Musings on Digital History

Historic Preservation: Sustainability of Archival, Digital and Research Materials

Museum Collections

Preserving the historic may well be a byline in my email signature. As a museum professional, I have been working in this realm for over a decade. In the last few years ago, the conversation surrounding the care of historic materials has seen a major shift. Historic institutions and museums are dealing with the after-effects of untamed collections strategies. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, museums acquired large numbers of collections en masse, even when the reality was that a mere fraction of the objects were worthy of display. Museums are laden with centuries of objects in various states of disrepair, many of which are stored on pallets in expensive off-site storage facilities with little to no attention or interest by scholars. Given how many museums are facing budget shortfalls and massive layoffs, two questions come to mind:

  1. Are keeping these collections worth the costs?
  2. Could strategic de-accessioning efforts be a sustainable choice for museums in crisis?

Preserving (Digital) History

We must ask similar questions about the need to preserve digital content as we do for physical collections. In our “Combing Through History” group, we had a thought-provoking conversation about whether we want to continue updating our project after the semester ends. While we are all enthusiastic and excited about our project we felt that none of us had the bandwidth to commit to maintaining the site for perpetuity. But often it is not as clear what the anticipated lifespan of a digital project might be. People move, change jobs, get involved in other projects, and so it is not entirely a bad thing to let a project end. But it seems from the readings we have covered this week, it is best to consider issues of preservation at the beginning, not the end of a project, because many of these ideas can be built into the infrastructure of the project, especially grant-funded projects which require this kind of information.

I thought it might be useful to compile a list of resources (provided by Dr. Otis, thanks!), as I did in my last blog, for questions related to digital preservation.

First, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance provides us with a great chart, The Various Levels of Digital Preservation. This is a great resource for easily tracking the various aspects of your project and how they should be considered through the lens of preservation. As we have learned, for grant-funded projects

Secondly, University of Pittsburg professor Alison Langmead created a self-guided tool called the Sustainability Roadmap. She tells the user in the introduction that

“You will have a stronger sense not only of how to sustain your work, but also what your project’s major overall characteristics are alongside your own intellectual goals. You will leave with an understanding of your project’s particular sustainability goals and a plan for beginning to work toward them.”

Alison Langmead, et al, “The Socio-Technical Sustainability Roadmap.”

By familiarizing myself with these tools, I am feeling more confident about how to continue to launch different facets of my Instrumental Women project, and what my responsibilities will be going forward.

I will leave you with a quote that resonated with me. Historians who use digital technology have to be flexible in both their telling of the past, and with the limits of the technologies we use to tell it. In his 2018 book The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, librarian and GMU alum Trevor Owens states that:

“Digital preservation is not an exact science. It is a craft in
which experts must reflexively deploy and refine their
judgment to appraise digital content and implement strategies
for minimizing risk of loss.

The craft of digital preservation is anchored in the past. It builds
off the records, files, and works of those who came before us and those who designed and set up the systems that enable the creation, transmission, and rendering of their work. At the same time, the craft of digital preservation is also the work of a futurist. We must look
to the past trends in the ebb and flow of the development of digital
media and hedge our bets on how digital technologies of the future
will play out.”

Trevor Owens, The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 187.

6 replies on “Historic Preservation: Sustainability of Archival, Digital and Research Materials”

Ohhh, I totally agree with your take on Langmead’s Sustainability Roadmap. I enjoyed reading through that website you shared above. I think it does a great job at providing ways to strategize a project from start to finish. It allows one to examine the scope and the end goal, ultimately making things more realistic for the long run.

You bring up a good point about museum collections and how they are going to deal with their extensive amount of items that they can’t display, and what that will look like in the future of museums. My project group has also been talking about what our options look like for our project as the semester is coming to its end. Unfortunately, life and other priorities get in the way. As it was expressed in the readings this week, it is better to have a plan to dis/continue the project rather than being forced away due to unforeseen circumstances.

I didn’t realize that Owens was a GMU alum – that’s pretty cool!

Genuinely curious about the situation you started off your post with: Since there is so much material maintained off-site (and I figure that storage costs can be very expensive), what happens to those materials if museums decide that keeping them is no longer worth it? Do they get sold, returned, auctioned off? I image there’s got to be some way for the museum to recoup some cost, or at least get something out of it.

Hey Terrence,
Museums undergo a process called deaccessioning, in which a curator will make a recommendation that an object is not necessarily worth keeping forever. It typically goes all the way to the director, and then the board for approval. For small scale things, it isn’t a huge issue. For example, if a museum owns 16 identical chairs, sometimes it will choose to keep 4. The Baltimore Art Museum has chosen to deaccession some high-value art by Matisse and others and use the money earned to buy art by artists of color and women. There has been a lot of media attention around this, and it has divided the board and the public. Museums usually go through auction houses to sell off parts of collections.

There’s so many hot-button discussions of museum de-accessioning right now, but you point out the very real need for institutions to reassess and re-prioritize based on their actual needs–especially as digital collections and objects are just as susceptible to scope creep (not to mention endless versions).

Have you been involved with de-accessioning projects at your museums or other institutions? It’s something libraries have had to deal with…since forever, really, but we still get pushback when weeding projects are made public. (It’s impossible to save everything if you try to save everything!)

I think you have a good point in that we are not only talking about digital preservation, we are thinking about setting priorities for what we save and what we let go. And I believe that the strategies discussed regarding planning the end of the digital study as well as the beginning, can be applied to many areas of our lives. Also, I am happy to have learned a new word such as de-accessioning, but I am not sure I would be able to pronounce it out loud!

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