You, Life, and Digital Preservation

March 14th, 2006 · 2 Comments
by Booksquare

It is the year 2006, and librarians, historians, and archivists have a serious question: are they too late when it comes to archiving blogs. Oh sure, you might ask if blogs are worthy of such weighty thought, but unlike a diary written in the 1800s, today’s world moves too fast to wait to discover what, if anything, is the long-term impact of today’s blog and/or web environment.

At the SXSWi panel “Digital Preservation and Blogs”, not only was the question of time addressed, but also the question of what should be archived for the future. As much as preserving the words, the text, is important, so is the preservation of a website’s look-and-feel. Unlike print publications with hardcopy versions of each issue, each change in layout, color, or graphics. When you change a blog’s design, the changes are applied equally to all posts in the database. There is no way to display a post as it originally looked on the site — unless you never change your look. When archiving digital media, what makes up the record?

Carrie Bickner-Zeldman (The Rogue Librarian) and Colin Wells are part of a team working on this very issue. Using existing software, their team has identified five (well, 5 1/2, but that’s another story) blogs to fully archive. Each of the blogs is representative of its field, from The Huffington Post (which, it could be argued, doesn’t fit the hard-core semanticist’s definition of “blog”) to BluishOrange (which does). Seems easy enough, doesn’t it?

Sure — if you ignore stuff like copyright, process, technology, more process, and the big question of the observer affecting the results of the experiment.

Much of today’s virtual media is transitory in a way we aren’t fully ready to experience — there is no paper trail for historians to follow, no easy way to determine provenance, no rules for determining chains of custody. Heck, if the media has a digital trail, it can be lost almost too easily. Many early websites have disappeared. The “Wayback Machine” at the Internet Archive serves as a sort of web gallery, but even that has gaps.

Our histories are now comprised of bit and bytes: email, blogs, other websites, digital photos, Excel files all document our history. Unlike paper, a universal format (everyone can use paper), nothing is standardized. Will we lose large chunks of our stories due to proprietary formats? Bickner-Zeldman argued that this is a strong case for standards. While she was speaking more specifically to web standards, her point can easily be broadened. In order for future generations, whether in 20 years or 500 years, to access our culture, they need a map to decode our technology. Standards-based systems will leave a trail of documentation — this can be used to emulate our (probably) primitive versions of HTML.

This isn’t only a web problem, of course. Users of Word, Excel, and Access have felt the pain that comes from lack of backward-compatibility. There always comes a point when old files cannot be opened in current versions of these programs. We lose pieces of our lives because we can’t open the files. Add in corrupted disks, program crashes, and lost passwords, and suddenly the archives of our lives seem to be almost impossible to manage. We need to become database admins as well as live bodies.

This is a plea to backup your lives in a safe and secure manner. To keep good records (think back to the time when you picked up a photograph of your ancestors, only to wonder who you were seeing — no names on the back to offer context). And whenever possible, use standards-based technologies…surely you want historians three generations from now to pore over your every thought.

[tags]SXSWi, SXSW, Carrie Bicker-Zeldman, Rogue Librarian, Digital Preservation[/tags]

File Under: Square Pegs

2 responses so far ↓

  • Steve Clacskon // Mar 14, 2006 at 4:22 pm

    Great post thx!

  • Booksquare // Mar 14, 2006 at 6:01 pm

    It’s a bit disturbing realize how much of me is already gone. Of course, if it were weight, I’d be all “Yes!”. It’s more the small stuff that I miss. The husband is far too diligent to let me lose the big items. Or maybe he’s far too diligent to put me in charge of the big items. I’ll ask.