Review: The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (2018)

Larry Weimer

Trevor Owens. The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. x + 226 pages. Paperback. $34.95.

With The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, Trevor Owens has staged something of an intervention. His “central contention” is that “[d]igital preservation is a craft, not a science” (72). In this regard, he is both responding to those archivists seeking to find and implement the silver bullet technical solution to digital preservation and reacting against the tendency toward “over-diagram-ification” (80) that purports to point to such solutions. Owens observes that the “digital world is messy,” but rather than seeking to “tidy it up,” he encourages archivists to embrace it and approach digital objects with the same mindset we apply to scrapbooks, sprawling institutional records, and other complex, messy objects in the analog world (53). Accordingly, Owens points to ways of thinking about the preservation of digital objects as a function of particular contexts and not as a search for a technological template. Readers coming to the book focused on finding such a template or a set of how-to steps, therefore, will likely be unsatisfied. Readers looking for guidance on how to engage with digital preservation will come away with many useful insights, and a broader understanding of the challenges and opportunities of digital objects (the “affordances” of digital objects, in Owens’s frequently-used term).

The critical chapter of Owens’s book is the fifth, titled “Preservation Intent and Collection Development.” It acts as a pivot between the book’s two halves which, as the title suggests, is split roughly between early chapters on “theory” and later chapters on “craft.” The early chapters explore the concept of preservation as it has developed in non-digital contexts, the nature of digital objects (i.e., what makes them messy), and how, when we seek to bring preservation and the digital together, defining the boundaries of the digital object we want to preserve becomes essential — and a significant challenge. Owens covers a great deal of ground in these first chapters, yet he handles the subject matter with great discipline. He demonstrates the multiple meanings implied by the word “preservation” in various non-digital contexts (e.g., the preservation of a historic house means something different from preservation of a performance piece) in order to illustrate the differing “lineages” that preserving digital objects and collections have available to draw upon. Owens is equally adept in his brief survey of the characteristics of digital information. Owens’s goal here is not to make the reader a technical expert on the spot, but to give the reader a grounding in concepts that can help them gain a grasp of how to do digital preservation. This conceptual set-up brings Owens to argue in his important fifth chapter that the indistinct boundaries of any digital object requires that the purpose of collecting/preserving it be clearly understood in order to ensure that the appropriate attributes of the object are preserved now and into the future. This archival appraisal/curatorial judgment, in turn, provides the foundation for the later chapters, which concern managing copies and formats, arranging and describing, and providing access to the digital objects, each of which operates initially in the context of the collection intent. In short, one cannot successfully apply the craft of preservation without a firm understanding of what is to be preserved and why.

Bookending these core chapters are an introduction in which Owens briefly articulates sixteen “guiding axioms” (4) for digital preservation and a conclusion in which he offers his thoughts about future directions relevant to digital preservation. Owens’s axioms, which echo in some form throughout the book, are helpful nuggets. For example, axiom 11 — “It’s long past time to start taking action” (7) — is reinforced indirectly in many of the examples in the book, such as in the case of preserving the educational video game The Oregon Trail, which dates back almost

50 (!) years to 1971, or Carl Sagan’s floppy disks of the 1980s-90s, which is a medium that will give many if not most archivists pause despite its common appearance in acquisitions of recent vintage. In a chapter that comes closest to dwelling on technical matters, Owens drills down on the making and managing of copies (i.e., bit preservation/fixity) and formats, while emphasizing the urgency of taking immediate action on this front.

For his conclusion, Owens avoids predictions of the future, but makes brief observations about the importance of staying aware of trends that could impact collecting, preservation, and access in the future, such as the emergence of touch screens, voice-activated systems and virtual reality. Although Owens emphasizes the importance of intent for initially driving the choices one makes in executing their preservation craft, he also argues that the influence is bi-directional, as emerging technologies, user-driven access modes, and other considerations can drive changes over time in preservation strategies for particular objects. Owens also takes the opportunity to reflect on much larger issues, including the sources of power and privilege in American society, neoliberalism and climate change. Many will applaud and many others will roll their eyes at Owens’s specific viewpoints here. But his overall point is important to all: that preservation is not a once-and-done action; it is a continuous set of actions conducted down through time, through whatever unforeseeable changes may come in technology, culture, financial support, etc. within and outside an institution.

Owens writes in a clear and accessible style. He avoids slipping into techno-jargon, and is careful to explain things to a sufficient degree when he refers to a technical matter or an example, such as a video game or website, that readers might not be familiar with. His experience as a university adjunct professor and speaker shows in his presentation: throughout the book he tells you what he is going to say, then he says it, and then he tells you what he said.

Owens turns frequently to examples to illustrate his points, even in the early chapters of “theory.” These examples are highly effective and thought provoking, especially when Owens walks through multiple examples to demonstrate how different contexts and collecting strategies could lead to different preservation approaches for superficially similar digital objects. In developing his examples Owens has aimed his book at a broad audience that includes anyone concerned with preservation of cultural heritage digital objects, from small or community based operations to large institutions. Consequently, many of his examples, while informative, compelling, awesome, and even fun — such as his discussion of the considerations in preserving the massively multiplayer on-line game World of Warcraft — can be dismaying for those archivists on the side of the spectrum still looking for traction on digital preservation. His chapter on access moves somewhat breathlessly in this direction as he explores the potential of multi-modal access points, the ways in which sophisticated users interact with digital collections, and how archivists might support those uses. Still, Owens understands that institutions have differing levels of resources available to them for digital preservation and that his high-end examples will not be available or appropriate for all. Aside from trying to write to a number of audiences, Owens’s point is to make clear the nature of the analysis of the resources, collecting objectives, and fuzzy boundaries of the digital object itself that needs to go into crafting any digital preservation approach.

In sum, Trevor Owens has written a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. It will not replace the books on your shelf that provide knowledge and guidance on specific technical matters, nor does it intend to. Indeed, the range of Owens’s examples and his complication of the nature of preservation suggest that our continuing education will need to continue. Nonetheless, Owens provides important guidance on taking a step back to gain perspective on what one is trying to accomplish with the preservation of a digital object or collection. That is, to see preservation not merely as a technological process to be applied to all objects, but as a craft to be applied as appropriate in the context of particular digital collections and their archival purpose.


Larry Weimer is Head of Archival Processing at the New-York Historical Society.

Blog published by The Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York, Inc. (ART).

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