Wednesday, April 21, 2010

ALA should speak for the profession with one inclusive voice when it comes to preservation

Most of us are painfully aware that librarians are facing a major problem today in dealing with digital preservation. Institutions around the world are beginning to grapple with the reality that digital content and digital records in any file format are more fragile than the equivalent items in the physical world. The research on this issue is ample and it’s conclusive including the just issued final report of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information, February 2010, which reports that “digital information is inherently fragile” and “…access to valuable digital materials tomorrow depends upon preservation actions taken today…”.

Most likely, many of us have personally heard the stories of important data or data sets lost or even experienced the problem ourselves of having some digital files in a format or on hardware we can no longer use. For instance, when I recently went to consolidate all my digital photos in a common repository, I found a large number of older photos were still resident on a PC that only had as output alternatives either an outdated dial-up connection (that is no longer in service) or a 3.5” diskette (a lot of good that is going to do me). Unfortunately, those photos remain captive to that machine for the moment.

This past week I received two ALA magazines both with information about preservation. One was the current issue of College and Research Libraries News which contains an excellent article on data curation by Sayeed Choudhury. In this article Sayeed talks about "data curation is a means to collect, organize, validate, and preserve data so that scientists can find new ways to address the grand research challenges that face society." It’s a powerful statement, and I was pleased to see this article talking about an important issue in digital preservation, especially in light of the next encounter I had with an ALA publication. I next opened up this month's American Libraries and I was momentarily surprised when I found a full-page ad (see above) proclaiming May 9-15th "Preservation Week".

I was hoping that ALA was really trying to take a leadership role in helping the profession deal with a critical problem underway today for all kinds of user communities, that of digital preservation.

I say “hoping” because upon inspection I quickly realized what ALA was primarily talking about with this ad was the preservation of analog items, not digital.

Digital preservation, the very issue so many of us are working so hard to raise awareness of, the opportunity that gives libraries a whole new chance to create demand for their services across their campus or community – that is not mentioned (or if it is, only after you do a lot of digging).

Now this is not to minimize the importance of analog preservation. But libraries have been doing this for many decades and have developed some considerable expertise in that area. However, the place we need to focus today is digital preservation. Doing so, be default, re-establishes libraries as experts in preservation of information. It offers us the opportunity to approach other departments across our campuses or communities and position our expertise as that of leaders in these matters. It allows us to say, “we offer services you need” and to show those that fund our libraries that our relevancy and return-on-investment is as great as ever, if not better.

The report mentioned above stated it this way: "When making the case for preservation, make the case for use… Trusted public institutions—libraries, archives, museums, professional organizations and others—can play important roles as proxy organizations to represent the demand of their stakeholders over generations."

That would be true. Provided our professional organizations responsible for speaking on behalf of libraries understand the enormity of the problem and speak with one clear, consistent voice so that the importance of the message is not confused or lost.

I think this ad represents a missed opportunity for the profession of librarianship.