Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Monday, June 25, 2007

media and society

-- media and society -- our permanent record

Collected from my comments elsewhere, purely because I wanted it all in one place.

If you want to see someone get all ranty about these issues of analog/physical preservation and access versus digital preservation and access, talk it over with an old-school special collections librarian. What do we keep and why? How is it generated? Once it's generated, how do we catch it and keep it? These are all issues that society generally, and librarians specifically, are looking at. Most correspondence these days is digital -- email, online journals and weblogs, jottings in Word or Notepad or some other text editor or word processor -- and much never makes it out of some digital format. More and more, photography has become digital; the convenience of being able to see what you've done right now, of keeping or printing only the best images and throwing away the rest, avoiding the camera desk clerk's leer if you happen to take a naughty image of your significant other, or avoiding prosecution for merely taking a picture of your kid in the bathtub -- all these reasons have caused a major shift from film to digital photography for those people who only want to keep a record of the times of their lives.

From the archival point of view, this is all terribly troubling. Correspondence, for example, presents specific issues. A lot of ordinary correspondence and writing generated in the past (shopping lists, quick letters, postcards, etc.), is still being generated in different formats; however, much was kept only accidentally in the past, and now it's cleaned out pretty regularly, both because electronic storage space is more intrinsically limited, and because people simply don't need to keep it around, and really never did. Much of our historical information was kept only accidentally or incidentally in the past. Now, that same type of historical information, produced as digital originals, is likely lost forever, barring strenuous forensic reconstruction, which is expensive, time-consuming and difficult. In addition, because we can go back and read some data formats now doesn't mean that we'll be able to do so in the future; Word 2090 is unlikely to be compatible with Word 2.5.

A personal sidenote: Back in a previous existence, one of the things that I was charged with was keeping around old computer equipment so that some older files and programs could be read. Manufacturers then very considerately stopped making equipment that could read them, or cards and other things that would allow the old equipment to be attached to new computers. At one point, for something we were trying to retrieve, I had a 5.25-inch drive, a card to connect it that wouldn't fit in any current computers, and media that could therefore not be read. We eventually had to change the mission statement so that if something hadn't been backed up to more current media, that was just too damn bad; it was gone and there wasn't anything we could do.

Or, in other words, just because computers can now read CD/DVD/PhotoCD format doesn't mean that they'll be able to do so 5-10 years from now. That said, judging from what's going on in the photography world, it may not be too long before photographic film, of whatever stripe, is so specialized an item that it's ruinously expensive to deal with.

You makes your bets, and you takes your chances, and you just hope you're betting on the right horse. Or media, as the case may be.

Nicholson Baker tackled this issue in his book Double Fold, in which (among other things) he railed against libraries converting materials into digital formats. I believe I might have said he should be kicked in the shins quite a lot, or something along those lines. Possibly belabored vigourously about the head and shoulders with his book. I forget which. It was, to put it mildly, an aggravating book. Not that he didn't have some valid points, to be sure; that said, those points were mostly buried in a lot of bombast having nothing to do with the real world, using individual isolated cases of bad judgement to represent the whole, and for a brief time, it made the job of librarians a bit more difficult. But consider: maintaining old newspapers and other items in their original paper format takes a great deal of money and a great deal of space. Unless he's going to come up with the space and the funds to deal with his preferred solutions (no digitizing or conversion of anything ever), keeping everything as it was originally published is pretty much impossible. Without building a lot of specialized buildings, we can't store old newspapers and books forever. Rant all you wants about libraries throwing stuff out once it's converted; where do we get a place to keep the stuff, and the funds to maintain it? That level of construction and maintenance is expensive; you need to treat items to reduce or eliminate the acid count (if they'll stand it -- one of the best methods involves actually soaking the item in a deacidification solution, which would simply disintegrate much older material), maintain extremely rigid temperature and humidity levels to prevent further disintegration, building not only to extreme weightbearing standards (books and papers and the shelves or drawers to hold them all weigh) but to try to deal with the whole vermine thing (old books and newspapers and old book glue are tasty to vermin, yes indeedy, and those big buildings have plenty of places to hide)'s not cheap.

A project in which many libraries and archives are engaged, and which Baker would hate, is overseeing the digital conversion of newspaper archives that have become too fragile to allow patrons to touch. Yes, we could microfilm, which Baker prefers -- but then nobody would use them. Patrons hate microfilm, especially when compared to the relative ease of digital, and I can't say I blame them. The alternative is to keep them in the archives and say, "Well, yes, we have them, but you can't use them." That seems user-hostile in the extreme, doesn't it? But that's what we're having to do right now. We also accept that when we convert them -- whether to digital or microfilm -- that's the last we'll see of them. They simply won't survive the handling. The paper will likely turn to dust. So do we archive them in a format that nobody wants to use, but which may preserve better over the long haul, or do we archive them in a format that can allow for the widest use, but which may become obsolete much faster? You have to pick one; aiming for both means that the second generation -- making digital from microfilm or microfilm from digital -- is significantly lower quality and more difficult to use. Preservation versus access, in a quite literal way, right there for your delectation.

