Detail of A photomechanical print of the Library of Congress building mounted on black paper.

Scientists’ Hard Drives, Databases, and Blogs

Trevor Owens, PhD, will will speak at 2 PM ET on April 5th at the National Library of Medicine on “Scientists’ Hard Drives, Databases, and Blogs: Preservation Intent and Source Criticism in the Digital History of Science, Technology and Medicine.” Dr. Owens is the Head of Digital Content Management at the Library of Congress. He is author of three books, the most recent of which, The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, is in press with Johns Hopkins University Press. Circulating Now interviewed him about his work.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

An informal portrait of Trevor Owens
Trevor Owens, 2018
Photo by Library of Congress photographer Shawn Miller

Trevor Owens: I grew up in West Allis, Wisconsin, just outside Milwaukee. I work as the Head of Digital Content Management in Library Services at the Library of Congress. That largely means that I’m working to help support staff across the organization acquire and ultimately make available digital collection content. Along with that, I also teach digital curation and digital history graduate seminars at the at American University and the University of Maryland. The Digital Content Management section is rather new. This interview for Library Journal from December gives you a sense of what I was up to at that point. From January to March 10 new team members came on board. So there really isn’t a typical day yet. A lot of what I’m working on right now is ever changing as the team is starting to take on a range of ongoing work and initial projects.

CN: Your upcoming talk is titled “Scientists’ Hard Drives, Databases, and Blogs: Preservation Intent and Source Criticism in the Digital History of Science, Technology and Medicine.” You’ve used NLM Grateful Med software as an example of how to think about preservation intent, would you tell us a little about your thinking on this topic and how it influences the collecting of history of science and medicine?

Detail of computer screen displaying Greatful Med homescreen.

TO: The part of the talk about Grateful Med relates directly to some fantastic work that Nicole Contaxis did while she was a resident at NLM. For full context, check out her project’s final report. The short version is that she was brought in to work on figuring out how to preserve Grateful Med, which on some level sounds like a straightforward thing. However, in  this case, unpacking the complex nature of this software application as it changed over time and its relationship to ever changing data sets that it interacted with made it potentially exceedingly complex. The result of that complexity prompted her to return to unpacking the objectives of what about the software application was essential to capture, and what parts of it were effectively documented elsewhere. The end result involved shifting to focus on preserving a software application that served as a tutorial for the software. This case is illustrative of something we are going to see more and more of. With digital objects it is often essential to spend a good bit of time reflecting on what exactly you want to preserve, and to be clear in articulating preservation intent.

CN: As we begin to see work being done by historians on our very recent past, how does the work they’re doing inform our preservation strategies? Who should be involved in deciding what that intent will encompass?

A line drawing web comic illustrating someone excavating down through layers of old computer files.
Old Files

TO: Librarians, archivists, and curators have been making judgement calls about what to select, acquire and preserve and how to describe and provide access to a wide range of content for a long time. That part isn’t new. With that noted, much of the kind of benign neglect that would have let significant analog materials sit around to be noticed for 50-100 years is not going to work with significant digital content. So, I think librarians, archivists, and curators are well positioned to do work on preservation intent, but at the same time there are significant opportunities for engaging with and learning from scholars doing work with digital content. As one key example, Matthew Kirshenbaum’s work on literary works and digital forensics has become a foundational part of the development of digital archives practices. So I would say that the more we can get humanities scholars working with born digital collections, the more we can start to establish positive feedback loops between research and archiving.

CN: In your most recent book, The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation you explore digital preservation as a craft, how does this term help explain the work being done today and how it relates to analog preservation practices?

TO: One of the primary contentions of the book is that digital preservation is fundamentally part of an ongoing dialog on the development of preservation practice and craft that goes back throughout the history of libraries, archives, and museums. In this context, I’m pushing back against the idea that digital preservation is a technical problem that can be solved, and instead insisting that it is part of a range of challenging tradeoffs around resources and values for what objects matter in a society and how those objects are collected and managed.

CN: You’ve also written that institutions make long term preservation possible, is there a special role for national libraries in your view?

A photomechanical print of the Library of Congress building mounted on black paper
The Library of Congress building, ca. 1900
Detroit Photographic Co.
Library of Congress

TO: I think there is a special role for each and every cultural heritage institution, and that role is tied up in their mission and their function. So in that context, I do very much believe there are special roles for national institutions. Speaking broadly, they have explicit missions tied to their whole country and they generally also play dual roles of providing services to individual users but also providing services and support to other institutions throughout their respective countries.

CN: Your career has brought you into contact with a wide variety of professional specialties, what is exciting about engaging with people with a diversity of perspectives and technical skills?

TO: I really love coming to understand how someone else sees the world. It’s inherently fun to me and I feel like it’s such a key part of learning and thinking. In many ways, I think the best way for us to learn something is to be able to try on some other person’s perspective and come to see a situation through the lenses they see it through. In that context, I find the different lenses that come from professions and disciplines particularly interesting. All those moments where someone says “As an archivist…” or “As a historian…” or “As an engineer…” or “As a librarian…” or “As a business analyst…” I feel like the more we all come to start to have an internal understanding of different professional perspectives relevant to our work the richer our understanding of issues in our work becomes. There is a kind of intellectual triangulation that emerges as we see our work through different eyes.

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