Spem in alium: Orchestrating preservation

[These remarks were delivered to the Preservation Administration Interest Group at the American Library Association’s 2017 Annual Conference in Chicago, IL. By way of context, it was just announced that I was taking up the position of Director for Preservation at the Library of Congress. I spoke about preservation in libraries, but I believe that these apply as well to preservation in archives, museums, and other collecting institutions.]
I worry what Emily Post might say about lecturing on semiotics at 9 in the morning on a week-end, but Richenda got me a little bit fired up the need for a critical theory of preservation last night, so I’m going to start today with Heidegger’s thoughts on early Romantic period music and food storage:

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A Tale of Two Holes in the Wall

This is going to end up being a post about preservation management with an epilogue on equitable access and shared collections, but it starts with some rough building trades-work and a visit to a notable internet site’s headquarters. In planning the trip, I’d asked something about energy consumption for their data center. That led someone to mention a clever system for pouring the waste heat from their servers into the building’s air plenum for free heating.

I love this kind of stuff.

On the day of the visit, I asked to see how this worked and, upon entering the server room, was delighted to be disappointed because their system for harvesting residual heat was… wait for it…. Continue reading A Tale of Two Holes in the Wall

Think Like a Computer, Part II.

Part of my day with the AAPB National Digital Stewardship Residents has been added to the WGBH Forum Network. The idea behind this lecture is to “[l]earn the history of computers and computing in the same way that conservators learn the history of book and paper making, writing, and printing to care for physical collections. A variety of games and exercises are used to teach core concepts in logic and computing, and a review of computer history shows how the specific preservation problems in digital systems relate to fundamental preservation issues across all media.”

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.

Continue reading Comprehensive Preservation Environments, IFLA 2016 Satellite Meeting.

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 person 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 progress. A motivated person and network of support, spark and a hearth, a bright idea and a place for it to grow… and also keep that spark from burning down the house, a realistic concern in this case, because Ellen McCrady was on fire.

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The Destruction of Libraries: Book Reviews

[Written at the request of my alma mater for their project, “Books and Destruction: Honoring Banned Books Week,” during August 2015.]

Libraries and archives are frequent targets in war and conflict. Institutions that support the rule of law, encourage the exploration of ideas and identity, and stand for intellectual freedom are a grace threat to regimes that seek to control all aspects of public and private life.

The number of books that address this topic is, sadly, growing. Rebecca Knuth’s two most recent books, Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century and Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction, deserve attention for their thorough scholarship and attention to current events. Lost Libraries: The Destruction of Great Book Collections Since Antiquity, an essay collection edited by James Raven, might be read back to back with Lucien Polastron’s Books on Fire: the Destruction of Libraries Throughout History, which is both thoroughly researched and deeply felt. A Universal History of the Destruction of Books by Fernando Báez may deserve a reader’s first attention, though. It is a comprehensive and provocative starting place, for one, but it is also a book that has been widely read in translation, which makes it a particularly fitting introduction to a problem that so often emerges from the fractured relations between nations.

Continue reading The Destruction of Libraries: Book Reviews

Early Career Residencies

I was invited to present a short talk for the 2016 ALCTS President’s SymposiumRe-envisioning “Technical Services” to Transform Libraries, and to expand on this in an ALCTS Webinar. This post follows the basic train of my remarks (as of 25 January 2017) but expands on a few points and has been updated to weave in ideas that came up in the discussion.

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UCLA Library Cooperative Library Services Talk

On September 18, 2015, I had the pleasure of spending the day at UCLA Library talking about the work we’re engaged in around cooperative print preservation and the ways that a shared service layers that can provide better access to research collections.

I want to thank Sharon Farb and Dawn Aveline, particularly, for putting this event together. It was a real pleasure to work with the team at UCLA Library, and I was very glad that we had librarians from SCELC involved, as well.

The handout from my talk is here, and alludes to the main themes: UCLA Library Handout (94 KB; PDF). I don’t have a full transcript of this talk, yet, but some of the key ideas are captured in a short piece I wrote on “Curatorial Libraries,” posted on Medium for comment, and archived on this site.

Throughout the day, we referred to a number of resources, listed here:

Finally, let me say a word of thanks to the librarians at Princeton and Harvard, who invited me to give earlier versions of this particular talk, and acknowledge all of my colleagues across the ReCAP partnership, whose many years of work on cooperative services is the real proof of the benefits that come from cooperative library services.