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Ease of Archiving

March 2, 2011

Happy Wednesday! I hope you are well, dear readers, and are having a lovely week. Today I want to talk about digital archiving and the problem of actually getting people to archive their work. What I don’t want to talk about is the issue with Harper Collins as it has been tweeted by seemingly every librarian on Twitter and has even spawned the The eBook User’s Bill of Rights. So, yeah, don’t really have much to add to that conversation. Instead I have some bits of flotsam that have been rolling about in my head since coming home from the Personal Digital Archiving Conference last week. I thought I’d share and see what you think about it all. Allons-y!

One of the concepts that kept surfacing during the conference was the fact that people are lazy (unsurprising) and don’t want to work to back-up and then archive their work. Now this is not a shocking concept for anyone who has any contact with people, ever. We, on the whole, try to find the easiest and fastest way to get anything done. Now I’m not saying that this is inherently a bad thing. For example, I dislike grocery shopping so I appreciate stores laying out their products in logical arrangements so I can find what I need easily and get on with my day instead of spending 10 minutes trying to figure out on which aisle are the olives.

But when this desire to have everything done in one-step (or preferably without any intervention on the user’s part at all) makes digital archiving seem like a dream, I do have a problem. We heard updates on some amazing work by computer scientists and archivists on creating institutional repositories (IR) that can automatically generate metadata when digital objects are uploaded to the IR at the conference. We also heard about future projects to create one question surveys for users to complete that would generate more useful metadata about their digital objects. I think these advancements are wonderful because I’m not the kind of person who takes the ‘all or nothing’ approach to archival work. Some metadata is better than none and having some people take the time to upload their work to IRs or other digital archives is great. But what about everything we are losing? (And don’t get started on how we can’t save it all. I’m not calling for saving everything. I firmly uphold the principle and practice of appraisal.)

What if you can’t get a metadata form for users to fill out down to one question? Maybe you can’t get everything to be automatically generated in the background without the user contributing something to the metadata creation process. How easy does it have to be to get people to do it?

I wonder about this question not only in the context of archiving but in many facets of life. For example, how easy does searching a database have to be for the majority of students to use it? How much specificity and control over a search do you have to give up to make it “easy enough” to use? Not even talking about digital archiving, but just scheduling back-ups for your computer, how much easier does it need to be than clicking 2 buttons for people to backup their machines? Where is the line, in any case, that separates “good enough” from “results we won’t accept”?

I’d like to hear your ideas on the tensions between striving to make things easy and producing “good enough” results for whatever product or service you are creating. I’m all for good user design and experience, but am having trouble feeling any empathy for people who won’t take the time to at least name their files something intelligible. I have high hopes for the future of digital archiving, both in personal and institutional contexts, but I worry about making sense of it all if people don’t take the time to do (just a bit) of quality control on filenames, metadata, etc..

Or maybe I’m just having one of those days that make everything seem overwhelming and you don’t feel that this is an issue at all or you’ve found a way to solve it in your archives. I’d love to hear about any and all of it in comments.

Now, since it can’t all be doom and gloom on a Wednesday (and because anyone in the Bay Area could definitely use a bit of fun on this rather dreary day), we will end with Simon’s Cat in “Sticky Tape.” It’s short, cute, and funny. Use it for a quick break in your busy work day.

Have a wonderful rest of your day and I’ll be back on Friday with some tech, library, and archives news.

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