Last week, I attended the Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group (PASIG) Fall 2016 meeting, here in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art. Each day of the three-day conference focused on a different theme: Day 1 was “Bootcamp/101,” Day 2 was “Preservation and Archiving in Practice” and Day 3 was “Preservation Frontiers and the Bigger Picture.” While all three days were great, and I’d recommend checking out all of the presentations, the talks on the final day made me reflect critically on what it means to responsibly engage with digital preservation activities, especially at an institution like the Rockefeller Archive Center.
Eira Tansey’s talk, “The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness: Preservation in the Anthropocene,” and Ben Goldman’s talk, “The 14th Blackbird: Digital Preservation as an Environmentally Sustainable Activity,” both reflected the relationship between digital preservation, the natural environment and climate change. Eira drew parallels between evolving attitudes towards land and archives in the United States, from the early 20th century up through today. The three questions she asked—Who do we preserve for? What should we preserve? Are we preserving for today or for tomorrow?—are parallel to the evolving discussions of philanthropy documented in many of our archival collections as well as what we should grapple with in our day-to-day work.
Ben’s talk raised several questions related to how digital preservation infrastructure and actions contribute to climate change. His calls to consider how theoretical frameworks impact climate change and to embrace “lossiness” touched upon a lot of things I’ve been thinking about in developing digital preservation workflows for our disk imaged content. As Ben noted, disk images involve a lot of ancillary data such as slack space, and while at the individual level it seems insignificant at scale long-term preservation of that data requires a lot of storage and management, which in turn requires electricity, much of which is produced by burning fossil fuels. This is important to keep in mind as we decide what to keep long-term; though it may seem cheap and easy just to keep every byproduct of digital forensics processes, keeping everything can have a real-world negative impact on our environment.
Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez’s talk, “Invisible Defaults and Perceived Limitations: Processing the Juan Gelman Files,” reflected on what it means to “sanitize” characters in non-English filenames and files, and how this reinforces Western dominance. I noted that the tools she used were open source. The RAC considers contributing to open source communities to be a key part of our mission; it’s vital for us to be aware of and challenge our assumptions when developing requirements for and contributing to open source projects. Even good intentions can reinforce oppressive structures, and as we at the RAC seek to lead by example in the archival profession we need to acknowledge that we don’t know everything, be aware that we have blind spots, and be willing to listen and learn.