough for Library of Congress staff to view the proprietary formats found on the disc before seeking help from the homebrew community. The legal and logistical hurdles related to providing access to licensed software will continue to present themselves as we move forward but I hope that increased focus on the tremendous research value of such digital assets will allow for these items to be more accessible in the future. For now the assets and code will be stored in our digital archive at the Packard Campus in Culpeper and the physical disc will be stored in temperature-controlled vaults.
The source disc for the PSP version of Duke Nukem: Critical Mass stands out in the video game collection of the Library of Congress as a true digital rarity. In Doug Reside’s recent article “File Not Found: Rarity in the Age of Digital Plenty” (pdf), he explores the notion of source code as manuscript and the concept of digital palimpsests that are created through the various layers that make up a Photoshop document or which are present in the various saved “layers” of a Microsoft Word document. The ability to view the pre-compiled assets for this unreleased game provides a similar opportunity to view the game as a work-in-progress, or at the very least to see the inner workings and multiple layers of a work of software beyond what is presented to us in the final, published version. In my mind, receiving the source disc for an unreleased game directly from the developer is analogous to receiving the original camera negative for an unreleased film, along with all of the separate production elements used to make the film. The disc is a valuable evidentiary artifact and I hope we will see more of its kind as we continue to define and develop our software preservation efforts.
The staff of the Moving Image section would love the opportunity to work with more source materials for games and I hope that game developers who are interested in preserving their legacy will be willing to submit these kinds of materials to us in the future. Though source discs are not currently a requirement for copyright, they are absolutely invaluable in contributing to our efforts towards stewardship and long term access to the documentation of these creative works.
Special thanks to Matt Derby for his assistance with this project and input for this post.
Back in late June I attended the National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC) meeting here in DC. NGAC is a Federal Advisory Committee sponsored by the Department of the Interior under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The committee is composed of (mostly) non-federal representatives from all sectors of the geospatial community and features very high profile participants. For example, ESRI founder Jack Dangermond, the 222nd richest American, has been a member since the committee was first chartered in 2008 (his term has since expired). Current committee members include the creator of Google Earth (Michael Jones) and the founder of OpenStreetMap (Steve Coast).
So what is the committee interested in, and how does it coincide with what the digital stewardship community is interested in? There are number of noteworthy points of intersection:
- In late March of this year the FGDC released the “National Geospatial Data Asset Management Plan – a Portfolio Management Implementation Plan for the OMB Circular A–16” (pdf). The plan “lays out a framework and processes for managing Federal NGDAs [National Geospatial Data Assets] as a single Federal Geospatial Portfolio in accordance with OMB policy and Administration direction. In addition, the Plan describes the actions to be taken to enable and fulfill the supporting management, reporting, and priority-setting requirements in order to maximize the investments in, and reliability and use of, Federal geospatial assets.”
- Driven by the release of the NGDA Management Plan, a baseline assessment of the “maturity” of various federal geospatial data assets is currently under way. This includes identifying dataset managers, identifying the sources of data (fed only/fed-state partnerships/consortium/etc.) and determining the maturity level of the datasets across a variety of criteria. With that in mind, several “maturity models” and reports were identified that might prove useful for future work in this area. For example, the state of Utah AGRC has developed a one-page GIS Data Maturity Assessment; the American Geophysical Union has a maturity model for assessing the completeness of climate data records (behind a paywall, unfortunately); the National States Geographic Information Council has a Geospatial Maturity Assessment; and the FGDC has “NGDA Dataset Maturity Annual Assessment Survey and Tool” that is being developed as part of their baseline assessment These maturity models have a lot in common with the NDSA Levels of Preservation work.
