Comprehensive Preservation Environments, IFLA 2016 Satellite Meeting.

I had the honor of presenting a paper for the International Federation of Library and Archives satellite meeting at the Library of Congress.  This meeting of the Preservation and Conservation Section together with the Preservation and Conservation Strategic Programme focused on on high density storage for library materials.

The paper, “Comprehensive Preservation Environments: Site-wide Resource Management and Conservation Outcomes for ReCAP,” describes ReCAP’s ongoing program to: 1) provide an excellent preservation environment for library and archival collections in tandem with a reduction in total energy usage, 2) shift power consumption towards sustainable and low-impact energy resources, and 3) engage in good stewardship of the lands under its care.

The paper is available in full here:  S11_2016_Nadal_en.pdf (PDF, 360 KB). Below, I summarize my observations on how ReCAP’s technical work helps to make a case for a methodological and strategic shift by turning stewardship into a measurable effort, and helping to make the shift towards a curatorial mode of librarianship.

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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.

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Commitment Day

Twenty-seven years ago today, March 7, 1989, a group of authors and publishers signed a Declaration of Book Preservation, saying “We, the undersigned authors and publishers, hereby declare our commitment to use acid-free paper for all first printings of quality hardcover trade books in order to preserve the printed word and safeguard our cultural heritage for future generations.”

There was a footnote about using acid-free paper “subject to availability,” which wasn’t a dodge. At the time, acid-free papers were not widely available. They are now widespread. The notepad on your desk is almost certainly acid-free, and likely so are the post-its beside it. The paper in your printer is acid-free. The hand towels in the bathrooms here at ReCAP are acid-free, and not just because we’re that focused on preservation (though, let’s face it, we are), but because after 25 years, the paper industry has retooled. Things really changed.

Like many of these stories, there’s a woman whose name you’ve never heard who deserves credit, and there are institutions who put their weight behind her. I think it takes both, every time, to make a difference. A spark and a hearth, a bright idea and a place for it to grow… and also keep it from taking down the whole house, a realistic concern in case, because Ellen McCrady was a dynamo.

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Getting involved in PARS

As ALA Annual Vegas recedes into a hazy memory, and with a fresh round of Committee assignments starting and new guidance from PARS-Exec about expectations for Interest Group and Conference participation, I’ve had a few questions from people about how to get involved in PARS.

First off, let me say thank you, bravo, and encore. We need new people to take up the work of the Association, because some of us are more than ready for a little break, plus you seem to have energy, ambition, and good ideas. If you’re wavering, wondering what you might be signing on for, and what you’ll get out of it, let me give it to you plainly:

  • PARS is a friendly group of people.
  • PARS is a small Section of ALA, so we often have room for people who want to get involved.
  • PARS gets a pretty high amount of stuff done, pretty quickly.
  • PARS develops and promotes standards and practices that see actual use.
  • PARS does not get everything done, nor does it do everything quickly.
  • PARS pulls off some big things, Preservation Week, for example.
  • PARS knows more about inherent vice than any other Section of ALA.

Now let me make that all a little murky.

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Performance Capture in Preservation

Performance capture is one of the lively topics confronting preservation professionals in libraries, archives, and museums right now. My major encounter with this problem was at UCLA Library, where we had a strategic plan that led to an actual performance capture report and the hiring of a real live person to work on the issues it framed. I got to thinking about the issue again over the weekend, after watching two fascinating videos of Keith Haring painting (at Brooklyn Museum) and reading an article about Nicholas Serota’s work at Tate.

I was a musician and occasional actor before I made my retreat into the stacks, though, so performance capture  is something I’ve encountered from a variety of angles. There’s a lot to be learned by the preservation profession from the work on historic performance practice in the performing arts. Part of the lesson is theoretical, I’ll even dare to say epistemological. But happily, a more immediate lesson is practical, and I’ll double dare say we can bring lessons from the performing arts to bear on preservation practices in the present time.

Some comments about the New Media and Social Memory Symposium at the UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive made by Gunter Waible and Perian Sully are a good indicator of the issues as stake.

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Fitness to History

I was at the Natural History a few weekends ago, and to pass a little time before Cosmic Collisions, I walked the cladogram of vertebrate evolution. I don’t know that sort of full-contact, total-immersion classification will ever really take hold with American Youth, but one of the wonders of New York City is that there is a place for everything, and everything invades your space.

And this made me think about web design. Carrie Bickner and I were discussing this idea a few weeks ago and talked about Curt Cloninger’s magnificent book, Fresh Styles for Web Designers, as a sort of starting point. His goal is inspiration and instruction for people really building sites, but along the way he classes and organizes web design into several schools. It’s a lot like a textbook on Art History. Carrie also made the compelling point that you needed to show the print side of web design because web design has its own classic books (Weinman, Cloninger, Black et al.) in addition to the general graphic design classics, and these all influence how web designers work.

But those cladograms got me thinking about another way to approach the history of web design, and that is through selective pressure and fitness. This isn’t special to web design, of course. In fact, it’s fundamental to all design. Books are rectangular because cows are (more or less) that shape; Italic type was developed as a way to cram a few more letters on a line to allow for smaller books and thus save money on paper (and make them more pocketable).

A designer is under pressures from standards, browsers, plug-ins, tastes and styles, and bandwidth allowances. It might be that web design is a good vehicle for exploring the idea of art under constraint. It might be fruitful to ask what the distinction between “design” and “art under constraint” happens to be.

Back at the Natural History last weekend, I went through the Darwin exhibit with an old friend. He’s a conservation biologist studying shorebirds in Barrow, AK. As we had lunch afterwards he made the observation that a good way to keep one’s perspective about fitness is to treat it as a historical phenomenon. The existence of an organism today means that its parents were fit yesterday.

A similar approach would be interesting to apply to the web. It would lead to questions like “why does flash persist as a common feature of websites of types x, y, and z?” rather than “is flash good or bad?” Putting the historical/fitness question into play in preservation strikes me as a smart move.

Art Space Tokyo!

I am very excited to say that I am backing of a Kickstarter project to reprint Art Space Tokyo. This exquisite book was originally published by Chin Music Press, a wonderful group in Seattle. Art Space Tokyo had eluded my grasp for quite some time. The first edition is quickly becoming unavailable and developing some mercurial pricing.

This project will create a revised and updated edition, but given Craig Mod and Ashley Rawlings‘ dedication to the book are and the art of storytelling, I think it is fair to call this a “first edition thus.” The added delight of crowd-sourced-patronage provenance for a small-press project makes it the completest thing.