Making A Better Good Enough

December 17, 2009

This past weekend’s Times Sunday Magazine had a list of the top innovations of 2009. An interesting twist here was that these included not only physical / mechanical inventions, but also new concepts or changes in ways of thinking. One that especially caught my eye was the concept of “Good Enough is the New Great” (second down in the G’s). It seemed true enough that, with the huge expansion in available audio and video digital recorders and formats, we’ve gone through a shift in what we consider acceptable a/v quality and that we often care more about having access to information than we do about the aesthetics of the deliverable.

However, I started thinking about this in terms of my own work with audiovisual materials and quickly realized that this is not actually an innovative concept, that archivists have long been working under the rubric of Good Enough. The whole idea of an access copy is itself creating a good enough copy for users. Also, we have always struggled with availability of resources, with the restrictions that original or destination formats have, and with sudden technological shifts that promote obsolescence. Because of these and other factors, our choices in archiving and preservation often end up as The Best Option at the Time, which can sometimes seem like only Good Enough.

We as archivists also know that Good Enough is not a new thing to the wider public. We are the ones who have to deal with maintaining the media that has been created, and part of the reason we are forced into The Best Option is because of how often the media creator has settled for Good Enough or defaulted to Good Enough because they didn’t make proper adjustments to settings, lighting, format options, etc. Sure we prefer to preserve the best quality and longest lasting version of an asset, but we can only work with what we are given and are limited by the destination options available.

But this should not lead to a defeatist attitude; we should continue to take our higher responsibilities and standards seriously. This is why I say we do The Best Option at the Time, not Good Enough, because the ethics and standards of our field should not allow us to settle.

These responsibilities lie in three main areas:

  • Research: Get educated in best practices that one should strive to follow. There is more and more research and resource availability that will help one to decide what the Best Options are.
  • Maintenance: Keep abreast of changes to standards, practices, format availability, obsolescence, and other factors that will affect the persistence of audiovisual materials or how our work is done.
  • Education: Not just our own education, but also the education of others in our organizations and the general public. If they understand what we do and the challenges we face, and if they understand how their actions affect the long term preservation of their creations, our work will have even better Best Options available.

Creator, User, Archivist – we’re all in this together. Good Enough is a good enough access standard, but it is not a preservation standard, and as always, we need to be cautious of the former trickling down into the latter.

— Joshua Ranger