Preservation and Use of Digital Information

I’ve been at the Library of Congress for the past two days, in a workshop with a bunch of librarians, news folks and others discussing the long-term preservation of news in a digital era. My role turned out to be pushing for a greater recognition of the non-traditional news sources that are emerging in this networked world, including blogs, social networks and and hyper-dynamically generated material that shows up on screens in large part as a result of what the user wants (and sometimes creates), not solely what the provider thinks is important.

One thing first: I worship librarians. They are under-appreciated in the extreme. What they do enriches us all in a variety of ways. Sitting inside the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress, in a room that overlooked the U.S. Capitol, I realized that the library is on higher ground than the Capitol itself. Seems reasonable.

The workshop had an understandable tilt toward the creators traditional media’s dominant life forms in the now-crumbling news ecosystem: newspapers and broadcasters. Saving what they do is unquestionably important. Putting analog content into digital form is a non-trivial issue, and even though the things they produce today are generally created first in digital formats, archiving is not a simple or, at the moment, inexpensive proposition.

As the cost of raw storage plummets, some of the archiving issues will ease, but others will remain. A key issue is the giant stinking pile of garbage known as today’s copyright system. It deters some uses of news that would be widely beneficial, and is fundamentally a barrier to public understanding, not an enhancement.

Newspapers have treated their own archives — essential parts of their communities’ history — with utter disrespect. Some are unavailable, period. Others are on microfilm, with some of those being digitized by private companies that partner with newspapers mostly to create pay-walls that serve almost no one’s interest.

Digitizing and storing are all but meaningless if the result is (at best in many cases) costly access. Copyright law makes the situation worse, but the attitudes of the people who control the material are probably the bigger problem, especially now that they’re looking for any port in the fiscal storm that threatens to drown all but the sturdiest in the industry.

It’s good to see these folks at least acknowledging some of these issues. We don’t have as much time as we might like to solve them. Our histories — at least the ones created by traditional media — are in danger of disappearing, just when we have seen our best opportunity to ensure that they live on, not just as things we keep in vaults but as part of the toolset we all need to understand what’s been going on and what we can do about it.

One area where we can make a big difference, quickly, is in the part of media we call blogging (but which I define a bit more broadly). We’ll look at that in the next post.