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Paradigm Shift from Economics of Scarcity to Abundance & Scarcity of Common Sense 2011/08/24

Posted by nydawg in Archives, Best Practices, Digital Archives, Information Technology (IT), Intellectual Property.
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One of the most exciting (and scary!) aspects of being a digital archivist these days  is that everyone is living through a transition from the Atomic Age (age of atoms) to the Information (Digital) Age (age of bits), but archivists are also living through a professional paradigm shift from the economics of scarcity to the economics of abundance.   There is so much born-digital information created every day, month, year, decade, etc., that it is overwhelming just to contemplate how much information is created (and stored), and, while it seems like archivists are doing more and more work, there is some question about the metrics used to show that we are preserving the most significant material.  (e.g. NARA is accessioning 200 million emails from the George W. Bush Administration which, as I’ve blogged previously, works out to nearly one email every second of the Administration).

For me, this is a fascinating time for archivists because few people seem to understand how significant this transition is and will be.  In fact, from my experiences from library schools, many older faculty members seem unwilling (or unable?) to articulate this transition and, by extension, cannot even teach younger students how these changes will impact their lives and professions.  So rather than try to address these issues head-on, some educators ignore them and assign student readings from books written in the early 1990s or before.  (I have nothing against the study of “history”, but practicality would be helpful for students trying to get jobs as Information or Knowledge Mangers.)

Years ago, for example, when President John F. Kennedy wrote a memo or correspondence, his secretary would type it up in triplicate and send one copy to the intended recipient, file a second copy in the office, and send the third copy to the archives.   Decades later, if somebody wanted to find the original, the office copy or the archived version, it would most likely be filed away and accessible in its original paper format.  This system worked very well for hundreds and probably thousands of years!  In the Information Age, a similar memo for President Barack Obama might be created by the secretary as a born-digital Word format file, and copies of the file could (or should) be distributed in a similar manner (or perhaps converted to ISO 32000  PDF/A format for stable long-term preservation).  This may or may not be happening, but one big difference is that these electronic records (or born-digital files) are dependent on the software used to create them, and if the software is upgraded or replaced and newer versions are not backwards compatible, it may prove difficult to find, access and open those files.  (Also, it’s important to note that those files may have been stored on any variety of media formats which are no longer supported or accessible (e.g. remember Jaz drives or zip disks or CD-ROMS or 5.25″ floppys disks?)

To prevent losing mass quantities of materials, many libraries subscribe to LOCKSS or Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe.  This may work for electronic journals created in PDF/A format, but it doesn’t work so well if ALL those copies are in a format (or font) that is obsolete or not supported– and/or are stored on a medium (floppies) that are no longer accessible on newer technologies (eg. iPads don’t have a DVD-ROM drive or a USB port)!

But this strategy may not work for Digital Archives because of the difference between accessibility and access or, as James Gleick, author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, puts it: “We’re in the habit of associating value with scarcity, but the digital world unlinks them. You can be the sole owner of a Jackson Pollock or a Blue Mauritius but not of a piece of information — not for long, anyway. Nor is obscurity a virtue. A hidden parchment page enters the light when it molts into a digital simulacrum. It was never the parchment that mattered.”

As Maria Popova puts it in her excellent essay “Accessibility vs. access: How the rhetoric of “rare” is changing in the age of information abundance“: “Because in a culture where abundance has replaced scarcity as our era’s greatest information problem, without these human sensemakers and curiosity sherpas, even the most abundant and accessible information can remain tragically “rare.””

Archivists and librarians have mastered the processes and practices from an earlier era of scarcity (e.g. item-level description) and seem unwilling (or unable) to consider a new and more efficient model.  I was trying to think of an analogy for this, and it hit me in Kennedy Airport where I am waiting for my flight to SAA’s annual meeting in Chicago: For hundreds and thousands of years, men and women have moved around while struggling to pack and carry their  luggage, but it wasn’t until 1970 that Bernard Sadow “invented” the suitcase with wheels.  What took so long?
It’s hard to say exactly what took so long, but it seems likely that travelers (especially macho travelers) had gotten so used to the inconvenience of lugging their heavy luggage through changing transportation systems that no one considered an easier, faster and better way.  But ultimately “common sense” won out, and now just about everyone (except me) has wheels on his/her luggage.  Why am I still holding out?!  I’m still waiting for suitcases that fly!

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