A Budding Branch?

This evening I sat in on a lecture given by John Phillips, a Management Consultant at Information Technology Decisions.  John was giving an overview of what he saw as the similarities and differences between the three main branches of information management professionals: librarians, archivists, and records managers.  What was not included in this list were digital preservationists.

Now, as someone who is not actually working in the field, I may be remiss in assuming that digital preservation has yet earned thusly titled professionals.  But I think if this is not yet the case, then it certainly will be in the future…once it becomes clear that professionals from the other three branches of information management cannot be expected to all have expert-level knowledge of digital preservation practices….which will become clear because everyone in information management really needs to starting thinking about technological obsolescence.

The point of this post, though, is to point out a major correlation between records managers and what I would be inclined to think of as digital record preservationists.  As John pointed out, records managers differ from librarians and archivists because, 1) they tend to work in business or corporate environments, and 2) they are OK with – and are expected to – throw things away after they are no longer of value to the owning organization.

photo by Sebastiano Pitruzzello

Upon an item’s accession into a repository, records managers will asses the value of an object, and then revisit that assessment later on in the course of retention decisions.  If the item is no longer worth keeping, it is discarded.  This is also the (theoretical) case with digital preservationists.  In digital preservation, OAIS-type repositories are intended to preserve digital items for as long as those items are of value to their designated communities.  This implies that at some point, a digital item may no longer have value, and therefore continued preservation efforts for that item are not economically justified.  Throwing things away is a dirty job, but just as we can’t possibly collect everything out there, perhaps we can’t keep it all, either.

But let’s not discredit those clingy librarians.  John gave an interesting guesstimate regarding the types of respective repositories information professionals work with.  Among records managers, archivists, and librarians, librarians deal with the highest proportion of electronic to physical records out of all three professions.  (John’s guesstimate was 40% electronic / 60% physical, in comparison to IT professionals, who are 100% electronic by nature.)  The numbers for records managers were 30% electronic / 70% physical, which is still quite a lot of paper to be dealing with.
So if librarians are handling the highest proportions of electronic items out of these three groups, we can make a big case for libraries to be the battle grounds for creating leaders in digital preservation.  Technological and file format obsolescence will hit libraries the hardest if these numbers are accurate.  As contenders with the most to lose, libraries are poised to harbor the most institutional support for digital preservation initiatives…and perhaps spawn the fourth major branch of information professionals.

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2 thoughts on “A Budding Branch?

  1. John Phillips December 9, 2009 / 9:55 am

    I am very happy that the presentation stimulated some additional thinking about this subject. I do believe that information science schools have an enormous opportunity to create professonals that will influence our ability to make good decisions about the future availability of electronic records to organizations, individuals, and societies in general. The availability of those materials will depend on 1) preservation of the electronic objects (email, PC files, Web pages, etc.), and 2) preservation of the access methods to reach the objects. Archivists seem to excel at issues surrounging preservation of the objects themselves (data formats, complete metadata, context analysis, authenticity, etc.) and librarians seem to excel at preservation of access to the objects (taxonomies, classification, thesauri, open systems issues, virtual repositories, public access issues, etc.). Of course, there is much overlap in the interests and activities of professionals in these fields today.

    Now, if we can just get those records managers to stop throwing things away! Just kidding, well, sort of. You see, in an increasing number of corporate and government environments, an archivist is often consulted regarding some records series retention/disposition, such as marketing artwork or architectural drawings, before they are actually discarded. For instance, Coca Cola corporation has found that aging pictures and marketing records, of no current use to employees during operations, are actually of major use in documenting the history of the company and its products. Skidmore Owings and Merrill, a former client of mine, is an international architectural firm in Chicago. They will often evaluate very old architectural drawings that are of no current value to existing projects, and consider offering those drawings to architectural schools or museums in Chicago that are interested in learning about the historical development of buildings or other structures.

    So we see that an informational object, irregardless of format, may have different values to different audiences over time. The challenge is to have a high quality decision-making process regarding how we manage all of our information and knowledge. Who could possibly be better at creating these long range information management strategies than the graduates of information science, library science, archival science, and records management graduate programs?

    John Phillips

    • M. Amaral December 9, 2009 / 12:15 pm

      John, thank you so much for your comment. I really appreciate the extra thoughts you provide on this topic! I agree with you that a formal process for valuing digital objects would be really valuable. It would have to be a very general set of guidelines because it is so subjective in each time and place. The suggestion of transferring digital items between groups based on how valuable they would find a given object sounds excellent, and tremendously challenging. Yet it would guarantee the futures for many digital objects that may otherwise vanish…because as we know, without constant vigilance, a digital item is destined to die. Thanks again for your comment.

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