Disrespect des fonds! ✊🏻 (or, Five things I learned from the NSLA digipres forum)

This week I went to the NSLA forum on day-to-day digital collecting and preservation, which began auspiciously enough:

The forum was an illuminating experience. I got a lot out of the event, including useful tips and programs I can incorporate into my workflow, and took so many notes I ran out of notebook! The below are my personal thoughts and observations of the event, which do not represent my employer (shout at me, not at them).

Reality isn’t keeping up with my user expectations and professional aspirations. When I first landed a library job (not the job I have now), I harboured grand dreams of preserving digital artefacts on a workplace’s asset management system, creating intricate descriptions of said digital artefacts, and excitedly sharing this knowledge with library users. I wound up being a shelver, but that’s not the point. The point is that I’m still dreaming. I keep thinking libraries are far more advanced, digitally speaking, than where we actually are. Librarians, as a profession, struggle to accept the idea that society has moved on without us. Digital preservation is seemingly no exception.

It was refreshing to hear at this forum that people were once scared of digital. Scared for their jobs. Scared of new, ~uncontrolled~ sources of information. Scared by the idea of reimagining and reinventing their place within libraries and their library’s place within society. Plenty of people still think like this, but you’ll never hear them admit it.

Please don’t get me wrong—there’s a lot of innovation in this sector, incredible work by passionate people with limited resources. I was very impressed by several presentations showcasing new, systemic ways of appraising, preserving and delivering digital content. I just… kinda thought we had them already. Are my expectations too high, or are our standards too low?

Linear archival theory is doing the digital world, and our attempts to capture it, a great disservice. Archival theory is built on the foundational ideas of ‘original order’, ‘provenance’ and ‘respect des fonds’ (i.e. an appreciation of a record’s context and intended purpose). Now, I’m not an archivist, nor do I play one on television. But it isn’t hard to see where, in a digital world, these core archival concepts might start to fall down a bit.

Archivists (and librarians, for the most part) are used to thinking in linear terms. Boxed collections are measured in linear metres of shelf space, our finding aids are (by and large) designed to be read from top to bottom, and a manuscript item can only be in one folder at once. Linear thinking. Paper-based thinking. Ordered thinking.

Our digital universe doesn’t work like this. Disks can be read in any order. Hypertext lets us explore information in many dimensions. We have become random-access thinkers and, by extension, random-access hoarders. Archival concepts must accommodate these ways of thinking—not ‘disordered’, just ordered in other ways. We were invited to ‘disrespect des fonds’, and I think it’s a smashing idea. It’s time to think differently. To accommodate non-linear ideas of what constitutes ‘original order’ and what digital and intellectual context may shape the fonds of the future. Spatial thinking. Byte-based thinking. Still ordered thinking.

Jefferson Bailey wrote a wonderfully in-depth essay on disrespecting the fonds in 2013, and I was reminded of it several times during this forum. It’s well worth a read.

Systems can’t do digital preservation. Only you can. My workplace don’t have the luxury of a digital preservation system (yet) and our current digipres practice is extremely haphazard and conducted on a needs basis by… me. Eek. There’s no denying a system that takes care of basic fixity and AIP arrangement would make my life a lot easier. But that system still wouldn’t do my job for me. Systems can’t select or appraise. They can’t negotiate rights agreements with donors or keep themselves well fed with storage space. They don’t have an appreciation of strategic priorities or nuances of analytical metadata (subject headings and the like). That’s what I’m for. It’s important not to lose sight of the role of humans in what is (for those with the means) an increasingly automated process.

It’s also crucial for small- and medium-sized memory organisations, who will never have the resources enjoyed by NSLA members, to know that they don’t need a fancy system to preserve their digital heritage. So much digital preservation discussion is conducted in arcane, highly technical language, intelligible only to a small subset of information professionals. In order for digipres to gain any traction, it needs to be accessible by less skilled librarians, and even by non-professional library workers. I want the volunteers at the Woop Woop Historical Society, whose tech knowledge may extend only to sending emails and posting pics of the grandchildren on Facebook, to have an understanding of the basics of digipres and to be able to implement them. Distilling our communal knowledge down to this level promises to be almost as difficult as the process of preservation itself. But it’s vital work, and it can’t wait.

I have a lot of skills, knowledge and enthusiasm to bring to digital preservation. I didn’t present at the forum on account of a) a bad case of imposter syndrome and b) my workplace not having a whole lot to report in this area. I am also still a MIS student (yes! still!), am in a role where digipres is not explicitly part of my job description, and was almost certainly the youngest person in the room. All of those things worked together to convince me that I didn’t have anything worth saying.

However, I realised during the talks and discussions that far from being “just” a student, or “just” a local history librarian, or “just” a young’un, I actually have a lot to bring to the table:

  • I understand the broad lifecycle of digital preservation, from file creation to donation to fixity to ingest to preservation to access, and spend a lot of time contemplating the philosophy of what we do
  • I can catalogue, which I wasn’t expecting to be all that relevant to digipres, but it sounds like digitally-literate cataloguers are a rare breed, and
  • I can also learn quickly and methodically, such as last week when I successfully (and independently!) imaged and preserved a CD with BitCurator, for use by some student researchers. I learned how to do this via someone else’s notes from last year’s NSLA Digital Skills event, which I didn’t attend on account of being a shelver elsewhere.

Moreover, I’d like to think I know how much I don’t know; that is, there’s so much more for us as digipres practitioners to discover as well as learn from each other, and we can’t stop to even think that we know it all. It helped me gain a little self-esteem and reassure me that Australian digipres isn’t already full of people who have all the answers.

We can’t wait for everyone to get comfortable. Optical media won’t stop rotting while we learn how to deal with it. Film stocks won’t stop drowning in their own vinegar while we figure out what to do. Obscure file formats won’t give up their secrets of their own volition while we’re trying to nut them out. These problems are only going to get worse, irrespective of how quickly we as practitioners get our heads around them. Many of us are still grappling with digital preservation. Grappling. We’re still at the beginner stage.

There’s a very fine line between making people feel bad about the speed and scale of their own digipres programs, or about their personal knowledge, and encouraging them to keep looking to the horizon and recognise how far we all have to go. I say all this not to shame people, as I too am a beginner, but to express a broader worry about our ability as library employees to recognise and respond to digital change. By the sounds of it, some of our institutions are better at this than others.

In any case, I’d better get to work. I still need that floppy drive I’ve been dreaming about.

Further reading

Jefferson Bailey, Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives (2013 article in Archive Journal)

Trevor Owens, Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (preprint: monograph coming 2018)