Preserving Our Cultural Heritage Conference at Indiana University, presentations, part 1

Last weekend, I attended the Preserving Our Cultural Heritage conference for grad students/new archivists conference at Indiana University in Bloomington. There were many interesting papers and presentations, and I would like to touch briefly on each of the ones I attended. I’m not necessarily going to recreate or even attempt to “summarize” the presentations, but I’ll tell a little bit about what my “take away” from the presentation was.

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Stacie Williams (Simmons College) presented “The Rainbow Connection and the Archives: Using Digital Preservation to Link the Jim Henson Company’s Past, Present, and Future.” This presentation centered on digitization activities at the Jim Henson Company Archives (located in Queens, NY), which is a private corporate archives. Documents being digitized included early sketches of muppets, most of which are signed and dated with the artist’s name – which can help with questions of intellectual property. These images can also be used by conservators who need references to the construction of existing muppets, so they can clean and maintain them. 

I learned some interesting things about Jim Henson – such as that he began making muppets for advertising purposes. I also had not given much thought to how muppets are constructed or what they are made of – but there are materials in this archive that cover all of that, as well as the evolution of different processes of doing so.

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Jason Groth (IU-Bloomington) read his paper “Migration Thinking: Dietrich Schuller, Albrecht Hafner, and the Inception of the Digital Mass Storage System for Sound Archives.” His topic centered around an important debate in audio preservation: whether preserving the object (e.g., the tape) or the actual content (i.e., the sounds) is paramount.

This is a big problem for archivists in general these days – with audio, video, and electronic files of all types. If you focus your effort more on the object itself, then you are stuck being technologically dependent on old equipment. (For instance, if the sound only exists on an eight-track tape, you need an eight-track player. Or, if you have a file on a floppy disk, you need a floppy disk drive and the software and a computer capable of running the software.) If you migrate to a newer technology, you save the content (hopefully, assuming you did it right and didn’t lose any quality in the process!), but you are still setting yourself up to be technologically dependent, just on a newer technology. You’ll be doing the same thing again in a few years, probably. It’s an endless cycle…

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Dorothy Chalk (IU-Bloomington) gave a presentation “Preserving Growth, Preserving Decay: Born-Digital Materials That Will Not Sit Still.” I didn’t know what to think with a title like that! But after she got going, it made sense. She focused mainly on a born-digital poem called “Agrippa” by William Gibson. The poem was distributed on floppy disks that were meant to self-destruct (overwrite themselves) upon being viewed once. The discs were also distributed in a book whose ink was supposed to fade over time also – even more so than regular books and on purpose! It was a very odd and interesting idea. Despite Gibson’s attempts to create something that would disappear almost immediately, bootleg copies of the poem made it to the web, and it has grown from there.

In Chalk’s opinion, libraries ought to be documenting this web following as well, which I suppose is a good idea in theory, but I think it might set an unrealistic precedent for libraries collecting and documenting web communities related to other works. (Or perhaps she’s right, and this is a perfectly reasonable expectation but only seems unattainable now because we don’t have any processes set up for actually doing it!)

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Eric Holt (University Archivist at Indiana State U.) gave a presentation and demonstration entitled: “Open-Source Electronic Recordkeeping: A Review of Alfresco Enterprise Content Management System.” Alfresco is a piece of open-source electronic recordkeeping software that is certified by the Department of Defense 5015.2 recordkeeping standard but is not in a proprietary format and is less expensive to implement than some other systems. This system had some neat features, and it looked pretty easy to use based on the demonstration.

One thing Mr. Holt said during his presentation that really struck home with me was: He has an easier time providing people with information from the 1960s and 1970s than with more recent information (say, in the last 10 years). This is so true. Now that so many things are in electronic format, they are in such danger of disappearing. It’s too easy for people to click “delete” on items that are old or seem unimportant (or to not store things on the server like you’re supposed to and then lose data in an individual hard drive crash).

Is the answer to insist that people keep printing everything out so that their files can eventually make it into the archives?  Well, ye—-I mean, no, of course not.* We’re going to have to keep working hard to find better ways of preserving (really preserving – so that they are still accessible in 10 years) electronic records. Why? Well, because (a) that’s how many things come to the archives these days (if they make it at all – see aforementioned hard drive crash scenario!), and (b) some records only really exist properly in a digital environment (e.g., interactive web sites – or heck, any web site with links for that matter; Flash animations; even moderately fancy PowerPoints).

* My initial near-slip of saying “yes” to the printing everything out bit is due to my own personal perservation activities. I still print everything out. I just feel safer that way. Anything I want to have a copy of in 10 (or 50) years, I print it out. This also applies to stuff that falls into the “omigod I would be really screwed if I lost that” category – like tax-related documents!

Okay… I think that’s enough for today. I’ll pick up with the other 5 presentations later.

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