Librarians at Forefront of Preserving Collective Knowledge

The Chronicle of Higher Ed ran an article written by a historian about the ever-increasing need to preserve our vast amounts of data.

As the historian notes, the radical reduction of barriers to reading and publishing online has resulted in an abundance of cultural expression in audio, video, textual, and numeric formats. Yet paradoxically, in this age of digital abundance it is harder, not easier, to secure knowledge for future generations. How much will future generations know about today’s online culture when the average webpage lasts just 100 days? 

One of the biggest challenges of our time is to find a way to archive material. If we learn to manage the abundance of digital information as quickly as we learned to manage print, solutions will come within several generations, approximately when the first few cohorts of digital natives mature, age, and begin to reckon with their own legacies. By that time, though, much will be lost, not by choice but by default. Preserving data, crafting polices for their use, and paying for the benefits of future access are all formidable problems, but the challenges to long-term access are not only technical, political, and economic.

As stated, we have two urgent tasks:

  • The first is ensuring that the wealth of knowledge in our analog collections can be found on the Internet, either by putting them online or by creating digital records to indicate where those artifacts are. In 20 years, if a collection cannot be discovered through a web search, people will effectively not know it exists. We need to accelerate digitization efforts. As part of the digitization effort, we will need to stabilize analog sources that are rapidly deteriorating — notably 20th-century audiovisual formats — and create digital reference copies.
  • The second task is to rescue the present from oblivion. Oblivion can begin as soon as the next software update. The challenge here is posed by scale. Given the upfront expenses of publishing books or making movies, our model of stewardship has been to ask what we can afford to save. Now, given digital abundance, we must ask what we can afford to lose.

These tasks are well understood by librarians. But librarians cannot do it alone. And the prestige economy tells [many faculty] that data management is mere "housekeeping," by definition a second- or third-order profession, someone else’s job (typically a postdoc or grad student, in fact.) 

OR a librarian, for that matter.

Like the hard scientists in the prestige economy, humanists have similar reward structures that keep them at a remove from libraries, museums, and archives. In the 19th century, building and editing collections was the core work of history and literature disciplines. Over the course of the 20th century, a division of labor emerged between the scholars who were users of collections and the librarians who were builders and custodians of collections. Today libraries and archives are positioned within higher education as service organizations, not laboratories of discovery.

However, a new generation of scholars is confronting the urgent demands of analog and digital stewardship. One of the unintended consequences of the shrinking humanities faculty is that many highly accomplished humanities Ph.D.s are now drawn into libraries and creating rewarding careers.

And librarians welcome the help of the other professions.

Not only is preservation a huge issue, we also need to make students understand these archival formats to be able to use the information. Most students are more fluent than their professors with current consumer technologies. But they have yet to gain true literacy, digital or textual, visual or audio: the ability to assess the authenticity and truth value of a source. It is from the faculty that they learn about the values that need to be built into the use of data — our own and everyone else’s.


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