Friday, May 29, 2009

Lost Archive. Lost in the Archive. Lost on us?

Over the last month or so I’ve seen a couple of stark reminders about why digitization and digital preservation matter so much. The first case reported was where “in Cologne, Germany, a six-story building that housed a significant portion of cultural archives collapsed yesterday within three minutes. Among the documents were drafts and papers of Nobel prize-winning writer Heinrich Böll, and Karl Marx’s 19th century manuscripts, according to The Times of London.” Many of the original materials contained in the archive are now feared permanently lost, although some microfilm copies may allow reconstruction of portions of the collection. Due to this building’s collapse and the priceless contents it contained, a gap has been created in the historical record of European culture and it can’t be replaced.

In the second instance, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, was an article by Eric Jager, entitled “Lost in the Archives” which details the issues involved in doing research that require source materials that are not yet digitized. The author seeks an elusive document, critical for the author’s research and it is referenced by an entry in the Bibliotheque Nationale. However, the actual item can’t be located, isn’t digitized and thus ends up being presumed lost. The result? A permanent gap in the author’s research that can’t be filled any other way.

Let’s not let the lesson be lost on us. Both stories underscore the need and importance for libraries and archives to digitize critically important items and to surround those digital archives with preservation policies and preservation systems that ensure permanent access. However, digitization and digital objects, while providing extended access and helping ensure the loss of the physical item doesn't eliminate access, it too comes with requirements.

When discussing digital preservation, the point is often made there is no such thing as benign neglect. Yet it has been pointed out before this is the very policy used by many institutions to manage physical archival collections. As is also pointed out in that same link, using this policy with digital objects means their ultimate destruction. As knowledge continues to grow in leaps and bounds and increasingly only in digital formats, it becomes all the more critical that we aggressively move forward in preserving it.

There is no question that in this time of economic crisis, moving aggressively into digital preservation means finding new money in an increasingly challenging environment. Which is why I wonder if this isn’t yet another front for us to begin working toward making digital preservation for libraries and archives a national initiative tied to national infrastructure funding? The idea has certainly been mentioned before, but now is clearly the time to make it happen.

The situations described above will not be the last time the stories of loss and destruction of critical information appear. As librarians and archivists, we must understand the price we’re paying if we allow this to happen, and it is likely a price that won’t be fully known until far in the future, possibly past our lifetimes. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. I believe we can make the case to find national funding. Librarians and archivists also now have the technology, guidelines and many documented best practices available to them to help ensure these types of stories appear much less frequently. This would mean that libraries and archives could remain true to their mission statements of preserving knowledge and culture, and their access, well into the future.