Millard Schisler

Millard Schisler

Last updated on 7 June 2021

Millard Schisler is Adjunct Faculty Museum Studies at Johns Hopkins University and currently working as a researcher at the Digital Culture Center, CEBRAP in São Paulo, Brazil

As news of the fire broke out on Sunday, September 2nd, 2018, the desperation hit everyone working with museums, archives and preservation of cultural heritage. Those that knew the museum, quickly realized the potential for loss of the majority of the collection due to the size of the fire as viewed through the live news sources. The following day, as the ashes were still smoldering I wondered how much of the collection had been digitized. It also dawned on me that whatever had been digitized or photographed could somehow survive as a testament to what was in the collection – not ideal, because many types of research and viewing cannot be done on a digitized version of an object – but losing the object and not having any information on it at all was even worse. Slowly news started coming out on certain collections of historical documents, photographs, and early wax cylinder recordings, among others, that had been digitized in earlier projects and even though the originals no longer remained, the digitization of these objects has provided us with something to live with, as long as these digital assets can be cared for the long-term.

As someone working with digital preservation, this episode really brought out so many feelings of the struggle that many institutions go through in Brazil, and throughout the world. Everyone talked about the lack of fire prevention systems installed in the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, and about the many reports on the faulty and precarious electrical systems that warned of the imminent risk of fires and that date back to 2004, with repeated warnings by others during the last decade.

We all know that the cycle of preserving digital information is more complex and many times more expensive than that of preserving objects in LAMs. How do we deal with this? How can we talk about the urgency of digital preservation while the basic survival of many of the cultural heritage institutions is at stake?  

Much like the warning of the fire, we have also been warning those in position of power and government, also for over a decade, about the urgent need of caring for digital assets due to their inherent fragility, and the need to invest in human and material resources for digital preservation, before we have to mourn about “digital fires” wiping out our data. The challenge is how to balance the urgencies lived by these institutions for the basic infrastructure to preserve their physical collection and build on the necessary infrastructure and human resources for preserving their digital assets.

The Digital Preservation Day is the perfect time for us to strengthen ourselves for this challenge!

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