Thursday, September 30, 2010

BPE 2010, day one

The 2010 Best Practices Exchange (BPE) got off to a roaring start this morning, and I'm deeply glad to be here. I've had the privilege of attending all five BPE's, and I've always found the BPE incredibly valuable. Unlike most other conferences, which tend toward formal presentations concerning past successes, it's informal and focused on lessons learned -- and in some instances, abject failure is astoundingly instructive. Moreover, it's a lot smaller than many archival conferences and attendees are really encouraged to reach out to people they don't know. I've gotten to know a lot of interesting people via the BPE. Some of them are now my "go-to" people whenever a new, thorny electronic records problem comes my way, and I get calls and e-mails from other people I've met at the BPE.

For a couple of reasons, I'm not going to post detailed recaps of every BPE session. Instead, I'm simply going to highlight some of the most noteworthy and interesting things that come up during each day's discussion and do detailed recaps . I have a couple of reasons for adopting this approach. First, I just can't keep up. Drafting detailed recaps is grueling, and I really need to hit the ground running when I get back to Albany. Second, this year, all of the attendees have been asked to adhere to Chatham House rules. In essence, unless an attendee states that she or he is going on record or expressly gives permission to share his or her insights with attribution, what is said at the BPE stays at the BPE. I'm going to honor this request, so I won't post name personal or institutional names unless I've gotten clearance to do so.

So what came up during today's discussions and sessions? Some really interesting stuff:
  • Things really are tough all over. Financial hardship has been a constant topic of formal and informal discussion this year. State archives and state libraries throughout the nation are dealing with furloughs, layoffs, or early retirements, or some combination of these things. Essential investments -- digital preservation infrastructure, capital construction -- are being deferred or cancelled outright. Governmental dysfunction that was irritating but tolerable when times were better is making bad fiscal and policy situations even worse. Fewer and fewer archivists and librarians are responsible for doing more and more work, and people are frustrated, worn-out, and increasingly worried that they won't be able to meet their obligations to current and future citizens. None of us know how to solve these problems, but, at least in my experience, being able to offer and receive consolation and to learn how others are dealing with similar problems is both comforting and inspiring.
  • Relationships between state archives and state information technology departments continue to evolve in all sorts of interesting ways. One state archives is building a digital repository and plans to support the repository's operations via imposition of ingest fees that will go to the state archives and storage and preservation fees that will go to the state's information technology (IT) agency, which will maintain the repository's infrastructure. In some respects, this is a sound decision: the state archives currently charges agencies a fee for storing paper records, and state agencies are accustomed to paying service fees to the state's IT agency and as a result haven't raised many objections to the proposed digital repository fees. Moreover, the IT agency has started forcing agencies wishing to make large-scale IT investments to submit their plan to the state archives for review and, if necessary, revise their plans to address long-term preservation needs; this review process means more work for state archives staffers, but it helps to ensure that agencies manage their records appropriately. Another state archives has traditionally had difficulty getting its IT agency to take any interest in records management or digital preservation. However, now that the IT agency has realized that it can charge agencies for records-related services, it is claiming that it, not the state archives, should be responsible for providing such services.
All of today's sessions were first-rate, but I found Abby Smith Rumsey's presentation and discussion concerning the economics of digital preservation particularly compelling. Abby was a member of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access, which issued a superb report aimed at funders of digital preservation activities, and she framed digital preservation in economic terms:
  • Preservation is a derived demand. In other words, people don't care about preservation in and of itself. They care about the end result: they want access to old material, and if making these materials accessible requires preservation work, we archivists and librarians need to do preservation work. Access, not preservation, is the public good we must "sell" to funders and the public.
  • Preservation is a depreciable durable asset. In other words, if we don’t take care of cultural heritage materials, they will eventually cease to exist.
  • Digital preservation is not a rival in consumption. Unlike books, it costs almost nothing to maintain an extra copy of a digital file, and this can be a problem: for example, a lot of smaller colleges and universities assume that the big research libraries will preserve scholarly journals and that they themselves don't have any preservation obligations.
  • Digital preservation is characterized by temporal dependency and path dependency. Things keep changing, and the preservation choices we make today constrain the future choices that we and our successors must make.
  • Preservation is a clear case of market failure: the needs are so long-term that the market can’t spontaneously deal with it.
She also emphasized some things that we archivists and librarians know (or should know) deep down but sometimes forget when consumed with our day-to-day struggles:
  • Sustainable digital preservation is not about getting more money. Instead, it’s about how we as a society decide to allocate scant resources and persuading people that digital preservation warrants funding. Thinking that throwing money at a problem will solve that problem is a sign that we haven't adequately articulated the problem.
  • Economic incentives for preservation are usually mandate-driven, but in the absence of strong enforcement and punitive measures, mandates are easily ignored. Moreover, preservation experts may need to devote a lot of effort to helping people comply with mandates.
  • Archives and libraries are not digital preservation stakeholders. We are instead proxy organizations that tend to the interests of digital preservation stakeholders. For example, state archives and state libraries are ultimately responsible to the citizens they serve.
She also highlighted how archivists may, in at least a few respects, be particularly well-suited to addressing digital preservation challenges:
  • Archivists are accustomed to identifying materials that warrant preservation and destroying others after they have reached the end of their useful life. Resource limitations all but guarantee that cultural heritage professionals and scientists will have to determine which digital resources warrant preservation, but librarians and scientists aren't accustomed to making such determinations.
  • Preservation requires a series of decisions to be made over the lifecycle of digital assets. We need to act early, create contingency plans, and prepare for handoffs to future generations. Archivists, who are accustomed to thinking in terms of the records lifecycle, are accustomed to making such plans; however, most other information professionals aren’t.
The discussion that took place in the wake of Abby's presentation was equally interesting. One attendee speculated that the future of digital preservation may resemble recent developments in the history of manufacturing: older companies with aging workforces and extensive legacy infrastructure have suffered as a result of economic change, and new companies that lack such burdens have thrived. Could libraries and archives be rendered obsolete by new organizations that figure out how to preserve digital materials but lack the encumbrance of traditional library or archival practices and principles? Abby suggested that this probably won't happen: archives and libraries have a lengthy history of looking after the public interest and enjoy a high degree of public trust as a result.

The discussion then turned to possible alternative models of sustainable digital preservation, and the attendees advanced some really provocative models:
  • Community-supported agriculture. People who have an interest in ensuring the survival of a given grouping of digital assets could pay directly for preservation services and engage in dialogue with providers of such services.
  • Non-profit news gathering organizations. Journalists affected by the contraction of traditional media outlets have created non-profit organizations that secure funding from an array of sources and publish their findings on the Web.
  • The Grateful Dead Archive. Passionate people create collections during their spare time because they have private incentives to do so, share the materials they've amassed over the Web, and then discover that traditional heritage institutions are interested in acquiring their collections.
Fantastic session. And if you haven't had the chance to check out the Blue Ribbon Task Force's report, you really owe it to yourself to do so.

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