Preservation Is About Being Prepared For Institutional Failure

January 28, 2013

We were excited to see Part 1 of Jonathan Minard’s documentary Archive — a work about the “future of long-term digital storage, the history of the Internet and attempts to preserve its contents on a massive scale” — released the other day. Jonathan is a Fellow at Eyebeam Art & Technology Center, and was the point person there working with the group of volunteers who were assisting with the post-Sandy recovery efforts of their collection.

This first segment is focused on the work of The Internet Archive to record and preserve the Internet, scanned books, films, television, recorded sound, etc., etc. No matter what you think about what Brewster Kahle is doing and how he and The Internet Archive are going about it, one can’t deny that Kahle is an inspirational thought leader. One thing I especially came away with was that statement that the loss of materials is not a failure of the media or technology but, across analog and digital collections, it is a problem of institutional failure. Businesses fail, governments fail, wars and uprisings happen, budgets are cut, policies and procedures are not developed or enforced, preparations are not made.

From this point of view, we could consider that the wariness to adopt digital preservation as a strategy is not because the technology is riskier, but because it exposes those institutional failures and may be affected by them more quickly and more broadly than we are used to. Kahle is right when he says we know what to do, we just need to do it and be more regular and vigilant about it. Know the problems or patterns and be ready.

This is one of my big philosophical problems with the concept of benign neglect, that it embraces a culture of expected failure, grasping on with fingers-crossed, hoping that everything will be okay or maybe nothing bad will happen. Instead, we need acknowledge that failures happen and establish proactive strategies for being prepared when they inevitably do.

—¬†Joshua Ranger