The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation: An interview with Trevor Owens

BloggERS! editor, Dorothy Waugh recently interviewed Trevor Owens, Head of Digital Content Management at the Library of Congress about his recent–and award-winning–book, The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation.


Who is this book for and how do you imagine it being used?

I attempted to write a book that would be engaging and accessible to anyone who cares about long-term access to digital content and wants to devote time and energy to helping ensure that important digital content is not lost to the ages. In that context, I imagine the primary audience as current and emerging professionals that work to ensure enduring access to cultural heritage: archivists, librarians, curators, conservators, folklorists, oral historians, etc. With that noted, I think the book can also be of use to broader conversations in information science, computer science and engineering, and the digital humanities. 

Tell us about the title of the book and, in particular, your decision to use the word “craft” to describe digital preservation.

The words “theory” and “craft” in the title of the book forecast both the structure and the two central arguments that I advance in the book. 

The first chapters focus on theory. This includes tracing the historical lineages of preservation in libraries, archives, museums, folklore, and historic preservation. I then move to explore work in new media studies and platform studies to round out a nuanced understanding of the nature of digital media. I start there because I think it’s essential that cultural heritage practitioners moor their own frameworks and approaches to digital preservation in a nuanced understanding of the varied and historically contingent nature of preservation as a concept and the complexities of digital media and digital information. 

The latter half of the book is focused on what I describe as the “craft” of digital preservation. My use of the term craft is designed to intentionally challenge the notion that work in digital preservation should be understood as “a science.” Given the complexities of both what counts as preservation in a given context and the varied nature of digital media, I believe it is essential that we explicitly distance ourselves from many of the assumptions and baggage that come along with the ideology of “digital.” 

We can’t build some super system that just solves digital preservation. Digital preservation requires making judgement calls. Digital preservation requires the applied thinking and work of professionals. Digital preservation is not simply a technical question, instead digital preservation involves understanding the nature of the content that matters most to an intended community and making judgement calls about how best to mitigate risks of potential loss of access to that content. As a result of my focus on craft, I offer less of a “this is exactly what one should do” approach, and more of an invitation to join the community of practice that is developing knowledge and honing and refining their craft. 

Reading the book, I was so happy to see you make connections between the work that we do as archivists and digital preservation. Can you speak to that relationship and why you think it is important?

Archivists are key players in making preservation happen and the emergence of digital content across all kinds of materials and media that archivists work with means that digital preservation is now a core part of the work that archivists do. 

I organize a lot of my discussion about the craft of digital preservation around archival concepts as opposed to library science or curatorial practices. For example, I talk about arrangement and description. I also draw from ideas like MPLP as key concepts for work in digital preservation and from work on community archives. 

Old Files. From XKCD: webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language. 2014

Broadly speaking, in the development of digital media, I see a growing context collapse between formats that had been distinct in the past. That is, conservation of oil paintings, management and preservation of bound volumes, and organizing and managing heterogeneous sets of records have some strong similarities but there are also a lot of differences. The born digital incarnations of those works; digital art, digital publishing, and digital records, are all made up of digital information and file formats, and face a related set of digital preservation issues.

With that note, I think archival practice tends to be particularly well-suited for dealing with the nature of digital content. Archives have long dealt with the problem of scale that is now intensified by digital data. At the same time, archivists have also long dealt with hybrid collections and complex jumbles of formats, forms, and organizational structures, which is also increasingly the case for all types of forms that transition into born-digital content. 

You emphasize that the technical component of digital preservation is sometimes prioritized over social, ethical, and organizational components. What are the risks implicit in overlooking these other important components?

Digital preservation is not primarily a technical problem. The ideology of “digital” is that things should be faster, cheaper, and automatic. The ideology of “digital” suggests that we should need less labor, less expertise, and less resources to make digital stuff happen. If we let this line of thinking infect our idea of digital preservation we are going to see major losses of important data, we will see major failures to respect ethical and privacy issues relating to digital content, and lots of money will be spent on work that fails to get us the results that we want.

In contrast, when we take as a starting point that digital preservation is about investing resources in building strong organizations and teams who participate in the community of practice and work on the complex interactions that emerge between competing library and archives values then we have a chance of both being effective but also building great and meaningful jobs for professionals.

If digital preservation work is happening in organizations that have an overly technical view of the problem, it is happening despite, not because, of their organization’s approach. That is, there are people doing the work, they just likely aren’t getting credit and recognition for doing that work. Digital preservation happens because of people who understand that the fundamental nature of the work requires continual efforts to get enough resources to meaningfully mitigate risks of loss, and thoughtful decision making about building and curating collections of value to communities.

Considerations related to access and discovery form a central part of the book and you encourage readers to “Start simple and prioritize access,” an approach that reminded me of many similar initiatives focused on getting institutions started with the management and preservation of born-digital archives. Can you speak to this approach and tell us how you see the relationship between preservation and access?

A while back, OCLC ran an initiative called “walk before you run,” focused on working with digital archives and digital content. I know it was a major turning point for helping the field build our practices. Our entire community is learning how to do this work and we do it together. We need to try things and see which things work best and which don’t. 

It’s really important to prioritize access in this work. Preservation is fundamentally about access in the future. The best way you know that something will be accessible in the future is if you’re making it accessible now. Then your users will help you. They can tell you if something isn’t working. The more that we can work end-to-end, that is, that we accession, process, arrange, describe, and make available digital content to our users, the more that we are able to focus on how we can continually improve that process end-to-end. Without having a full end-to-end process in place, it’s impossible to zoom out and look at that whole sequence of processes to start figuring out where the bottlenecks are and where you need to focus on working to optimize things. 


Dr. Trevor Owens is a librarian, researcher, policy maker, and educator working on digital infrastructure for libraries. Owens serves as the first Head of Digital Content Management for Library Services at the Library of Congress. He previously worked as a senior program administrator at the United States Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and, prior to that, as a Digital Archivist for the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program and as a history of science curator at the Library of Congress. Owens is the author of three books, including The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation and Designing Online Communities: How Designers, Developers, Community Managers, and Software Structure Discourse and Knowledge Production on the Web. His research and writing has been featured in: Curator: The Museum Journal, Digital Humanities Quarterly, The Journal of Digital Humanities, D-Lib, Simulation & Gaming, Science Communication, New Directions in Folklore, and American Libraries. In 2014 the Society for American Archivists granted him the Archival Innovator Award, presented annually to recognize the archivist, repository, or organization that best exemplifies the “ability to think outside the professional norm.”

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