The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation: Q&A with author Trevor Owens

Why did you decide to write The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation?

I’ve spent the last decade working on ensuring long-term access to digital information. Over that time I’ve been frustrated by the ways that digital preservation is conceived of discussed. It often sounds like digital preservation is somehow a technical problem that we can just solve with some new app. Or similarly that digital preservation is some kind of sophisticated technical issue for experts. I decided to write this book because I wanted to lay out how anyone can get started in digital preservation today and how doing digital preservation work is a direct continuation of the professional practices in history, folklore, libraries, archives, and museums which provides us with access to our cultural heritage.

What were some of the most surprising things you learned while writing and researching the book?

We often think of a dichotomy between digital media and an analog past. In reviewing work on the history of preservation I’ve been struck by the extent to which libraries, archives, and museums have been leaders in managing the results of media innovation throughout their history. You can find just about every new media in cultural heritage collections and as each wave of new media has come and become part of cultural heritage collections it has brought with it new dialogs about how we can go about ensuring long-term access. 


Does your book debunk any longstanding myths?

There are two inconsistent media narratives around digital information. We need to worry about what we say online because “it will be there forever” haunting us. At the same time, every few years, fears are raised about a potential “digital dark age” in which we might lose access to all our digital information. I hope the book can serve as a bit of an antidote to both of these forms of digital anxiety. In contrast to these narratives, I lay out the way that individuals who want to work to ensure long-term access to digital preservation can and do so as part of a great human tradition of working to ensure information handoffs occur to the future peoples of our societies. 

How do you envision the lasting impact of The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation?

My hope is that the book helps to create a bigger tent for the work of digital preservation. With how technical much of the digital preservation literature can be, I’ve heard from many at smaller organizations who feel like digital preservation is inaccessible to them. My hope is that the book is something that people in any organization, or even outside an organization, can use to get started working to mitigate their risks of digital loss. At the same time, I also hope that my book can help to better bridge the theory and craft of digital preservation work as something contiguous with thousands of years of preservation work of archivists, librarians, historians, folklorist, curators, anthropologists, archeologists, and other allied professionals. 

Trevor Owens, the head of digital content management for library services at the Library of Congress, is an adjunct faculty member at American University and the University of Maryland. He is the author of 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.