Thursday, February 11, 2016

James Jacobs on Looking Forward

Government documents have long been a field that the LOCKSS Program has been involved in. Recent history, such as that of the Harper administration in Canada, is full of examples of Winston Smith style history editing by governments. This makes it essential that copies of government documents are maintained outside direct government custody, and several private LOCKSS networks are doing this for various kinds of government documents. Below the fold, a look at the US Federal Depository Library Program, which has been doing this in the paper world for a long time, and the state of its gradual transition to the digital world.

Stanford Library's government documents specialist James Jacobs and his colleague Jim Jacobs have a must-read post at Free Government Information entitled Looking Backward, Looking Forward which uses two examples to contrast the backwards- and forwards-looking views of digital preservation as applied to government documents:
Example 1: Depositing objects not information
The Superintendent Of Documents policy for Dissemination and Distribution (SOD 301) explicitly limits what GPO will deposit into depository libraries to so-called “tangible” products. This policy can be judged a success only by looking backwards and evaluating it in terms of how well it adheres to old methods — continuing to send physical objects to depository libraries. By Looking Backwards and focusing on methods, depositing floppy disks or DVDs (a tiny improvement) seems like progress.

But the policy is a failure if we evaluate its outcomes. To evaluate the policy by Looking Forward we would ask if the outcomes of the policy match the long-term goals of the FDLP — not if the methods have remained unchanged. We would ask if the policy ensures the long-term preservation of digital government information and ensures that it can be accessible and usable in the future (in fact, this question should be asked of every policy decision!). Sadly, we know from experience that this policy has resulted in undesirable, counter-productive outcomes. It has complicated, inhibited, and in some cases prevented preservation and long-term access.

Example 2: Digitizing Backwards
Although we at FGI have long supported digitization,  there is one aspect of digitization (particularly mass-digitization) that we do find troubling and it provides another example of Looking Backward. We believe that it is only by Looking Backwards that many of our mass digitization projects seem even marginally acceptable. When we compare having any digital access to having no digital access, we are comparing the present to the past; we are Looking Backward. Viewed that way, even lousy, incomplete, inaccurate digitizations — and the equally incomplete and inaccurate metadata describing them — seem like an improvement. You can tell when someone is Looking Backwards when they say they are going to digitize on-the-cheap and the results will be “good enough.”

Digitizing Backwards is digitizing by comparing the digital objects we create to their paper originals. Instead of this, we should Look Forward when we digitize and create digital objects that stand up to current and future expectations of our user communities. Digitizing Backwards has produced digital objects that already fall short of users’ expectations in many ways.
One of the important concepts of the OAIS Reference Architecture is that of "Designated Community". The OAIS definition of Designated Community is:
Designated Community: An identified group of potential Consumers who should be able to understand a particular set of information. The Designated Community may be composed of multiple user communities. A Designated Community is defined by the Archive and this definition may change over time.
Another way of expressing James' "Looking Forwards" is as taking the needs of the Designated Community into account in designing preservation processes.

Go read the rest of James' post.

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