Put it another way: Part of what libraries are doing is responding, slowly and reluctantly but steadily, to patron demands for access. Putting items on microfilm is all very well and good, but as noted, most people don't have the desire or patience to deal with it. Some microfilm equipment is getting obnoxiously expensive, sometimes difficult to maintain (depending on what it is) and takes a great deal of justification to administrators in a way that digital does not. We can only resist what people want just so far ... and honestly, part of our job is to preserve, but more of our job is to provide information and access. Give 'em what they want, and when they want it, and let 'em have it just that way, as the song says. We are, after all, largely a customer service profession. How does it provide service to maintain things in a way that people hate, for what will seem to them a terribly esoteric reason?

Chances are, a lot of the stuff we do now and in the future isn't going to be available to future generations. There may not be multivolume sets of the letters of our once and future presidents, not because they're not writing but because it will have all went with the digital wind, so to speak. That's just ... life, I guess. No doubt people railed in a prior age against the movement from stone carving to vellum and papyrus, arguing that it wasn't as durable. (And, hey, they were right about that, too. Does better in earthquakes, though, and it's easier to read a book or scroll in a building rather than reading the building itself, after all.)

Regarding preservation of images: Deterioration and obsolescence issues present themselves no matter which option you pick. Film and some paper may survive better than digital, yes -- I've dealt recently with photos taken back in the 1880s (glass negatives, terribly entertaining and fraught, and lantern slides and other stuff) through the early part of the 20th century (acetate negatives which, if not cared for correctly, have an emulsion that turns to vinegar and slides right off the negative) and forward; I doubt that nonarchival CDs and DVDs will survive so well, and I doubt that people 100 years from now will have any idea what to do with TIFF or JPEG or GIF or PNG image formats. That said, a lot of the film and photos and negatives we were working with, even some from the 1950s and later, had to be discarded because it was simply in too decrepit a condition to work with; no recognizable image remained or could be pulled from it. Most people don't take care of photos or negatives or slides in a way that will ensure they survive; image survival, again, is mostly accidental and almost always has been. From an archival point of view, maintaining film archives is even more expensive; to prevent deterioration, film actually needs to be frozen, and maintained in subzero archives. And again, the equipment to do that is terribly expensive, and it weighs. Film photography is also becoming a specialist option; increasingly, what will be documented on film will not be ordinary life, and thus will be more useful for art historians and less so for people trying to see how we lived way back when. Even professional photographers may soon be forced to go digital for much more of what they do; Kodak and Agfa keep waffling about whether they'll continue making developer chemicals for certain classes of film. Polaroid is effectively out of the film photography business, although they do make a few types of instant film to support older cameras (but as the cameras break down and disappear, how long will they keep doing that?) -- Polaroid also no longer makes film cameras, and only seems to make two models of digital camera.

Despite the explosion in weblogs and other sorts of online personal writing, less of the written word will survive. (Even this very site, with over 2,000 pages of writing from the past 10 years, on politics and ordinary life and media and other stuff that might -- I say with no doubt a great deal of hubris -- might be of passing interest to historians of a later year ... this site is unlikely to survive in any reasonable archival form. I don't print it out -- where would I put it all?) Despite the proliferation of digital cameras and photography sites, fewer images of how we live will survive. Ultimately, in the future, there will simply be less documentation of our current daily life. How that's going to play out, and whether we wind up reliving Santayana's aphorism over and over -- Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it --because we simply no longer know what a particular history is ... I have no idea. But we can't unring the bell; we can only catch as much as we are able, try to maintain that in a way that allows both access and archiving. Most librarians have been realizing that this is coming for a while now, and now it's here with a vengeance. We're sort of resigned, if not terribly happy. (And, for the record, most resist throwing old forms of anything out until some level of administration says, "You will do this because you have no choice. You can't keep it all." And then we try to find homes for it, and it turns out that nobody wants it, because they've all been forced into the same corner.)

We do what we can, within the limitations we have, and we hope that's enough.

It rather has to be, doesn't it?

We can learn from history how past generations thought and acted, how they responded to the demands of their time and how they solved their problems. We can learn by analogy, not by example, for our circumstances will always be different than theirs were. The main thing history can teach us is that human actions have consequences and that certain choices, once made, cannot be undone. They foreclose the possibility of making other choices and thus they determine future events. [...] What we do about history matters. The often repeated saying that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them has a lot of truth in it. But what are 'the lessons of history'? The very attempt at definition furnishes ground for new conflicts. History is not a recipe book; past events are never replicated in the present in quite the same way. Historical events are infinitely variable and their interpretations are a constantly shifting process. There are no certainties to be found in the past. [...]
--Gerda Lerner, Why History Matters (New York : Oxford University Press, 1997)

Posted by iain at 04:19 PM in category media and society