This post was written by Robert LaRose, who attended the 2022 DLF Forum as a Public Library Fellow.
Robert LaRose is a digital curation librarian in The People’s Archive at DC Public Library. Much of his work involves managing the ingest, description, preservation, and access for the library’s digitized and born-digital archival collections. These collections primarily consist of oral histories, photographs, newspapers, audiovisual recordings, and websites related to Washington, DC history and culture. A firm believer in making digitization and digital preservation more accessible to all, Robert has created instructional documents, produced podcasts, and provided public programming on these topics to hundreds of library patrons and staff from across the U.S. Before joining The People’s Archive, he managed DC Public Library’s Memory Lab, a free, publicly available do-it-yourself digitization space. Additionally, he has collaborated with colleagues at DC Public Library and other cultural heritage institutions to train members of the Memory Lab Network on replicating the lab’s model in their own libraries. He holds an MLS from the University of North Texas with a concentration in digital content management and a BA in linguistics from the College of William & Mary. Outside the library, Robert enjoys woodworking, tinkering with obsolete technology, and performing in various musical groups throughout the DC area.
Where will digital objects be in 400 years? This question was on my mind all throughout this year’s DLF Forum, and it highlights two issues that are becoming ever more pressing: The fragility of digital data, and the environmental sustainability of digital preservation (and digital technology more broadly). From the beginning of the week, when a conversation about these topics broke out at the fellows’ breakfast, I could not stop thinking about them for the rest of the conference. Although I started hearing about these issues when I began working in libraries nearly a decade ago, the fellows’ breakfast discussion was particularly influential and set the tone for the rest of my experiences that week.
Mainstream conversations about humans’ impact on the environment do not typically take into account the carbon footprint made by maintaining storage servers and other infrastructure that supports the digital technology we rely on so heavily. At the breakfast, our discussion about the potential consequences of preserving our digital world drove us to facetiously suggest printing out physical copies of digital material as a more sustainable “preservation” program than backing things up on physical media or in cloud-based systems. Considering the relative stability of paper artifacts compared to that of digital objects (in the absence of adverse climate conditions, at least), this did not seem like such a terrible idea.
How far will we go to ensure that the files on our hard drives or digital preservation systems last in perpetuity? What are the financial and environmental consequences of utilizing ever greater amounts of cloud storage, which is often maintained by corporations for whom forced obsolescence is profitable and preservation is an afterthought (at best)? As caretakers of digital cultural heritage, we have an obligation to highlight the consumerism that has dominated digital technology, especially cloud-based applications and services. These services are often described as “sustainable”, but they just defer the usage of precious resources from the end user to far-away server farms in an “out of sight, out of mind” fashion. As cloud storage becomes increasingly ubiquitous, it also raises questions about the level of autonomy we have over our data, blurring the line between what is owned by users versus by companies that manage the storage that we use.
On my last day at the conference, I took the opportunity to visit Baltimore’s iconic Peabody Library during a break. As I admired a 400-year-old book of prayers on display, I thought about what an archived Tweet, a website, a data set, or any other piece of digital history would look like in four centuries. Would it still be as accessible as that book on display? To what lengths will we have to go to make it last that long? What does it really mean to be environmentally sustainable, and how do we balance our sustainability goals with our increasing reliance on digital technology? After our lively chat at the fellows’ breakfast, I found that these issues were only briefly acknowledged during a couple of the conference sessions I attended. I eagerly look forward to further discussion about them at future DLF and NDSA events.