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Congenital nerdiness

My grandmother, may she rest in peace, was a remarkable woman. I’ll write a full post on how awesome she was soon. But right now, I just want to point out that she was a librarian. She started at the University of Washington in 1930–the autumn after the crash. She studied to become a librarian–what was contemporaneously coming to be known as library science, and what we’d probably call information management. Along the way she earned her letter in riflery (yes, it’s a thing). When she graduated, she decided to take a job as the children’s librarian for North Hollywood, and she moved down to Los Angeles, sight unseen. I think it was very brave of her.

Flash forward almost 80 years. My Auntie Ann, left alone at the beach house for a weekend, decides to create an index of the thousand-odd mystery novels there. She creates a binder: arranged once by author & title, and separately by author & publication date. “Each list,” she wrote in an email to the family, “has columns so you can initial when you have read one, in case your memory is as bad as mine.”

All of this is to say that the curating and cataloguing (not to mention reading) have always been something of a family tradition. And so it should come as no surprise that yesterday I attended a full day training on approaches to asset preservation, run by the British Library and Research Libraries UK for the benefit of the professional staffs at smaller libraries and archives. Something of an interloper, I enjoyed the day thoroughly. As a regular user of a variety of libraries, archives, muniments, and the like, I took no small amount of pleasure in peaking behind the curtain to see how we hoi polloi are viewed by those entrusted with custodial oversight of our collections of knowledge.

In reality, I went because I’m interested in (and increasingly concerned about) digital preservation. I’ll save the detail for later, but as a historian I’m deeply worried that in 200 years very little of all the material we create in today’s digital world will survive. I find that very sad, but also problematic for society. A very small portion of the day ended up being about digital preservation. That didn’t bother me particularly: they’re planning a full day on it for next year, and it’s good to understand the digital in it’s broader preservation context.

Significantly more worrisome was the fact that the instructor didn’t seem to know more than I did about digital preservation. As my colleague Simon pointed out: that means there’s space for me to become the world expert on the topic. As I responded, though, I’m not interested in glory; I’m interested in the problem getting solved. And if we’re counting on me to solve this particular problem, we as a civilisation are in real trouble.

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