I was recently contacted by one of my alma maters about my masters thesis. The school required deposit (in duplicate) with the Library as part of the application for graduation, but luckily by this time they were accepting (perhaps enforcing — who wants to manage all those bound theses?) submission of an electronic copy on CD-R. This was the second time in 10 years that someone had written to me about my thesis. Pretty awesome for a Humanities masters thesis, so I was starting to feel awfully big-headed.
But no. Seems they were writing because the Library was in the middle of a project migrating all those CD-Rs to a file-based repository…
…but all they could retrieve off of my discs was the cover page, and would I be so kind as to send them a PDF of the full document.
Now there were two issues here, one being why they could only retrieve my cover page and the other being why I could not send them a PDF. First, this event jolted back the memory of submitting my thesis and applying for graduation with the Graduate Office. It was the day before the application was due, and following morning I was leaving at 4am for an overseas trip. So about 4pm I burned my thesis to disc at home and went to campus. Filling out the application, I saw that there were specifications regarding the cover page that I had not followed, namely that one was required.
At this point I had no time to go home, make a cover page, burn new discs, and get back to campus. So I sprinted to a computer lab, typed up a cover page, burned two discs with a PDF of the cover page on them, wrote “Cover Page” around the inside circle of plastic on the disc, and packaged up four discs to submit with my application. And done.
Now, I’m not sure if the person migrating the CDs only checked the ones with the cover page, or if when the Library ingested the CDs they tossed out two of them as extraneous, but in my unjustified defense, this thesis was not for my archiving degree and I wasn’t involved in the field at all yet. In my more justified defense, at the time I didn’t care about the cover pages — and this relates to why I cannot resubmit a PDF — because my thesis was a website, and the files I was submitting were html, jpg, Flash, and other file types that made up the site. The (now defunct) American Studies program I attended had a Digital Humanities focus, part of which was learning how to build websites, and all of our final projects and the thesis were websites, with no additional writing beyond what was in the content.
Part of the impetus for the man who developed and ran the American Studies program was to establish a masters level Humanities degree that provided technical and practical training for the job market, and that would avoid year after year of students producing theses that just sat on a library shelf and were never touched. That did happen anyway, because for 10 years those CD-Rs sat around not being touched until the Library made the choice to migrate them and make them accessible online (which I really appreciate them doing). Unfortunately my thesis has been available online all that time, and I don’t even think bots are interested in touching that things, but that’s another story.
So then what’s the story here? Not quite sure. Just a lot of random thoughts and impressions.
* We’ve been making the slow trudge towards digital, either aided or (most likely) slowed down by the conceptual crutch of replacing one physical object (book, manuscript, BetacamSP) with another (CD-R, XDCAM, hard drive). While those physical carriers have worked to assuage certain discomforts with moving to the file-based realm and fear of losing files, they have caused a rippling of problems related to media failure and failure to properly document and track things through metadata.
* The loss of institutional memory is rapid, sometimes even sudden, even within institutions dedicated to history and memory and information. Perhaps this is natural deaccessioning.
* So many theses.
* If you’re cutting edge, prepare for that day when you’re going to be cut.
* CD-Rs are a terrifying pivot point for materials moving from the shelf to a digital repository.
* Despite best efforts, our personal, very human habits related to how we manage our files are a huge challenge to access and preservation. Policies and guidelines can help insofar as they can actually be enforced, and part of our role as archivists or collection managers is communicating why the policies matter and what the impact of not following them is. But that effort is not foolproof…especially when dealing with fools who don’t care about the impact or do things at the last minute…