Data: A Love Story in the Making

Here’s a simple experiment that involves asking an average person two questions. Question one is: “how do you feel about physical books?” Question two is: “how do you feel about digital data?”

"I Love Data" She Wept, by bixentro, on Flickr

“I Love Data” She Wept, by bixentro, on Flickr

The first question almost surely will quickly elicit warm, positive exclamations about a life-long relationship with books, including the joy of using and owning them as objects. You may also hear about the convenience of reading on an electronic device, but I’ll wager that most people will mention that only after expounding on paper books.

The second question shifts to cooler, more uncertain ground. The addressee may well appear baffled and request clarification. You could help the person a bit by specifying digital materials of personal interest to them, such as content that resides on their tablet or laptop. “Oh, that stuff,” they might say with measured relief. “I’m glad it’s there.”

These divergent emotional reactions should be worrying to those of us who are committed to keeping digital cultural heritage materials accessible over time. Trying to make a case for something that lacks emotional resonance is difficult, as marketing people say. Most certainly, the issue of limited resources is a common refrain when it comes to assessing the state of digital preservation in cultural heritage institutions; see the Canadian Heritage Information Network’s Digital Preservation Survey: 2011 Preliminary Results, for example.

The flip side is that traditional analog materials are a formidable competitor for management resources because those materials are seen in a glowing emotional context. I don’t mean to say that analog materials are awash in preservation money; far from it. But physical collections still have to be managed even as the volume of digital holdings rapidly rise, and efforts to move away from reliance on the physical are vulnerable to impassioned attack by people such as Nicholson Baker.

What is curious is that even as we collectively move toward an ever deeper relationship with digital, there remains a strong nostalgic bond with traditional book objects. A perfect example of this is a recent article, Real books should be preserved like papyrus scrolls. The author fully accepts the convenience and the future dominance of ebooks, and is profoundly elegiac in his view of the printed word. But, far from turning away from physical books, he declares that “books have a new place as sacred objects, and libraries as museums.” One might see this idea as one person’s nostalgic fetish, but it’s more than that. We can only wonder how long and to what extent this kind of powerful, emotionally-propelled thinking will drive how cultural heritage institutions operate, and more importantly, how they are funded.

As I’ve written before, we’re at a point where intriguing ideas are emerging about establishing a potentially deeper and more meaningful role for digital collections. This is vitally important, as a fundamental challenge that lies before those who champion digital cultural heritage preservation is how to develop a narrative that can compete in terms of personal meaning and impact.