Analogue versus digital (1)

Although digital material is existing for several decades, and most people have some kind of familiarity with using computers, smart phones and tablets, this does not mean that all people involved with the care for digital material are fully aware of the ins and outs of the material. Quite a lot of organizations like libraries and archives have employees that have been treating analogue material for years. They know all about the risks of brittle and acid papers, insects and mould. They can debate about  using gloves for handling rare books. They can measure the increase of the acid degree  with sophisticated equipment. And they can put the damaged manuscripts and books right under your eye, pointing to the lost visibility or damaged colours.

And now they need to get a feeling for taking care of digital material.

There is a large digital preservation community that  now has an idea of how to do this. And together we try to develop a shared vision on how to treat various digital data types, file formats etc. We have our standards and our common language, via OAIS, Premis, RAC/TRAC etc.

And there is a even larger community that expects digital files in a computer to be there forever. They don’t even imagine bit rot can happen. They are surprised when you tell them that you need checksums to verify that the file is not damaged. They might never have  seen a tape or a hard disk. They don’t go that far that they say that the computer is a “magic box”, but in fact for them a computer is terra incognita.

And we need to explain it to them, because it will become part of their job. Quite often we try to explain it in our “digital preservation language”, our own OAIS-Esperanto language. But I don’t think that will work.  I’m struggling how to translate the digital preservation concepts to “non digital” oriented people.  I was wondering whether the approach of analogies might help. If we are able to draw parallels between a risk in a digital environment and translate the consequences in the terminology of a analogue environment, might not the people that are used to analogue material have a quicker understanding of the consequences? Because they can translate it to the field of knowledge, they are familiar with?

Take for example the following example. A library customer finds a book in the catalogue and asks for this at the counter. Someone takes the order and will look for the book in the storage facilities. But alas, no book, the place on the shelf is empty and there is no registered proof that someone took it. Perhaps it was returned to a wrong shelf, perhaps it is lost or stolen.

The analogy with a digital repository is, that someone asks for a digital object, and receives a message that it cannot be retrieved. The cause might be, that the descriptive information in Data Management  (perhaps duplicated in a catalogue) does not link anymore to the AIP in the archival storage.  Then something is seriously wrong. We try to avoid that in the repository, by creating a repository system that has taken measures to safeguard this linkage between those two vital elements: the access to the object and the object itself. By adding a unique identifier and metadata, duplicating descriptive information in the AIP, regular checking etc.  And we can explain this (costly) approach by telling the parallel situation in the non-digital world.

No client will take “no” for an answer and the staff certainly wants to avoid this situation, be it a digital or an analogue one.

I’ll think of more examples, your feedback is welcome!

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