August 10, 2010

My family is the type that loves nothing more than teasing one another. Well, maybe some fresh caught Steelhead or Chinook on the barbeque and an assortment of West Coast microbrews rank pretty high, too, but such activities can easily run concomitantly to teasing.

It is through such family bonding that I found out I have a (according to them) somewhat unorthodox running style. Intense and scowling focus, straight up posture with high knees; in pictures it tends to look more like I’m high-step marching rather than running.

My form is something I developed on my own, not really thinking there was anything odd about it. When I finally got back into running at the age of mumblemumblemumble after a mumblemumblemumble year hiatus, I joined a large group training for a 10-mile race. When we started getting up in the 8-10 mile range in our weekly group runs, my running partner and I started noticing we were all doing the shuffle run. At some point, your body and mind give out, but driven by momentum or some reptilian brain automated muscle twitches, you just keep going. Your form is bad, you’ve slowed noticeably, and your feet are barely leaving the ground like some teenager shuttling around in flipflops, but you keep moving – creeping, really – along.

As I got deeper into running, at some point I decided a goal was to avoid the shuffle run. My solution was to always focus on making sure my feet pushed off and fully left the ground, forcing myself when tired to keep lifting my legs and maintain my pace – thus resulting in my high-steppin’ style. There are likely a number of inefficiencies in my form due to the heavy dependence on my thighs, but it works for me. I get from the beginning of a run to the end of a run without looking like a zombie, and my speed has increased dramatically since then. The in-between takes a high level of energy and focus, but the end results are well beyond what I thought this aged body was capable of.

I have always been interested in the in-between: the process from here to there; that which is not easily defined as one thing or t’other; the forgotten spaces in cities and buildings that exist where hidden work or unexpected activities go on. Of late I have also been finding that the in-between is becoming a greater focus of concern in explaining the work we do. Many people in media archiving or preservation have likely run into the situation where someone says, “Well why don’t you just digitize it?” One starts with a reel of film or ¼” tape, and then one has a CD or DVD. Bingo bango bongo. Of course they don’t know about the whole process of assessing the content, parameters, and condition of the original; identifying reformatting options, desired outcomes/uses of reformatted materials, file-based preservation strategies, and how those decisions inform one’s selection of deliverables and vendors; and then performing quality control and scheduling periodic review/migration of preservation materials. These considerations are our realm and our work. I don’t exactly know how they get the crème in a Ding Dong; I just want to eat it.

These are the day-to-day kind of in-betweens we think about and deal with. Lots of important decisions to make, but nothing too surprising. However, the management of file-based assets has created a new set of concerns that archivists have to be aware of. More and more I’ve been hearing stories of activities that sound everyday enough, such as software upgrades and file transfers between servers, that go horribly awry. Upgrades are incompatible with older files or files created with a different software and those legacy files are corrupted or become inaccessible… Directory structures are changed during a migration or systems clean up and relationships or dependencies are lost… Important folders are not moved to a new server or are deleted during the application of a retention policy…

Archivists and collection managers must be aware of these issues, but they very often are not the people responsible for making the related decisions or implementing policies or equipment upgrades. Especially in larger organizations, systems can be part of a much larger networks that services many different departments. Collection management may just be a portion of overall systems management, which itself may be the realm of an IT department, or a higher level organizational manager, or a vendor / contractor hired to perform services. In these cases actions may be taken without consulting all levels of users, and the decision-makers may be acting on not the fullest amount of information or based on more broadly defined needs.

Preservation needs, however, are something different. Preservation goes against the natural order — it is the staving off of the processes of degradation and decay — and that also means, in a sense, going against the directional flow of an organization or certain technological shifts towards thelatestandgreatest in order to best maintain legacy materials in the face of constantly changing work plans or software / hardware versioning. Innovation and change certainly oughtn’t to be rejected out of hand, but caution can take a reasoned approach and play a role in effective advocacy — one of the other sides of the multi-faced die of collection management.

Advocacy itself takes many forms. I think what I’m trying to draw out here is that these forms include the cultivation of institutional awareness and relationships. Archives are often integrated into larger institutional budgets and structures, and are often perceived as a minor organizational piece. Two things here:

1. Archives have the potential to be major players in the fulfillment of organizational missions and goals across a wide array of departments.

2. Open awareness and communication with those other departments regarding their needs as well as how their policies or decisions will affect the longevity of archival materials is one of the keys to proactive, forward-looking collection management.

It is a foregone conclusion that a media collection is fairly useless without means to discovery and access. What cannot be found and viewed is, essentially, non-existent. Parallel to this truism is the fact that a collection which is invisible to its parent institution is bound to remain forgotten, unused, and unsupported. Making a collection findable through catalogs or finding aids is one step; making a collection findable through creating awareness and articulating its organizational value is equally important. The care taken in interactions between people and departments is as valuable as the care taken in migration between formats and storage devices. And I ain’t ya teasing here.

— Joshua Ranger