Digital Preservation Outside the Academic Realm: who can and who will?

Caroline Dechert
Caroline Dechert

This Forum Update was provided by Caroline Dechert, Librarian and Archivist, Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, NM.

I am deeply grateful to the DLF and to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation for the opportunity to attend this year’s Forum as a Museum Cross-Pollinator, and to the extraordinarily well-organized CLIR and DLF staff members who made the Forum seem to run effortlessly easily.

It is hard to settle on one topic for this short blog post. Like all the best conferences, the Forum worked for me on many levels. There is new information directly related to my work, specific new ideas I could bring home and apply relatively swiftly. There is a new challenge, of showing the ways in which museums can become strong partners in the creation of digital libraries. There are new contacts, people with whom to network in future. There are grand new ideas to dream about, grand concepts and aspirations delivered in the opening and closing addresses. But there’s also a giant question looming larger than ever in my mind, a question of policies and of practicalities, a question of “who can” and “who will” as much as “how.”

On its website, DLF describes its community as “a robust and diverse community of practitioners who advance research, teaching and learning through the application of digital library research, technology and services.” What is unspoken is that the great majority of practitioners are attached to academic institutions.

As a museum practitioner, I am grateful to academic colleagues who advance new research, imagine and create new tools to support ever better digital repositories. I am also jealous. Academic institutions possess the rich, robust IT resources necessary to pursue digital library initiatives and push forward with research in the field. This is a capacity sorely lacking for many museums, historical societies, and similar groups.

It is clear that preserving digitized and born digital material is a serious challenge even in the academic sphere. How much more so in a milieu that does not possess the IT infrastructure and student workforce of a college or university? And this is where that quick, sharp stab of jealousy deepens into serious concern.

How much of our cultural heritage is housed not in the halls of the academy, but in the basements of museums and historical societies? How is this material to be preserved? Who can preserve it, and who will?

Yes, there are grants to digitize at-risk collections, but these tend to be piecemeal efforts that do not meet the “program not project” standard of good preservation. At best, a collection may change form and gain a few decades, but with no IT infrastructure to support the new digital format and carry it forward, can we really say the material has been preserved?

As a museum practitioner, should I concentrate on trying to patch together solutions for my own collections out of hosted open-source options we might be able to manage on our own, or should I spend more time advocating for larger solutions? There are economies of scale in digital preservation. Should we be advocating for state repositories similar to our state libraries? Should we seek large regional solutions, or consortial solutions based within communities of practice? What policies will be necessary? What funding models will be appropriate? Can we identify small collections at risk in time to save them? How do we extend the work of our academic colleagues outside academe? Who can do this, and who will?

Is it enough to preserve what we hold in our own institutions? Sometimes that itself seems almost more than we can do, but if we don’t take on the task of building infrastructure to help preserve at-risk material held by others, who will?

So now I have a new research project to begin. These are the best conferences – the ones we leave on fire to learn more, to do more, and to carry the work forward.