“the higher we strive, the higher we fail”

Steve Knight, from the National Library of New Zealand, spoke about assessing risk in digital preservation for the keynote at SAA’s Research Forum this morning. Steve tossed off this phrase while addressing obsolescence, and it stuck with me all day. Yes, we say we want to preserve digital archives “forever,” while we’re not naive about what “forever” means, but “the higher we strive, the higher we fail.” Steve said this came up recently while talking with folks at Boston College about that definition of what’s obsolete: if we cannot view a digital record, render it or migrate it, then it’s obsolete. As someone at Boston College said to Steve, “everything we do is for users.”

I’m struck by a similar paradox for our archival metadata. At the end of the Research Forum, Jackie presented early findings from her research project characterizing the current state of those 1 million MARC records in WorldCat under archival control. We’ve packed a lot of good information into our MARC records over the years, and we can view it, render it and migrate it. Somehow I feel heartened to think again that description is the most important piece we give our users to help discovery of special collections. OK, so systems evolve, while we know we won’t be able to go back and change the metadata much. That MARC metadata – created for our users – is a damn fine “interface,”  and archivists have certainly aimed high creating it.