- Lots of discussion on a pair of reports on big data and geolocation privacy. The first, Big Data – Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values Report from the Executive Office of the President, acknowledges the benefits of data but also notes that “big data technologies also raise challenging questions about how best to protect privacy and other values in a world where data collection will be increasingly ubiquitous, multidimensional, and permanent.” The second, the PCast report on Big Data and Privacy (PCAST is the “President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology” and the report is officially called “Big Data: A Technology Perspective”) “begins by exploring the changing nature of privacy as computing technology has advanced and big data has come to the forefront. It proceeds by identifying the sources of these data, the utility of these data — including new data analytics enabled by data mining and data fusion — and the privacy challenges big data poses in a world where technologies for re-identification often outpace privacy-preserving de-identification capabilities, and where it is increasingly hard to identify privacy-sensitive information at the time of its collection.” The importance of both of these reports to future library and archive collection and access policies regarding data can not be understated.
- The Spatial Data Transfer Standard is being voted on for withdrawal as an FGDC-endorsed standard. FGDC maintenance authority agencies were asked to review the relevance of the SDTS, and they responded that the SDTS is no longer used by their agencies. There’s a Federal Register link to the proposal. The Geography Markup Language (GML), which the FGDC has endorsed, now satisfies the encoding requirements that SDTS once provided. NARA revised their transfer guidance for geospatial information in April 2014 to make SDTS files “acceptable for imminent transfer formats” but it’s clear that they’ve already moved away from them. As a side note, GeoRSS is coming up for a vote soon to become an FGDC-endorsed standard.
- The Office of Management and Budget is reevaluating the geospatial professional classification. The geospatial community has an issue similar to that being faced by the library and archives community, in that the jobs are increasingly information technology jobs but are not necessarily classified as such. This coincides with efforts to reevaluate the federal government library position description.
- The Federal Geographic Data Committee is working with federal partners to make previously-classified datasets available to the public. These datasets have been prepared as part of the “HSIP Gold” program. HSIP Gold is a compilation of over 450 geospatial datasets of U.S. domestic infrastructure features that have been assembled from a variety of Federal agencies and commercial sources. The work of assembling HSIP Gold has been tasked to the Homeland Infrastructure Foundation-Level Data (HIFLD) Working Group (say it as “high field”). Not all of the data in HSIP Gold is classified, so they are working to make some of the unclassified portions available to the public.
The next meeting of the NGAC is scheduled for September 23 and 24 in Shepherdstown, WV. The meetings are public.
This following is a guest post by Chris Adams from the Repository Development Center at the Library of Congress, the technical lead for the World Digital Library.
We live in an age of cheap bits: scanning objects en masse has never been easier, storage has never been cheaper and large-scale digitization has become routine for many organizations. This poses an interesting challenge: our capacity to generate scanned images has greatly outstripped our ability to generate the metadata needed to make those items discoverable. Most people use search engines to find the information they need but our terabytes of carefully produced and diligently preserved TIFF files are effectively invisible for text-based search.
The traditional approach to this problem has been to invest in cataloging and transcription but those services are expensive, particularly as flat budgets are devoted to the race to digitize faster than physical media degrades. This is obviously the right call from a preservation perspective but it still leaves us looking for less expensive alternatives.
OCR is the obvious solution for extracting machine-searchable text from an image but the quality rates usually aren’t high enough to offer the text as an alternative to the original item. Fortunately, we can hide OCR errors by using the text to search but displaying the original image to the human reader. This means our search hit rate will be lower than it would with perfect text but since the content in question is otherwise completely unsearchable anything better than no results will be a significant improvement.
Since November 2013, the World Digital Library has offered combined search results similar to what you can see in the screenshot below:
This system is entirely automated, uses only open-source software and existing server capacity, and provides an easy process to improve results for items as resources allow.How it Works: From Scan to Web Page Generating OCR Text
As we receive new items, any item which matches our criteria (currently books, journals and newspapers created after 1800) will automatically be placed in a task queue for processing. Each of our existing servers has a worker process which uses idle capacity to perform OCR and other background tasks. We use the Tesseract OCR engine with the generic training data for each of our supported languages to generate an HTML document using hOCR markup.
