Think Like a Computer

I gave a talk at ALA 2016, in Orlando, Florida, describing some of the approaches I’ve used in teaching digital preservation for libraries. My slides from the talk are posted here, and if the date is later than September 1, 2016 and you’re reading this, please do send me a reminder to post the edited transcript. (I’ve included the basic notes below, but it’s been a busy summer.)

My slides: Nadal-ALAAnnual16-DigPresEd

And an outline of the main points from the talk:

  • Preservation requires intact Materials (Substrate; Media) and functional Rendering systems (Transport; Language).
    • Materials are the core challenge for physical preservation; Rendering is the challenge for digital preservation.
    • In evaluating any training or education prospect, as how it will help you learn to move data around (transport) or to make data usable (language).
  • Computers are machines for performing binary logic operations, incidentally powered by electricity.
    • If you can imagine a conditional series of events, a computer can execute it.
    • Librarians have to describe the essential requirements and logical flow of systems.
    • Developers refine our requirements and make a best-possible implementation at a given point in time with prevailing technology.
  • Computers and programming happen in history and in the real world. Over time, we gain perspective on them just like any other information artifact.
    • Preservation is a sustainable process, optimized over time. What you do correctly now, will be wrong later.

I talk about two components for success in doing preservation. The first is having some frameworks to apply to the problem at hand. No preservation problem is ever perfectly fit to a framework, of course, but having a way to describe a problem and in tandem, to see how it differs from that framework, helps me decide what requires some new thinking and where there may already be a tool or solution that applies.

The second is “thinking like” the object that I am trying to preserve. That has effectively been the bulk of preservation and conservation work to date. We know a lot about the properties of papers and resins, for example, or the structure of various digital formats. This information often emerges from scientific work and presented as such. There are people in the LIS professions or seeking LIS education whose professional role will require them to solve problems that require exactly this kind of information. However, their educational background in the arts and humanities background provides them with a set of analytical tools and learning approaches that is at odds with the information they need, as that information is customarily presented.

I’m not an education researcher or any authority on the demographics of the LIS profession or its incoming student cohorts, so I want to be clear that I am not asserting anything about how common or uncommon this dilemma is, only that it is a dilemma that I have encountered and that it’s common enough that I have been able to fill a class or workshop a couple times a year for the last five or six years.

To address this problem — how to get the information produced by scientific work into a form useful to arts and humanities thinkers — I use readings on the history of various technologies. That approach places the technological and scientific issues in a familiar context and in a subordinate role to the historical narrative. This makes it possible to understand technology in a dramatic or biographical sense and changes “the technology” from an alien presence, necessarily incomprehensible, into a peculiar character in a complicated narrative.

That pedagogical approach alone is not enough to make technical experts out of everyone, it is enough to give librarians the vocabulary, knowledge, and perspective needed to collaborate with technologists and revisit the technology literature with the ability to read for key information required for smart preservation decision-making.