01 January 2007

Bridging the Gap Between Present and Future

by Jason Kucsma

If there was one underlying theme for the Northeast Document Conservation Center's (NEDCC) Persistence of Memory (PoM) conference in December, it was that the future of digital assets management and preservation is limited only by the imagination and diligence of today's information professionals. As a new student in the field of information resources and library science - with my sights tentatively set on digital assets management and preservation - attending this conference cemented my convictions that my interests and talents have a lot of room make meaningful contributions to the field of digital preservation. My experience at the PoM conference also reinforced much of what I had learned throughout the semester during a Digital Libraries course. By covering familiar themes of risk management or collaborative models for digital preservation work, or by inviting Priscilla Caplan discuss PREMIS - a project I had been reading about weeks prior in relation to my own digital preservation project proposal - NEDCC covered a tremendous amount of terrain in two short days of conference proceedings. At the risk of contradicting myself, I have to say that the PoM conference cannot and should not be reduced to simply one theme. I would like to take a moment to expand on a number of ideas and topics covered at PoM that made me just a little more anxious to finish school and begin contributing to a field that is experiencing dramatic and rapid changes.

Because much of this is new terrain for so many information professionals, I sensed a good deal of necessary bridge building at the PoM conference. A substantial number of attendees seemed to be coming from traditional archivist and librarian backgrounds, and a lot of work needed to be done to bridge the gap between old ways to thinking about our assets and how we will steward them into the future. Paul Conway, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, reinforced that although we are working with new technologies, "basic archiving principles endure." In other words, our commitment to certification, collaboration through distributed networks of archives, and the trust in our collections provided by accurate metadata are all consistent tenets of reliable collections regardless of the technologies used in creating them. We heard similar sentiments echoed by Priscilla Caplan in her discussion of the Preservation Metadata Implementation Strategy (PREMIS). Caplan discussed traditional preservation metadata needs like provenance, authenticity, and viability and how they are related to new digital preservation metadata needs like renderability, format migration, and standards from which archivists can all work.

I mention this bridge building because I think that it is crucial for us to consistently think about how to connect the present practices with future work. As a young information professional who has very much embraced the digital nature of information or "stuff," I feel like I am entering the field with a certain advantage - an understanding that so much of the information created in the world right now is done digitally, with no analog counterpart. At the same time, I (and my colleagues) have much to learn from where the field of preservation has been and work to crosswalk those best practices from the analog world to a digital one.

Bridging the gap between the present and the future cannot happen in a vacuum, however, and no conference on the work of cultural heritage institutions would be complete without discussion of how we go about this critical work in the face of dwindling financial resources and overworked personnel. This crisis was a common theme throughout a number of presentations, and it certainly leaves us wondering how small non-profit institutions can compete with commercial endeavors like Google Book Search and its counterparts. Katherine Skinner, Digital Programs Team Leader at Emory University, provided some of the most encouraging and tangible examples of how collaboration between institutions can effectively work to stretch financial and personnel resources to work more effectively. Indeed, as we see with Anthony Williams and Don Tapscott's new book, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, massive collaborations that exceed any of our preconceived notions of what it means to work together are exactly the sort of working relationships we need to be developing to further the critical cultural preservation work so many of our institutions are engaging in.

At the risk of stating the obvious, collaboration and cooperation seem to be the cornerstones for our work in this emerging field of digital preservation. These relationships will not only inform the standards we use in our work (metadata for digital preservation, for example) and best practices for going about the work of digital preservation, but they also help us maintain relevance in a world that is completely saturated with new digital information second-by-second. It was hard to leave the PoM conference without feeling a bit overwhelmed. We have a lot of work to do, but it is encouraging to think that I will be joining the ranks of these thinkers and doers in helping determine the future of this dynamic field.

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