The hOCR document has HTML markup identifying each detected word and paragraph and its pixel coordinates within the image. We archive this file for future usage but our system also generates two alternative formats for the rest of our system to use:
- A plain text version for the search engine, which does not understand HTML markup
- A JSON file with word coordinates which will be used by a browser to display or highlight parts of an image on our search results page and item viewer
Search has become a commodity service with a number of stable, feature-packed open-source offerings such as such Apache Solr, ElasticSearch or Xapian. Conceptually, these work with documents — i.e. complete records — which are used to build an inverted index — essentially a list of words and the documents which contain them. When you search for “whaling” the search engine performs stemming to reduce your term to a base form (e.g. “whale”) so it will match closely-related words, finds the term in the index, and retrieves the list of matching documents. The results are typically sorted by calculating a score for each document based on how frequently the terms are used in that document relative to the entire corpus (see the Lucene scoring guide for the exact details about how term frequency-inverse document frequency (TD-IDF) works).
This approach makes traditional metadata-driven search easy: each item has a single document containing all of the available metadata and each search result links to an item-level display. Unfortunately, we need to handle both very large items and page-level results so we can send users directly to the page containing the text they searched for rather than page 1 of a large book. Storing each page as a separate document provides the necessary granularity and avoids document size limits but it breaks the ability to calculate relevancy for the entire item: the score for each page would be calculated separately and it would be impossible to search for multiple words which fall on different pages.
The solution for this final problem is a technique which Solr calls Field Collapsing (the ElasticSearch team has recently completed a similar feature referred to as “aggregation”). This allows us to make a query and specify a field which will be used to group documents before determining relevancy. If we tell Solr to group our results by the item ID the search ranking will be calculated across all of the available pages and the results will contain both the item’s metadata record and any matching OCR pages.
At this point, we can perform a search and display a nice list of results with a single entry for each item and direct links to specific pages. Unfortunately, the raw OCR text is a simple unstructured stream of text and any OCR glitches will be displayed, as can be seen in this example where the first occurrence of “VILLAGE FOULA” was recognized incorrectly:
The next step is replacing that messy OCR text with a section of the original image. Our search results list includes all of the information we need except for the locations for each word on the page. We can use our list of word coordinates but this is complicated because the search engine’s language analysis and synonym handling mean that we cannot assume that the word on the page is the same word that was typed into the search box (e.g. a search for “runners” might return a page which mentions “running”).
Here’s what the entire process looks like:
1. The server returns an HTML results page containing all of the text returned by Solr with embedded microdata indicating the item, volume and page numbers for results and the highlighted OCR text:
Now we can find each word highlighted by Solr and locate it in the word coordinates list. Since Solr returned the original word and our word coordinates were generated from the same OCR text which was indexed in Solr, the highlighting code doesn’t need to handle word tenses, capitalization, etc.
3. Since we often find words in multiple places on the same page and we want to display a large, easily readable section of the page rather than just the word, our image slice will always be the full width of the page starting at the top-most result and extending down to include subsequent matches until there is either a sizable gap or the total height is greater than the first third of the page.
Once the image has been loaded, the original text is replaced with the image:
4. Finally, we add a partially transparent overlay over each highlighted word:
- The WDL management software records the OCR source and review status for each item. This makes it safe to automatically reprocess items when new versions of our software are released without the chance of inadvertently overwriting OCR text which was provided by a partner or which has been hand-corrected.
- You might be wondering why the highlighting work is performed on the client side rather than having the server return highlighted images. In addition to reducing server load this design improves performance because a given image segment can be reused for multiple results on the same page(rounding the coordinates improves the cache hit ratio significantly) and both the image and word coordinates can be cached independently by CDN edge servers rather than requiring a full round-trip back to the server each time.
- This benefit is most obvious when you open an item and start reading it: the same word coordinates used on the search results page can be reused by the viewer and since the page images don’t have to be customized with search highlighting, they’re likely to be cached on the CDN. If you change your search text while viewing the book highlighting for the current page will be immediately updated without having to wait for the server to respond.
