Separate and unequal

To say I am interested in digital preservation is an understatement, so when I see a post by Karen Schneider on her Free Range Librarian blog about an idea she had about a digital humanities preservation idea I was intrigued. I enjoy reading her blog and follow her on Twitter and I respect her opinion.

Her idea of a preservation plan for literary journals, named Bristlecone, has some positive aspects, but I think misses the mark on so many levels. The basic goal of preserving a last copy of these literary journals is a lofty one, although perhaps impractical on a basic level. As pointed out in her posting these literary journals are not collected widely even by academic libraries. Knowing which copies to withdraw and which to save won't solve the problem if libraries don't subscribe to the journals in the first place. Recent economic times are hitting library budgets hard and even though these literary journals are generally inexpensive I fear that they may still become casulties in a shrinking budget. Could Bristlecone serve as a clearinghouse to insure the physical copies? That would be a good idea. Could it be funded? Not sure about that.

I think it is more problematic to suggest a LOCKSS scenario to insure the preservation of the digital content. LOCKSS works great on discrete collections of digital objects. One big question, though, with this particular content is what exactly will be preserved? Would that be the pdf files used for printing these issues? Page images with accompanying OCR? Assorted files that collectively make up the web presence? Archival TIFF images of the pages? These issues could likely be worked out but the ongoing financial sustainability would be somewhat shakier. Who would commit to this and pay for it? Publishers of the journals who are already on shaky financial ground? Libraries who are being stretched to retain and preserve humanities content already? Not so sure about that either.

I think the bigger philosophical problem I have with this idea is that once again humanities content would be settling for a separate and certainly not equal solution for long term access and preservation. Digital humanities projects are some of the most innovative and meaningful uses of technology, but most of the funding available for developing cyberinfrastructure to support digital preservation is allocated primarily for the sciences (and to a lesser degree the social sciences). The money available for humanities is miniscule by comparison.

There are many innovative, destined for success models in the works that will make real strides toward developing systems to accomodate any type of digital object - be it a photograph, an audio clip, a newspaper page, an immense data set, or a literary journal. In order to be successful the solution must scale up and scale down, it must be able to detect bit loss and correct it, it must be able to use rules applied at the time of ingestion into the system to be able to know what the ultimate disposition of the data is.

Those of us with our hearts in the digital humanities must align our projects with the larger solutions that will ultimately receive the funding needed to be successful. There is no reason that literary journal content could not be saved along with a physics data set. It is all made up of bits. We just have to make sure it happens. I respectfully suggest that to have a separate system dedicated simply to literary journals does this content no favors in the long run.

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