Preservation and Access

Two articles about digitization came across my desk this week; you probably saw them too. One argued for a re-prioritization of work so that more funds could be devoted to the preservation of audiovisual materials. The other explored the work of an organization seeking out and scanning old meteorological data that only exists on paper to make the data widely accessible.

So how do we balance them? Do we prioritize the material that is currently considered the most fragile? Do we set priorities solely based on format? If we do set priorities by format, would audiovisual material actually be the first priority? I would bet that some digital formats are more vulnerable than some audio or video formats.

Or do we set priorities based on research demand? The International Environmental Data Rescue Organization and other meteorological research collection efforts make a good case for responding to needs of researchers, but their focus can change more quickly than archives are able to respond to them.

All this has me thinking about the basics of
archives: preserve and provide access to
permanently valuable records and papers.

John Buchanan v. Robert Sayers. Augusta Chancery Court 1769
John Buchanan v. Robert Sayers. Augusta Chancery Court 1769. Virginia Memory

How do we prioritize one over the other?
We can’t. There is no point in preserving
something if we can’t or won’t make it
available for use. Similarly, we can’t make
it available if it hasn’t been taken care of.
Access and preservation are symbiotic partners
in our work. Just as there are many audiovisual
items at risk of being lost if we don’t take
preservation actions, meteorological records will
be lost we don’t seek them out and make them
available for use.

3 thoughts on “Preservation and Access

  1. Saw the AV article and I see the bias if you have AV collections, and understand that there is an issue with the physical media and hardware in the AV world. But digitization should be the priority of the archives holding the records. Funding agencies need to fund digitization, let the people applying for the grants determine what should be digitized. We need to realize that access is preservation, for the records and for the archives as an organization. The more people see and use our materials, the more they support and have an interest in what we do.

  2. I disagree with both Nancy and Mark. Nancy says “there’s no point in preserving something if we can’t or won’t make it available for use.” This seems short sighted to me. Artifacts that aren’t preserved and disintegrate can’t be made available to anyone henceforth. Once preserved, fair use availability is a matter of funding which may change in the future. “Can’t” is a time-dependent status particularly when referring to objects that have been digitized or were born digital. One might argue that “won’t” is applied because no one will want access to a specific artifact in the future. But demand is difficult to predict especially with respect to data that may become the subject of future scientific research. Time, popularity and scientific trends often bring surprising changes of interest.

    Mark comments that “access is preservation”. The two are interdependent but not identical. For example, I have software on audio cassette tapes in formats associated with computers I no longer have. The magnetic medium is degrading and it is likely that no one will have access to the content of these tapes in the near future unless they are migrated to modern media. Stopping the degradation (if possible) is preservation-sub-1. Migrating to modern media is preservation-sub-2. Storing the modern media and remigrating as needed is preservation-sub-3. These three are independent of whether only I can get my hands on the content of the tapes or whether the whole data image is downloadable by the public from the web.

    So access-sub-1 is me alone, access-sub-2 is the staff of my institution, access-sub-3a is paying members of my institution or web site, access-sub-3b is academic researchers. Access-sub-4 is pay per use or download by the general public, Access-sub-5 is free online use and download by the public.

    Let the preservation and access debates continue.

  3. Another view of the see-saw we are on is through the lens of risk. The highest risk for loss of access – that is one priority. Another risk is not providing the access we need today and becoming obsolete as a source. I’d prefer to see some win-win, collaborative play. Doing this work of saving information and providing access can be seriously fun if we don’t focus on winners and losers.

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