Don't Kill The Carrier Part 2 — The Digital Dilemma is a Resource Problem not a Format Problem

By March 12, 2012Blog

I hate digital cameras. I especially hate my digital camera, but that’s probably at least in part because my own camera provides me so many more opportunities to swear at it. I damn it when I miss a shot due to shutter delay or the processing time between pictures. I curse up and down when it keeps insisting on the wrong focal point. I make sailors cringe when my memory of the scene that impelled me to take a photo is not matched, ending up yet again as a flat, poorly framed, uncomposed mess.

These things doubly frustrate me because, not so many years ago when I shot on film with a 30 year old SLR, I took great care with my framing, depth of focus, and subject matter. I knew my camera, knew my film, and, aided by a great developer, was very happy with the outcomes. Even failure was an acceptable part of the process; only a small percentage of photos could be expected to turn out close to okay. How, I wonder, can this digital camera be such a piece of infuriating junk?

But then I recall that the thing which drove me to getting an SLR in the first place was a similar frustration with the pictures I was getting with the no-frills point-and-shoot I had for many years. When the only tool you have is a point-and-shoot, everything looks like a snapshot.

So really I have three choices here (unless the real problem is just anger management issues that need resolved): 1) go back to film, 2) shell out for a digital SLR and really learn how to use it, or 3) just accept my crummy camera and deal with it. Two of those options involve an increased outlay of cash and effort, and, well, Game of Thrones just came out on DVD.

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In my experience, most people who have been drawn into the archiving and preservation/conservation fields enjoy many outside creative pursuits, whether related to one’s area of focus (film-making, writing, sewing, etc.) or well outside one’s realm (cooking, dance, macrame, etc.). This makes perfect sense, especially in audiovisual preservation where a traditional route into the field has been transitioning from making to care-taking. However, I also strongly feel that the activities and decision points of archiving/preservation are creative acts themselves, requiring at least as much knowledge and skill as the creation of the works under our care.

This is none too controversial a thought within our bubble, but, for those unfamiliar with what and how we do, it perhaps sounds a bit laughable — the same way that people who have never taught may really believe that those who cannot do teach. In both cases, as well as in other fields like editing, the breadth of stylistic and technical knowledge required to shepherd so many and such varied works/minds through growth and persistence is massive.

In thinking about those who deal with more hands-on conservation work, just consider the number of materials, color processes, formats, format characteristics, presentation methods, chemicals, etc. that must be worked with, not to mention the ability to interpret and properly represent various historic and individual styles. However this work must necessarily be accompanied by a degree of humility or dedication to works and artists, stances that, as a result, can keep us pinned to obscurity or lack of awareness from the outside.

For people who purposefully choose a career that can often entail long hours of solitude in windowless rooms and basements, such obscurity is not necessarily a bad thing — though it can contribute to the difficulties we have with lack of support, the need for constant advocacy around the importance of the work, and, ultimately, the limited resources most organizations deal with.

A lack of resources is one of the true dilemmas of the digital age. Just like the utility and transportation infrastructure of the nation, the infrastructure of institution is in need of serious overhaul in order to address the existing and pending influx of digitized and born-digital materials. Equipment, facilities, servers, policies, utilities, guidelines, metadata generation, know-how… Not just financial resources, but also human resources, knowledge resources, and reservoirs of determination to start projects and get things done.

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Not to say we lack the internal resources (or ability to attain them) needed to manage digital collection, but we have to admit that technological shifts are forcing many of us to retrain our brains in ways that are difficult or discomforting. Especially for those ashamed of the amount of time spent listening to Bob Seeger on classic rock radio (okay — I’m sure that’s just me), a creative spirit rails against the idea of being hedged in by numbers. Not wanting to be just another one. One is the loneliest. Havoc-causing love potions. Revolutions. Numbers suggest a lack of uniqueness, intangibility, and a lack of nuance. And the way we have traditionally spoken about digital files is as numbers: 1s and 0s piling up with no sense of aesthetic order or individuality.

At the same time, numbers are how things get done. How much stuff do you have? How much storage space? How many FTE to process? How many users? How much money?

Administrators and funders demand quantifications that fly in the face of what we consider the special qualities of collections. And files seem to act the same way — they have no care for content, just for processing, movement, and dull persistence of those 1s and 0s.

But this is a bit of a canard. No object expresses emotion or forms a reciprocal relationship with us. Such things are easier to believe with physical, tactile materials that act/react in discernable, predictable ways, but their mere materiality makes the conceits no more true. In truth, our jobs are half about the persistence of objects — whether physical or digital — and half about the dull persistence of advocacy, continually communicating the importance of our work and the need for funding and resources.

In truth, one of the prime resources we have and that we need to access in order to address the “digital dilemma” is ourselves — the creativity and learnedness and curiosity (and persistence) we can and must tap into.

In truth, many colleagues have been working very hard in the area of digital preservation. They have been working hard for many years and have made great strides that we are beginning to see the results of. The Academy’s Digital Dilemma II ends with the declaration that the time for studies and reports is over. Convenient though it is to state and declare the final word, the report is correct. The time for broad overview studies is over — it actually has been over for many years. But I guess it was easy to miss because there was that new season of Buffy coming out on DVD.

Joshua Ranger

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