Preservation Is About Being Prepared For Institutional Failure

By January 28, 2013Blog

We were excited to see Part 1 of Jonathan Minard’s documentary Archive — a work about the “future of long-term digital storage, the history of the Internet and attempts to preserve its contents on a massive scale” — released the other day. Jonathan is a Fellow at Eyebeam Art & Technology Center, and was the point person there working with the group of volunteers who were assisting with the post-Sandy recovery efforts of their collection.

This first segment is focused on the work of The Internet Archive to record and preserve the Internet, scanned books, films, television, recorded sound, etc., etc. No matter what you think about what Brewster Kahle is doing and how he and The Internet Archive are going about it, one can’t deny that Kahle is an inspirational thought leader. One thing I especially came away with was that statement that the loss of materials is not a failure of the media or technology but, across analog and digital collections, it is a problem of institutional failure. Businesses fail, governments fail, wars and uprisings happen, budgets are cut, policies and procedures are not developed or enforced, preparations are not made.

From this point of view, we could consider that the wariness to adopt digital preservation as a strategy is not because the technology is riskier, but because it exposes those institutional failures and may be affected by them more quickly and more broadly than we are used to. Kahle is right when he says we know what to do, we just need to do it and be more regular and vigilant about it. Know the problems or patterns and be ready.

This is one of my big philosophical problems with the concept of benign neglect, that it embraces a culture of expected failure, grasping on with fingers-crossed, hoping that everything will be okay or maybe nothing bad will happen. Instead, we need acknowledge that failures happen and establish proactive strategies for being prepared when they inevitably do.

Joshua Ranger

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • kevin says:

    Okay, I feel like I’m repeating myself and may be becoming the unwelcome guest – but – what if we question the assumption that loss of material is a failure at all? I realize that in the immediate moment, it feels like a failure, especially if it was our intention not to lose material. I’m just throwing out the idea for consideration that loss may play an integral role in the larger information economy (or ecology). Pondering whether or not loss is a failure is not an excuse for shoddy work, but I think it is worth pondering.

    • Josh says:

      Hi Kevin — I’m in agreement with you (and hope my post actually is too, as well as the recent “Failure Is a Part of Success”). Loss — and failure — are inevitable, often necessary, and not irrecoverable. My angle was meant more to be not that the loss is failure, but when loss occurs we should look to the institutional or procedural context which caused it — and which could have prevented it — rather than blame the materials or formats. All formats and media types are unstable in their own way. We need to understand that and enact the right type of care and/or accept a degree of loss. While I feel that Brewster inspires on many points, I am personally wary about the idea of saving allknowledgeeverywhereforever and the What If dream of the Library of Alexandria. Those fragments of handful of works we have left are sufficient. The complete works of Plato would not necessarily be better. Bringing it to a personal level, we are inundated with snapshots now, but what do we find more precious? The drives and drives and boxes and boxes of them, or the one picture of our grandfather as a young man? Dienu. But the other side of that coin is that, even though we are very good at filling in a narrative from a small amount of information, we also have to be aware of a Bridges of Madison County inspired fallacy of romantically or misleadingly filling in too much of the story from our own minds just because an object has been saved. Things get tucked away and included in personal affects for all types of reasons, purposeful and accidental. Persistence does not immediately imply importance. The flipside, I suppose, of loss not implying failure.

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