Reflections on the SAA 2006 Annual Conference - Part II

This entry is a continuation of my observations on this year's SAA annual conference. For more, see Part I.

Plenary Session II: "Technology"

Each of the three plenary sessions was hosted once each by the three joint conference organization, the second one headlined by SAA. This year, SAA president Richard Pearce-Moses opened the session with a talk summarizing his work over the last year in exploring the "new skills" needed by archivists for the digital era. Between his writings in Archival Outlook (here and here) and the New Skills Colloquium in June I have already heard much of what he had to say, but it was nice to see it presented so succinctly to a room full of archivists – a name drop didn't hurt, either!

There were a couple of key points that he made which validate opinions I have had and expressed in the past. One is that traditional archivists have a tendency to avoid the challenges presented by digital records – paraphrasing Pearce-Moses: to hope that someone else will deal with it instead. Second, he essentially stated that if archivists do not rise to the challenge, other professions will. I have previously expressed my concern over how terminology and practices that technology vendors use come into direct conflict with those that archivists use so it was encouraging to hear it put to the audience.

Following Pearce-Moses was a talk by Brewster Kahle of Internet Archive fame, which was a pleasant surprise, mainly because I was curious to see how he would present the "save everything" argument in this venue. Kahle's presentation was decidedly oriented towards a lay audience, being rather shallow in scope and simple in terms of technical detail, but I can understand his trepidation over being inaccessible to a decidedly non-technical audience – In fact, I have seen this happen on numerous occasions when tech industry professionals or computer science academics are asked to speak to librarians or archivists.

Aside from this lapse, however, Kahle definitely had a couple of key points to make and drove them home. One main point can be paraphrased as: we can save everything digitally because in the grand scheme of things it's not really that expensive. He threw out some general figures based on estimated amounts of data found in print, film, etc. and showed how these figures are inexpensive in an institutional or government context. Kahle didn't address appraisal and selection, which I am certain many in the audience would have loved to bring up, but I believe that addressing such concerns would have made for a significantly longer presentation. Second, he mentioned very little about preservation and preservation strategies and how they might impact the costs and requirements for storage and management. The main point he made about preservation was to reiterate the LOCKSS principle, saying essentially that the only proven way to keep information safe is to make lots of copies. But, I can understand why he would not delve too deeply into this topic as it brings into play discussion of formats, technological obsolescence, and of course, increased storage and costs. In summary, I appreciated his presentation as a general position statement, but I can easily imagine that few skeptics in the audience were turned.

The plenary session was wrapped up with a star appearance by "Cokie" Roberts, writer and ABC News correspondent. Her speech was quite entertaining, the content of which was mostly focused on her experiences in researching for her various books and how her experiences in advocating for breast cancer research could apply to helping fund archives and archival research. The most interesting part of her presentation was most likely an unintended argument for "save it all."

During her speech, Roberts discussed how difficult it was for her to find source documents regarding or by the wives and women related to the "founding fathers" for her book Founding Mothers. Some of the difficulty was due to the usual mis-management of documents, including deliberate destruction by the creators, but more of a problem was the fact that the perspectives of the women of the subject period were considered to be inferior to those of the men – in other words, there was a conscious selection judgment made on the part of archivists not to keep such records. These decisions could be waved through as sexist or as some related conspiratorial power struggle, and no doubt some of it is, but the issue I keyed in on is that no one can know with certainty what will be of interest to future researchers. This is perhaps the strongest argument for "save it all," not only because of the value to users, but because it is not a technological reason. It is this one thought that weaved Robert's speech seamlessly into the previous two, a feat that is tempting to attribute to her renowned brilliance, but then again may just as likely be due to the latent inertia behind the notion to "save it all."

Exhibit Hall and Student Poster Sessions

Having presented a poster at last year's exhibit, I felt a responsibility to take a look this year's presentations. Two posters caught my attention this year. The first was "Search and Preserve: Collecting the Punk and Hardcore Communities" by Debi Griffith of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I found this poster to be of personal interest for many reasons: First, it embodies a core argument behind my desire to save everything, that being that relying on conventional institutions and selection and appraisal can become biased against "fringe" or unpopular communities, thus ensuring a bias in or an incomplete cultural record. Another reason is that I have been a participant in some of these communities, from punk and alternative music, to industrial, techno, and experimental music. I am a semi-avid collector of DIY-style zines and publications put forth by these communities, a habit that started well before I had any idea about archives and such. My participation in these communities has taught me how the "mainstream" can easily, if not deliberately, misrepresent such movements and how important it is to ensure that the record includes the perspectives and views of the communities in question.

The second poster that I caught my interest was "Digital Object Identifiers and Resource Identifiers in Archival Description" by Krista Ferrante of Simmons College. This poster was fairly simple, presenting DOI and handle servers as a means of providing persistent identification of electronic records, but it did remind me that I need to finally get something together on the XRI/XDI specification in the archival context.

Session #508: "Future Shock: Saving the Signals of Audio-visual Records"

I attended this session for much the same reasons I attended session #208, that is, to validate the decisions that were made in formulating the CHAT preservation plan and see what new work had been done in digital video preservation and access since early last year. The difference between this session and #208 is that this session covered projects specifically dealing with audio, video, and audiovisual research rather than TV.

The first presentation was by Steve Weiss of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who presented his work with restoring and preserving African American cultural audio works. His presentation was heavy on demonstrations of the various music and voice recordings, but fairly light on process and lessons learned. One idea that I took from his presentation had to do with software for testing CD recordable media prior to use. All during the CHAT research I had not come up with such software, but it struck me as not only plausible but desirable to confirm recordable media before attempting to write data in order to avoid having to troubleshoot bad recordings after the fact. No specific software was mentioned, but knowing that such software exists should make it easy to find – more research is necessary here.

The second presentation was given by Joanne Rudof of the Fortunoff Video Archive for WW-II Holocaust Testimonies. Rudof described in detail the process used to migrate and preserve a large number of Beta-SP cassettes of oral histories and testimonies. Much of the initial process she described sounded similar in concept to the CHAT plan: surveying and inventorying existing media, developing a "triage" plan to prioritize preservation efforts, etc. The major portion of the effort centered on the implementation of an experimental robotic system called SAMMA which comprised a semi-automated system for copying the existing cassettes to newer media and creating MPEG-2 digital surrogates. It was difficult to tell from the information presented how much material (in hours) was actually migrated – one figure I heard was about 250 hours or 10 TB of MPEG-2 – but the final number of cassettes migrated came out to over 2000. The mini-DV cassettes used by CHAT are newer and at less risk than those of the Fortunoff archive, but if the number of hours was correct, then we managed to develop a plan that took more time and individual work effort, but only a fraction of the cost of this project – several hundred thousand versus a few thousand. I've been meaning to revisit the CHAT project in terms of results and I think the low budget aspect may be the tack to take.

Some research findings were presented, one set by Virginia Danielson of Harvard University, who gave an overview of her work with the "Sound Directions" project, and the other a short update by Jim Reilly, who was brought in by the session chair to discuss some of his work. Danielson's presentation focused on some of the best practices determinations made by her project, or as she put it, "not bad practices." One thing I noted to research from her presentation is the IASA TC-04 preservation manual. The main takeaway from Reilly's presentation was, paraphrased, that there is no single or simple cause of physical degradation of magnetic media. This reinforces my doubt, stated in the CHAT plan, over the long-term efficacy of tape media as an archival solution. As optical and disc-based magnetic media overtake magnetic tape in storage capacity, the days of tape media certainly seem numbered.