This approach works relatively well but there are a number of areas for improvement:
- The process described above allows the OCR process to be improved considerably. This provides plenty of room to improve results with technical improvements such as more sophisticated image processing, OCR engine training, and workflow systems incorporating human review and correction.
- For collections such as WDL’s which include older items OCR accuracy is reduced by the condition of the materials and typographic conventions like the long s (ſ) or ligatures which are no longer in common usage. The Early Modern OCR Project is working on this problem and will hopefully provide a solution for many needs.
- Finally, there’s considerable appeal to crowd-sourcing corrections as demonstrated by the National Library of Australia’s wonderful Trove project and various experimental projects such as the UMD MITH ActiveOCR project.
- This research area is of benefit to any organization with large digitized collections, particularly projects with an eye towards generic reuse. Ed Summers and I have casually discussed the idea for a simple web application which would display images with the corresponding hOCR with full version control, allowing the review and correction process to be a generic workflow step for many different projects.
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 worked on a range of projects leading up to CurateCamp Digital Culture last week. 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.
What can a Yelp review or a single tweet reveal about society? How about hundreds of thousands of them? In this installment of the Insights Interviews series, I’m thrilled to talk with researcher Bryan Routledge about two of his projects that utilize a computational linguistic lens to analyze vast quantities of social media data. You can read the article on word choice used in online restaurant reviews here. The article about using Twitter as a predictive tool as compared with traditional public opinion polls here (PDF).
Julia: The research group Noah’s ARK at the Language Technologies Institute, School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University aims in part to “analyze the textual content of social media, including Twitter and blogs, as data that reveal political, linguistic, and economic phenomena in society.” Can you unpack this a bit for us? What kind of information can social media provide that other kinds of data can’t?
Bryan: Noah Smith, my colleague in the school of computer science at CMU, runs that lab. He is kind enough to let me hang out over there. The research we are working on looks at the connection between text and social science (e.g., economics, finance). The idea is that looking at text through the lens of a forecasting problem — the statistical model between text and some social-science measured variable — gives insight into both the language and social parts. Online and easily accessed text brings new data to old questions in economics. More interesting, at least to me, is that grounding the text/language with quantitative external measures (volatility, citations, etc.) gives insight into the text. What words in corporate 10K annual reports correlate with stock volatility and how that changes over time is cool.
Julia: Your work with social media—Yelp and Twitter—are notable for their large sample sizes and emphasis on quantitative methods, using over 900,000 Yelp reviews and 1 billion tweets. How might archivists of social media better serve social science research that depends on these sorts of data sets and methods?
Bryan: That is a good question. What makes it very hard for archivists is that collecting the right data without knowing the research questions is hard. The usual answer of “keep everything!” is impractical. Google’s n-gram project is a good illustration. They summarized a huge volume of books with word counts (two word pairs, …) by time. This is great for some research. But not for the more recent statistical models that use sentences and paragraph information.
Julia: Your background and most of your work is in the field of finance, which you have characterized as being fundamentally about predicting the behavior of people . How do you see financial research being influenced by social media and other born digital content? Could you tell us a bit about what it means to have a financial background doing this kind of research? What can the fields of finance and archives learn from each other?
Bryan: Finance (and economics) is about the collective behavior of large number of people in markets. To make research possible you need simple models of individuals. Getting the right mix of simplicity and realism is age-old and ongoing research in the area. More data helps. Macroeconomic data like GDP and stock returns is informative about the aggregate. Data on, say, individual portfolio choices in 401K plans lets you refine models. Social media data is this sort of disaggregated data. We can get a signal, very noisy, about what is behind an individual decision. Whether that is ultimately helpful for guiding financial or economic policy is an open, but exciting, question.
