In 2017, Dorothea Salo received the NDSA Innovation Award in the Educators category for her development projects, RADD (Recovering Analog and Digital Data), PROUD (Portable Recovery of Unique Data), and PRAVDA (Portably Reformat Audio and Video to Digital from Analog). These projects were designed to extend the reach of digitization and preservation tools to those without the resources of large-scale memory institutions. Today, she is a Distinguished Faculty Associate in The Information School at University of Wisconsin-Madison and took some time to offer us an update on these projects, her work, and her plans.
What have you been doing since receiving an NDSA Innovation Award?
A little bit of everything, as always! The iSchool is in a time of significant change, from joining the brand-new Computer, Data, and Information Sciences division to hiring several new faculty to launching an entire new MS Information degree. I’ve been building and teaching a bunch of new courses, working with a peerless team of co-investigators on the Data Doubles research project, doing solo work on library privacy, teaching for the Digital POWRR workshop series… and, of course, surviving (knock on wood) the COVID pandemic. Right now I’m teaching an undergraduate computer-science course, the first time I ever have.
What did receiving the NDSA award mean to you?
Paraphrasing my favorite actress from my favorite movie: “it makes me feel as though my hard work ain’t been in vain for nothin’.” Quixotic solo projects like RADD can absolutely feel frustratingly pointless at times. I can’t say enough about how much I appreciated recognition from a group of people as wise, experienced, and pragmatic as NDSA. Bless you all!
What efforts/advances/ideas of the last few years have you been impressed with or admired in the field of data stewardship and/or digital preservation?
Oooh, let me check my Pinboard… I definitely think the Oxford Common File Layout and the Portland Common Data Model are valiant and worthwhile attempts to solve real issues in an efficient and effective way. I’m always grateful for NARA’s work, like their Digital Preservation Framework on GitHub. The revised NDSA Levels of Digital Preservation are terrific. On a lighter note, I also really appreciate the Australasia Preserves and Digital Preservation Coalition YouTube channels for their karaoke takes on preservation. They’re so fun and great!
How have the RADD, PROUD, and PRAVDA projects evolved since you won the Innovation Award?
Less than I wish they had – I just haven’t had the time or the strength. I have managed to get several pieces of equipment properly overhauled and repaired, which given that I have no dedicated or reliable budget and repairs are expensive is a feat. (Of course as soon as I say this – I have three Digital8 cameras that are all aggravatingly broken in different ways…) I’ve gotten some projects done for folks, though the pandemic made that extra-difficult. The PROUD and PRAVDA kits did a fair bit of traveling (including by air) and demos pre-pandemic, and they have held up like troupers. I couldn’t know in advance how well that would work, so I’m pleased to say that it’s been fine, no equipment casualties whatever.
What I’m really rethinking now is the project model. I’ve demonstrated to my own dissatisfaction that I can’t manage RADD well as an all-comers rescue service: there isn’t enough of me, digitizing A/V takes too long, equipment breaks unpredictably, when the rig is in use I can’t take it out of service to improve it, and random-project work is too unpredictable to schedule. I’m tentatively thinking about an approach with a few more guardrails that provides more and better opportunities for iSchool students to get to know RADD and work with it.
What do you currently see as some of the biggest challenges in digitization and preservation for smaller memory institutions?
You know, there was a time I would reflexively have yelled “funding!” in response to this question. Don’t get me wrong, funding is absolutely still a big obstacle! But the obstacle behind the funding obstacle, I think, is ignorance about what this work actually requires – everybody’s ignorance, from the general public to journalists to funders to legislators… all the way to actual information professionals.
I went completely ballistic a couple of years back over a painfully ignorant, wrongheaded, and condescending article in Wired that came out shortly after the devastating Brazil national-museum fire, an article calling blithely for a “digital backup of cultural memory” with absolutely zero understanding of the magnitude and cost of such an undertaking. We can’t possibly get the funding to do the work we desperately have to do until there is a general understanding of very basic phenomena such as “audio and video digitize in real time.”
Info pros don’t always make this better. I was told by a Digital POWRR participant that in some formal continuing education they’d done, the instructor, a respected archivist, had told them it was impossible to rescue data off digital media without a multi-thousand-dollar FRED device. If that’s what that archivist actually said (and it may not be, human memory being fragile)… it’s nonsense! PROUD rescues data from several common types of digital media at a small fraction of the cost of a FRED, and far more portably! This just breaks my heart, because when learners go home thinking they’ll never have the equipment budget, data will die of neglect. I built RADD, PROUD, and PRAVDA because I didn’t think it has to be this way. I still don’t!