Chip German

Chip German

Last updated on 4 November 2020

R. F. (Chip) German Jr is the Programe Director for the Academic Preservation Trust

World Digital Preservation Day is a good day to reflect about our work.  I’m thinking about big things I’ve heard, observed and learned in the six years that I’ve been with the Academic Preservation Trust.  Most are obvious at least in hindsight, but they didn’t start out as principles that served as touchstones for our decisions. They are now.  Thanks to the many folks responsible for them.

First is “Missions differ; don’t forget yours.”  Those of us who play some role in the long-term preservation of digital materials do so in pursuit of diverse missions.  In some cases, we do it to comply with governmental or business requirements.  At APTrust, our library-focused consortium aims to preserve a significant volume of digital materials related to human knowledge and cultural history. 

Early on in dealing with such materials, I learned a principle from the remarkable preservation librarians with whom I work each day that I’ll express in this paraphrase:  Preservation NOW without access THEN is pointless.  I get that.  If what we preserve today is unable to be used in the future, why did we bother?  Not only is that statement an important principle on its own, clarifying its components leads to other principles.

Here are some examples:

In using the terms “now” and “then,” what’s the interval of time between them? For me, the most helpful answer is that we are preserving materials for use at least 100 years from now.  I’m always pleasantly surprised at how repeating that phrase to myself changes my perspective about the operational decisions we need to make every day. We are working to provide future access to our preserved digital materials for curious humans who will exist long after we’re dead, and for specific purposes we can only partially imagine.  Everything we do today should be with that far-future audience in mind.

A corollary to this principle is this:  There is no reason to believe that any entity currently providing digital preservation services will be doing so 100 years from now, so all content we preserve must be ready for relocation.

And, what range of things are we preserving?  Within the body of materials defined by APTrust’s mission, this question has two practical choices for an answer, at least in my thinking: 

1 - Items that we judge to be important enough to preserve, or

2 - Everything we think could be important enough to preserve..

Choice 1 (selection) is value-laden.  We choose, and make special provisions to preserve, specific digital material based on our interpretation of its importance in present context, a practice in which librarians and similar professionals are deeply experienced.  Such selection and description processes inevitably exhibit the biases of the times, so those materials and the keys we create to help them be found will need frequent review and revision, multiplying the workload per item as the number of items explodes. Based on today’s experience in libraries and other memory institutions, the human effort to select and describe can’t scale to the volume of digital materials that need it, and by orders of magnitude.

Choice 2, up to a point, is not driven by assessed value.  In following this strategy absent specific selection by a human, what determines preservation may be the ease of preserving something, not its importance. If we think a digital object might be important and it is relatively easy to preserve, we will do it.  If we’re not certain it is important and it is hard to preserve, chances are that it won’t be.  Those criteria are likely to lead to a fast growing body of digital materials that no one has examined closely, along with a proportion of innovative but complex digital materials that are lost.  And, we hope that artificial intelligence will soon provide the means by which we will figure out exactly what we have preserved while giving us new ways to search for specific things within it. That leads me to another principle in our work:  It is a natural state for us to be simultaneously optimistic and skeptical.

Whether or not we make choice 1, choice 2 or choose some mixture of strategies, the total volume of digital materials that most people in the academic and cultural communities would agree needs to be preserved is far beyond the capacity of all relevant preservation services to do so today.  A core principle in our work is, or should be, this: Digital preservation services should only be in competition with each other when our capability to preserve exceeds the amount of content that we need to preserve, or, practically speaking, never.  The real issue is an overall lack of necessary investment in this work, which all of us are fighting.

Back to the principle that preservation now without access then is pointless:  We’ve already considered the fact that we can’t confidently shape our preservation strategies for access systems that will be in use 100 years from now.  We should focus on the inverse: Preservation must remove barriers to future access, not erect them.  Thinking about that can take folks to very different conclusions. 

For example, that principle has led APTrust not to focus on format migration as a service for the content that its members deposit.  Efforts such as the emulation environments under development by the Software Preservation Network and its research partners make more sense to us as promising strategies.  Others see it differently, noting that the emulations will have to be updated and preserved over time and wondering if that simply substitutes one maintenance problem for another.

Similarly, encrypting sensitive digital content now as a means of preventing unauthorized access has long struck archivists as erecting a barrier to future access. When someone finds a solution to that dilemma, please let me know so I can draft another principle to address my conflicting thoughts on this subject.

Enough thinking about the principles that help me frame my work.  Reviewing them reminds me that we as a diverse group of practitioners have a better grasp now on why the world needs digital preservation, what needs to be done, and how we can more effectively do it in 2020 than we did when I joined APTrust in 2014.  The circumstances of this year drive home to us the point that access to the human knowledge and human cultural experience of the past are critical advantages in facing global challenges. Our collective, collaborative work is the essence of “Digits: for Good.”  I’m going to take a moment to celebrate the real progress we’ve all made in our work, despite its daunting challenges.

OK, now back to work for those curious folks of a century from now!

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