Category: Preservation

Digitization and Repatriation

Elgin MarblesIt’s always worth listening to Cliff Lynch‘s opening talks at the CNI task force meetings, and this week’s meeting in Washington was no exception. (My apologies for not blogging the meeting; busy week.) Like no one else, Cliff has his finger on the pulse of all that is new and important in the world of the digital humanities. Although Cliff discussed some issues that have received a lot of press, such as net neutrality, I found one issue he raised totally unexpected and fascinating.

Cliff noted that digital surrogates for museum objects—that is, digital photographs or 2- or 3-D scans—are becoming so good that for most scholarly and classroom purposes they can replace the originals. For many years, one of the main arguments museums have used to avoid the repatriation of foreign materials—e.g., sculpture or pottery taken during colonization or war—is that they worried about the accessibility and condition of an object if they returned it. Scholars might lose important evidence, museums argued, and researchers often needed to look at the original object for small details like texture or paint color. With advances in digitization, however, this objection no longer holds water, and museums should feel more pressure (or more freedom) to repatriate controversial items in their collections.

[Creative Commons licensed photo of the Elgin Marbles courtesy of zakgallop on Flickr.]

Doing Digital History June 2006 Workshop

If your work deals in some way with the history of science, technology, or industry, and you would like to learn how to create online history projects, the Echo Project at the Center for History and New Media is running another one of our free, week-long workshops. The workshop covers the theory and practice of digital history; the ways that digital technologies can facilitate the research, teaching, writing and presentation of history; genres of online history; website infrastructure and design; document digitization; the process of identifying and building online history audiences; and issues of copyright and preservation.

As one of the teachers for this workshop, I can say somewhat immodestly that it’s really a great way to get up to speed on the many (sometimes complicated) elements necessary for website development. Unfortunately space is limited, so be sure to apply online by March 10, 2006. The workshop will take place from June 12-16, 2006, at George Mason University’s Arlington campus, right outside of Washington, DC. It is co-sponsored by the American Historical Association and the National History Center, and funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. There is no registration fee, and a limited number of fellowships are available to defray the costs of travel and lodging for graduate students and young scholars. Hope to see you there!

Digital History on Focus 580

From the shameless plug dept.: If you missed Roy Rosenzweig’s and my appearance on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, I’ll be on Focus 580 this Friday, February 3, 2006, at 11 AM ET/10 AM CT on the Illinois NPR station WILL. (If you don’t live in the listening area for WILL, their website also has a live stream of the audio.) I’ll be discussing Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web and answering questions from the audience. If you’re reading this message after February 3, you can download the MP3 file of the show.

Kojo Nnamdi Show Questions

Roy Rosenzweig and I had a terrific time on The Kojo Nnamdi Show today. If you missed the radio broadcast you can listen to it online on the WAMU website. There were a number of interesting calls from the audience, and we promised several callers that we would answer a couple of questions off the air; here they are.

Barbara from Potomac, MD asks, “I’m wondering whether new products that claim to help compress and organize data (I think one is called “C-Gate” [Kathy, an alert reader of his blog, has pointed out that Barbara probably means the giant disk drive company Seagate]) help out [to solve the problem of storing digital data for the long run]? The ads claim that you can store all sorts of data—from PowerPoint presentations and music to digital files—in a two-ounce standalone disk or other device.”

As we say in the book, we’re skeptical of using rare and/or proprietary formats to store digital materials for the long run. Despite the claims of many companies about new and novel storage devices, it’s unclear whether these specialized devices will be accessible in ten or a hundred years. We recommend sticking with common, popular formats and devices (at this point, probably standard hard drives and CD- or DVD-ROMs) if you want to have the best odds of preserving your materials for the long run. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) provides a good summary of how to store optical media such as CDs and DVDs for long periods of time.

Several callers asked where they could go if they have materials on old media, such as reel-to-reel or 8-track tapes, that they want to convert to a digital format.

You can easily find online some of the companies we mentioned that will (for a fee) transfer your own media files onto new devices. Google for the media you have (e.g., “8-track tape”) along with the words “conversion services” or “transfer services.” I probably overestimated the cost for these services; most conversions will cost less than $100 per tape. However, the older the media the more expensive it will be. I’ll continue to look into places in the Washington area that might provide these services for free, such as libraries and archives.

