Letters to the Editor


D-Lib Magazine
July/August 2008

Volume 14 Number 7/8

ISSN 1082-9873

To the Editor

The letter below was received in response to the two-part commentary, Rethinking Personal Digital Archiving, by Catherine C. Marshall in the March/April 2008 issue of D-Lib Magazine.

To the Editor:
November 30, 2008
Catherine Marshall reminds readers that the durable usefulness of personal digital objects is at risk,1 if, as is commonly the case, their owners do not curate them. That her article is timely is suggested by a recent newspaper article about commercial service for creating personal memoirs.2
Marshall's articles are an excellent account of what citizens might assume and count on for their private collections, because they start with individual interviews that surely illustrate the circumstances of many D-Lib readers. Unfortunately, she did not attempt estimates of how many people the anecdotes represent. Nor did she discuss potential solutions – not even in terms of generalities such as rules-driven partial automation of the many decisions facing potential users. Even rough estimates and tentative design suggestions that might be useful to Microsoft software planners would help readers decide whether and how to mitigate the problems Marshall describes.3
A colleague frequently criticizes my drafts for insufficiently illustrating ideas with examples reminding readers of personal experience. Marshall's Rethinking Personal Digital Archiving displays a converse weakness: specific examples without sufficient generalization to share the patterns she sees with readers. Possible generalizations that would have helped are:
  • Common inattention to long-term usefulness of digital artifacts is similar to that for their material predecessors, but arguably more grievous.
  • How we handle material artifacts has developed over a century or longer. We might be content with a similar time span for learning how to handle digital objects; however, our expectations of information quality and the availability of digital tools are much greater today than ever before.
  • The situation for digital objects differs from that for material objects because of its scale: millions of digital objects instead of thousands of material objects.
  • Since the cost of producing each digital object is very low, people are likely to use only extremely convenient and inexpensive preservation tools.
  • As a consequence, automation of every clerical step will be needed; fortunately, now the basics for accomplishing this are understood.4 All that is required is conventional software engineering with painstaking attention to human factors.5
Marshall might have mentioned some good news. The PDF and JPEG file formats widely used by both consumers and businesses are reasonable for preserving bit-strings. And some digital video format might, before too long, become sufficiently durable for preservation.
H.M. Gladney, Ph.D.
HMG Consulting
1. Catherine C. Marshall, Rethinking Personal Digital Archiving, Parts 1 and 2, D-Lib Magazine 14(3/4), March/April 2008. See <doi:10.1045/march2008-marshall-pt1> and <doi:10.1045/march2008-marshall-pt2>.
2. Mark de la Viña, Preserving Memories: Filmmaker Documents the Experiences of Everyday People, San Jose Mercury News, 18th May 2008.
3. Perhaps Marshall has in fact done this, with Microsoft holding the information back while it decides whether and how to act. (Ms. Marshall is employed by Microsoft Research.)
4. H.M. Gladney, Principles for Digital Preservation, Comm. ACM 49(2), 111-116, 2006.
5. One approach to this has been described in my draft article, Economics and Engineering for Preserving Digital Content, available on-line since December 2007. See <http://eprints.erpanet.org/139/>.

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