Every new communication tool changes the way information is created, delivered, and consumed (Bolter, Postman). It also alters the means and methods by which our cultural identities are preserved. Advances in digital technologies have created a blurring between author and reader as anyone, anywhere, with access to computer and internet is able to create, edit, or reconstruct information that can then be shared with everyone everywhere at any time (Kress). As information moves further into the realm of “digitally converging environments” (Kuny) it creates significant challenges with respect to the preservation and retrieval of knowledge. As we advance further into the burgeoning digital era with its growing use of complex multimodal and hyper-mediated literacies we must consciously ask ourselves: Who are the keepers of our cultural knowledge? And more importantly, what steps are being taken to ensure that today’s information is preserved and retrievable for future generations?
Keepers of cultural knowledge
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949.
There is growing concern for cultural preservation in the digital age. Some argue that we are amidst a “digital dark age” and “fear that if we cannot learn to explicitly save our digital data, we will lose that data, and, with it, the record that future generations might use to remember and understand us” (Bollacker, 106).Kuny worries that our historical record is in jeopardy in an era “where change and speed is valued more highly than conservation and longevity” (Kuny, 1).
As we venture forth into the overwhelming deluge of digital information we find ourselves reclaiming a term coined 50 years ago by Alvin Toffler – “information overload”. But the truth is every period in history has struggled to organize information to ensure future access. Grafton notes that “scholars have had to deal with too much information for millennia, and in periods when information resources were multiplying especially fast they devised ingenious ways to control the floods” (Grafton, p. 4).
In our current digital era librarians, archivists, and a growing number of for-profit businesses find themselves at the center of the preservation effort, but preservation in the digital age is not what it once was. Terry Kuny, in his article on digital preservation practices, notes these differences, “unlike conservation practices where an item can often be treated, stored, and essentially forgotten…digital objects will require frequent refreshing and recopying to new storage media (1997, 5). Citing a conclusion drawn by the Technology Assessment Advisory Committee to the Commission on Preservation and Access, he also notes, “preservation means copying” – not unlike what was done centuries ago but with many more challenges than ever before; for preservationists in the 21st century two words define their efforts: copying and collaboration.
In his article, “Escaping the digital dark age” Stewart Brand quotes Danny Hillis, “back when information was hard to copy people valued the copies and took care of them. Now, copies are so common as to be considered worthless, and very little attention is given to preserving them over the long term” (p. 46).
There are major efforts worldwide that refute this claim outright. The LOCKSS program, developed at Stanford, is one such preservation initiative that takes copying very seriously. LOCKSS, which stands for Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe, allows libraries that are part of a network to collect, share, disseminate and preserve e-published scientific and scholarly journals. What that means is each subscribing library or node, possesses a copy of the original digital document, much like the traditional library model where books were copied and given to libraries worldwide to ensure survival, but now information is in digital format. In the event that information is lost at one institution, other copies exist to ensure the information is never lost completely. This form of copying is referred to in the digital preservation world as replication, and is regarded as one of the critical tools to ensuring longevity of data over time (Rudersdorf).
A second important strategy of digital preservation being undertaken by LOCKSS, and others, is format migration. One of the biggest risks with digital data is not physical damage but rather hardware and software obsolescence (Bollacker, 2010). In other words, the information could be stored, intact on a storage device, but inaccessible because the originating hardware and/or software no longer exist. When one considers there are over 51,000 file type extensions it is easy to see how challenging this part of digital preservation is (FILExt). As was noted by a librarian on the ALCTS forum, “print media can survive for centuries with some physical preservation techniques, but digital media requires continuous processes to keep it compliant with current technology. It is not only necessary to organize digital content but also important to preserve it to ensure accessibility, sustainability, and retrieval across time” (Madalli, 2012). LOCKSS is able to store information in multiple formats: blogs, pictures, videos, webpages, or text and currently there are over 510 publishers and hundreds of institutions worldwide using the LOCKSS system (LOCKSS website).
In addition to copying efforts, there are other mass collaborative initiatives underway by libraries, research institutions, governments, and even for-profit organizations focused on the digitization of data. Currently, there are over 5600 repositories and 175,000 collections worldwide (Archive Finder). Three major projects worthy of note are: the World Digital Library, a joint effort by UNESCO and the Library of Congress, (as well as major financial contributors like Google, who provided 3 million dollars towards the effort). Another is the Universal Digital Library, initiated by Carnegie Mellon University. It is best known for its Million Book Project. Most notable of late is the efforts undertaken by Brewster Kahle’s team at Internet Archive. In October of 2012 the Internet Archive announced it had reached a milestone – 10 Petabytes of data (Maruccia). Their most noted effort is the Wayback Machine, essentially a time machine which allows visitors to view billions of web pages as they originally appeared in years past. All of these sites and many more projects around the world, including Brand’s own Rosetta Project, are effectively preserving our old and new cultural artifacts in a variety of formats including manuscripts, maps, rare books, musical scores, photographs, recordings, films, prints, architectural renderings, and other significant cultural materials.
So while Grafton chooses to regard preservation efforts as a failed “patchwork of interfaces and databases” and others feel lost amid the “fractal, digital rubble” I am more optimistic. Where they see fragmentation I see “multiple points of entry” (Kress), and where they see efforts that are aiding in the “loss of our cultural memory” (Brand, p.46) I see an enormous challenge being met with collaborative efforts, utilizing the same tools to preserve as we are using to create – tools that promote “multiplicity” and foster a “network culture” (Bolter, p.204) – diverse preservation communities that share a single, unifying goal: “the preservation of the world’s cultural, historical, and scientific works, and their free access to the world over the Internet” (Knowledge Conservancy).
If you would like to watch a fun cartoon series on digital preservation, yes that’s right – a cartoon series – you can check out Digi-Man and his arch enemy Blizzard in action.
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