More generally, working across disciplines is interesting and fun. It is not always “additive.” The research we have done on menus has nothing to do with finance (other than my observation that in NY restaurants near Wall Street, the word “baby” is associated with expensive menu items). But if we can combine, for example, decision theory finance with generative text models, we get some cool insights into purposefully drafted documents.
Julia: The data your team collected from Yelp was gathered from the site. Your data from Twitter was collected using Twitter’s Streaming API and “Gardenhose,” which deliver a random sampling of tweets in real-time. I’d be curious to hear what role you think content holders like Yelp or Twitter can or could play in providing access to this kind of raw data.
Bryan: As a researcher with only the interests of science at heart, it would be best if they just gave me access to all their data! Given that much of the data is valuable to the companies (and privacy, of course), I understand that is not possible. But it is interesting that academic research, and data-sharing more generally, is in a company’s self-interest. Twitter has encouraged a whole ecosystem that has helped them grow. Many companies have an API for that purpose that happens to work nicely for academic research. In general, open access is most preferred in academic settings so that all researchers have access to the same data. Interesting papers using proprietary access to Facebook are less helpful than Twitter.
Julia: Could you tell us a bit about how you processed and organized the data for analysis and how you are working to manage it for the future? Given that reproducibility is such an important concept for science, what ways are you approaching ensuring that your data will be available in the future?
Bryan: This is not my strong suit. But at a high-level, the steps are (roughly) “get,” “clean,” “store,” “extract,” “experiment.” The “get” varies with the data source (an API). The “clean” step is just a matter of being careful with special characters and making sure data are lining up into fields right. If the API is sensible, the “clean” is easy. We usually store things in a JSON format that is flexible. This is usually a good format to share data. The “extract” and “experiment” steps depend on what you are interested in. Word counts? Phrase counts? Other? The key is not to jump from “get” to “extract” — storing the data in as raw form as possible makes thing flexible.
Julia: What role, or potential role, do you see for the future of libraries, archives and museums in working with the kinds of data you collect? That is, while your data is valuable for other researchers now, things like 700,000 Yelp reviews of restaurants will be invaluable to all kinds of folks studying culture, economics and society 10, 20, 50 and 100 years from now. So, what kind of role do you think cultural heritage institutions could play in the long-term stewardship of this cultural data? Further, what kinds of relationships do you think might be able to be arranged between researchers and libraries, archives, and museums? For instance, would it make sense for a library to collect, preserve, and provide access to something like the Yelp review data you worked with? Or do you think they should be collecting in other ways?
Bryan: This is also a great question and also one for which I do not have a great answer. I do not know a lot about the research in “digital humanities,” but that would be a good place to look. People doing digital text-based research on a long-horizon panel of data should provide some insight into what sorts of questions people ask. Similarly, economic data might provide some hints. Finance, for example, has a strong empirical component that comes from having easy-to-access stock data (the CRSP). The hard part for libraries is figuring out which parts to keep. Sampling Twitter, for example, gets a nice time-series of data but loses the ability to track a group of users or Twitter conversations.
Julia: Talking about the paper you co-authored that analyzed Yelp reviews, Dan Jurafsky said “when you write a review on the web you’re providing a window into your own psyche – and the vast amount of text on the web means that researchers have millions of pieces of data about people’s mindsets.” What do you think are some of the possibilities and limitations for analyzing social media content?
Bryan: There are many limitations, of course. Twitter and Yelp are not just providing a window into things, they are changing the way the world works. “Big data” is not just about larger sample sizes of draws from a fixed distribution. Things are non-stationary. (In an early paper using Twitter data, we could see the “Oprah” effect as the number of users jumped in the day following her show about Twitter). Similarly, the data we see in social media is not a representative sample of society cross section. But both of these are the sort of things good modeling – statistical, economic – should, and do, aim to capture. The possibilities of all this new data are exciting. Language is a rich source of data with challenging models needed to turn it into useful information. More generally, social media is an integral part of many economic and social transactions. Capturing that in a tractable model makes for an interesting research agenda.
“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.