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January 21, 2013

Are We Prepared For The Presidential Library Of The (Near) Future?

One has to assume that a major distrust of the shift to digital reformatting and preservation is the feeling that we’re merely redoing work that will need to be redone again when the next format comes along. This may be especially galling to those who fairly recently reformatted video or film to something like Digibeta, or are lamenting the trashing of a newspaper/journal collection in favor of microfilm. (Wait — film is the perfect format. What’s the problem here?)

Whatever the case, we have to face the fact that such shifts are a part of technology and our market economy. New formats are created and we need to figure out ways of dealing with them after the fact. Extensive research studies into guidelines and methodologies may not be completed until after the market and culture have already cycled through the solutions that result from the study. That may be the problem, or, honestly, our approaches to preserving various objects and formats may just be plain wrong or impractical from the get-go.

Two things here. First, we have to come to terms with the fact that this is the nature of research and development. Assumptions are frequently wrong. Interpretation is frequently wrong. We are frequently wrong.

It frequently seems as if within humanities based research projects we have so much more riding on the line — grants are few and far between, and failure amplifies the risk for future grants or for others denigrating the failed project and its progenitor. Unlike the sciences where one tests hypotheses that may result in as much value in being disproved as in being proven, it sometimes seems as if humanistic hypotheses, illogically, need to prove their originating thesis in order to not be considered a waste of time and money. Outcomes should not be based on proof or disproof, but on the generation of resources or knowledge useable by the originator and by others to adapt or generate new research and development.

This is where humanities has difficulty in competing with scientific research — the lack of a data set that can be shared and easily analyzed by others to verify or discover something new. In many cases assessment comes down to opinion. I think you are wrong or right, valid or invalid, beautiful or ugly.

This brings me to the second thing here. Or probably what should have been the first and only thing so I didn’t lose my readers. To wit, we need to make a greater effort to innovate means of access and preservation in advance of ingest of soon-to-be legacy formats. This doesn’t mean establishing protocols for things that don’t exist — though that may not hurt to do as some kind of advanced research project — but to prepare for the things that are new or coming down the pipeline before they are supplanted within the market or achieve a critical mass of adoption that makes their numbers overwhelming.

We’re playing catch up with websites, videogames, email, Jaz disks, and all manner of technology/formats that have existed for well over 30 years. There is an increasing need to funnel large amounts of resources to figuring out floppy disks and obsolete software like Wordstar. What if we had studied the problem in advance and been prepared for the piles of such materials now hitting archives? We knew these things existed and would eventually be a part of personal or institutional papers. Why did we wait?

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What has me thinking about this is President Obama’s inauguration this week. Many pundits lamented/reveled in the discussion of who would be campaigning in 2016 as soon as the 2012 election was over, but what we should be thinking about is what the presidential library of 2016 will look like. This is a big pain because (callback!) just over 3 years ago NARA released a report looking into the future of the presidential library model. While this was a great report, it had the misfortune of coming just before the Great Information Shift embodied by Obama’s presidency, while also being released in the midst of that presidency.

How are we going to represent the open data initiatives of the past four years? The online petitions? The use of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to communicate during campaigns and during his time in office? There has been much disappointment in liberal circles that the Change promised in the first campaign has not been achieved. Change if often not a noticeable shift, but gradual or imperceptible until much later. President Obama (and his campaign team) are the first to utilize social media and other information platforms in an organic, informed manner that does not seem to co-opt, pander to, or misunderstand those for whom such mediums are a natural and accepted part of contemporary life.

The recent restructuring of the Obama campaign infrastructure to a 501(c)4 points to this — the campaign has unprecedented email contacts and data and Likes
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to be the kingmaker in the new digital world. Obama’s library will need to represent this material and this material shift — which is very often database-driven and therefore ephemeral like a number of contemporary artworks — and present it in ways that are understandable and researchable. This may even mean creating a library environment that is not tied to a physical place, but itself is represented (at least in part) primarily online.

If we fail to represent the virtual ways in which the Obama presidency has changed American politics we will have lost a major piece of our history that extends well beyond the individuality of the man. If we fail to be prepared for representing this history, we will potentially lose materials or be many years (and many dollars) behind in accessing it. We cannot rely on something like a Facebook to preserve such things. We (the people) must be responsible and prepared.

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This may not have been the change we were looking for, but it is a lesson we needed, to recognize and accept cultural changes and not permit our prejudices to impede that acceptance. Digital content exists, and we need to take care of it. This does not mean ignoring the technologies of the past, but seeing their place — and ours — in the grand sceme of transition (read: human existence).

Joshua Ranger

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