Digital History on The Kojo Nnamdi Show

From the shameless plug dept.: Roy Rosenzweig and I will be discussing our book Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web this Tuesday, January 10, on The Kojo Nnamdi Show. The show is produced at Washington’s NPR station, WAMU. We’re on live from noon to 1 PM EST, and you’ll be able to ask us questions by phone (1-800-433-8850), via email (, or through the web. The show will be replayed from 8-9 PM EST on Tuesday night, and syndicated via iTunes and other outlets as part of NPR’s terrific podcast series (look for The Kojo Nnamdi Show/Tech Tuesday). You’ll also be able to get the audio stream directly from the show’s website. I’ll probably answer some additional questions from the audience in this space.

Rough Start for Digital Preservation

How hard will it be to preserve today’s digital record for tomorrow’s historians, researchers, and students? Judging by the preliminary results of some attempts to save for the distant future the September 11 Digital Archive (a project I co-directed), it won’t be easy. While there are some bright spots to the reports in D-Lib Magazine last month on the efforts of four groups to “ingest” (or digitally accession) the thousands of files from the 9/11 collection, the overall picture is a little bit sobering. And this is a fairly well-curated (though by no means perfect) collection. Just imagine what ingesting a messy digital collection, e.g., the hard drive of your average professor, would entail. Here are some of the important lessons from these early digital preservation attempts, as I see it.

But first, a quick briefing on the collection. The September 11 Digital Archive is a joint project of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. From January 2002 to the present (though mostly in the first two years) it has collected via the Internet (and some analog means, later run through digitization processes) about 150,000 objects, ranging from emails and BlackBerry communications to voicemail and digital audio, to typed recollections, photographs, and art. I think it’s a remarkable collection that will be extremely valuable to researchers in the future who wish to understand the attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath. In September 2003, the Library of Congress agreed to accession the collection, one of its first major digital accessions.

We started the project as swiftly as possible after 9/11, with the sense that we should do our best on the preservation front, but also with the understanding that we would probably have to cut some corners if we wanted to collect as much as we could. We couldn’t deliberate for months about the perfect archival structure or information architecture or wait for the next release of DSpace. Indeed, I wrote most of the code for the project in a week or so over the holiday break at the end of 2001. Not my best PHP programming effort ever, but it worked fine for the project. And as Clay Shirky points out in the D-Lib opening piece, this is likely to be the case for many projects—after all, projects that spend a lot of time and effort on correct metadata schemes and advanced hardware and software probably are going to be in the position to preserve their own materials anyway. The question is what will happen when more normal collections are passed from their holders to preservation outfits, such as the Library of Congress.

All four of the groups that did a test ingest of our 9/11 collection ran into some problems, though not necessarily at the points they expected. Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Old Dominion, and Stanford encountered some hurdles, beginning with my first point:

You can’t trust anything, even simple things like file types. The D-Lib reports note that a very small but still significant percentage of files in the 9/11 collection seemed to not be the formats they presented themselves as. What amazes me reading this is that I wrote some code to validate file types as they were being uploaded by contributors onto our server, using some powerful file type assessment tools built into PHP and Apache (our web server software). Obviously these validations failed to work perfectly. When you consider handling billion-object collections, even a 1% (or .1%) error rate is a lot. Which leads me to point #2…

We may have to modify to preserve. Although for generations archival science has emphasized keeping objects in their original format, I wonder if it might have been better if (as we had thought about at first on the 9/11 project) we had converted files contributed by the general public into just a few standardized formats. For instance, we could have converted (using the powerful ImageMagick server software) all of the photographs into one of the JPEG formats (yes, there are more than one, which turned out to be a pain). We would have “destroyed” the original photograph in the upload process—indeed, worse than that from a preservation perspective, we would have compressed it again, losing some information—but we could have presented the Library of Congress with a simplified set of files. That simplification process leads me to point #3…

Simple almost always beats complex when it comes to computer technology. I have incredible admiration for preservation software such as DSpace and Fedora, and I tend toward highly geeky solutions, but I’m much more pessimistic than those who believe that we are on the verge of preservation solutions that will keep digital files for centuries. Maybe it’s the historian of the Victorian age in me, reminding myself of the fate of so many nineteenth-century books that were not acid-free and so are deteriorating slowly in libraries around the world. Anyway, it was nice to see Shirky conclude in a similar vein that it looks like digital preservation efforts will have to be “data-centric” rather than “tool-centric” or “process-centric.” Specific tools will fade away over time, and so will ways of processing digital materials. Focusing on the data itself and keeping those files intact (and in use—that which is frequently used will be preserved) is critical. We’ll hopefully be able to access those saved files in the future with a variety of tools and using a variety of processes that haven’t even been invented yet.