Image Standards and Implications for Preservation

Patricia Battin

(Talk presented at the Workshop on Electronic Texts,
sponsored by the Library of Congress, June 9-10, 1992)

I am sure many of you are wondering why I am on this part of the agenda--why indeed I presume to talk about standards--since I am a standards consumer rather than a standards developer and setter. I wondered that too, because I am supremely unqualified to talk about the process of standard setting, but Jim Daly convinced me that I could focus on the implications of standards--both the process and the use of standards--for preservation.

The library profession, in the analogue world of the printed book, has made enormous contributions over the past hundred years toward the standardization of bibliographic formats, paper and binding standards, environmental conditions, microfilming processes, and most importantly, what constitutes longevity or archival quality. These standards have enabled us to share the preservation burden by developing national and international collaborative programs with the confidence that our colleagues, upon whom we place our reluctant dependence, are indeed adhering to our own high standards. As a participant in many cooperative ventures in the past, I can tell you that a major obstacle to successful cooperation is a pervasive mistrust of other people's standards. We are a suspicious profession! An in our zeal to make sure that we achieve perfection--regardless of the cost--I think we have probably overdosed on standards in the past and have perhaps hindered rather than facilitated access.

And so now we get our comeuppance in the digital environment--there aren't any standards to speak of. Standards are a double-edged sword for those of us concerned with the preservation of the human record. I should make clear at this point that my definition of preservation is the provision of access to recorded knowledge in a multitude of media as far into the future as possible. Standards are essential to facilitate interconnectivity and access. But, as Cliff Lynch pointed out yesterday, if set too soon, they can hinder creativity, expansion of capability, and broadening of access.

The characteristics of standards for digital imagery differ radically from analogue imagery:

There are two possible alternatives when faced with such a prognosis. Stay where you are with the old technology, or take a deep breath and reconceptualize....

The digital technologies offer a significant--really, an imperative--potential for preservation particularly for dissemination and use, and in the future--storage, as costs decline and capabilities increase. As my colleague, Stuart Lynn, has emphasized, we no longer have a choice: we will require digital technologies to manage the products of digital technologies. Our old paper-based ways cannot possibly manage the intellectual products of a digital society.

Preservation concerns for electronic media fall into two general domains:

In one sense, the challenge of providing continuing access to electronic media is simpler than dealing with the conversion of one medium to another because there is no emotional commitment to the electronic medium and no need to compare the fidelity of reproduction with an original copy. In another sense, it is horrific and mind-boggling. The mountain of deteriorating paper is daunting; the prospective rivers and oceans of electronic data are almost beyond human comprehension. Right now I think, we are in a state of paralysis--we know that we must do something, but the digital world is in such flux and our libraries and archives have not traditionally considered electronic data their domain, so we have essentially ignored the challenge and are waiting for the federal and state archivists and our computer center colleagues to grapple with the issues. In addition, it is safe to assume--for awhile at least--that the producers of proprietary resources will continue to keep them alive through continually improved hardware and software.

The preservation of electronic media requires a reconceptualizing of our preservation principles in a volatile, standardless transition period, which may well last far longer than anyone today envisions. We must change our focus from assessing, measuring, and setting standards for the permanence of the medium to the concept of managing continuing access to information stored on a variety of media and requiring a variety of ever-changing hardware and software for access. This is a fundamental change for the library profession and if we are to navigate the transition successfully, rather than to continue to muddle through, there are a number of actions we must take.

So I'd like to talk briefly--and give some examples--of how to move forward--with some reasonable confidence--in a world without standards. These comments fall roughly into two sections entitled Standards and the Real World and The Politics of Reproduction.

First--Standards and the Real World:

1. I think we must redefine the concept of "archival" and begin to think in terms of life cycles. In the past, we were able to be somewhat cavalier about life cycles, because we naively assumed paper would last forever and because paper usually outlasted the careers of individual librarians. Even though we are longer-lived today, the electronic media is so transient that we are forced to recognize and accept the concept of life cycles rather than permanency.

2. We must remove the burden of archival copy from the paper artifact as well as other media. There are few books and documents today, even though published on "permanent" paper, which will survive heavy use.

3. Digital standards have to be developed and set in a cooperative context to insure efficient exchange of information.

Two examples of how these concepts and standards inhibit preservation activities:

How do we deal with this situation? We either miss a significant opportunity or look at our use of standards in a very different manner:

5. LaGuardia Eight: Harvard, Yale Cornell, Princeton, Penn State, Tennessee, Stanford, and USC have formed an informal consortium committee to developing ad hoc standards for a digital preservation project, including the capacity for network transmission both intra- and inter-institutionally.

It seems to me that we must pursue this kind of creative thinking if we are ever to move through a successful transition to the digital world. If we continue to apply our analogue values and definitions of standards to the digital environment, we will effectively forfeit the benefits of digital technology for research and scholarship.

Do not misunderstand me: standards--for hardware, software, and digital media--are very important. But the processes for setting them, for analyzing their appropriateness, and for the productive use, are fundamentally different from the processes we employed in the analogue world, and it is essential that we recognize and re-think the implications of those differences.

Now--The Politics of Reproduction. I have said many times in many discussions on the Electronic Library that it is more difficult to transform than to create. And nowhere is that belief expressed more dramatically than in the conversion of brittle books to new media. Preserving information initially published on electronic media basically involves making sure the information remains accessible since digital information is not lost through reproduction. Preserving information initially published on analogue media, the issue of fidelity to the original becomes paramount--as do issues of whose fidelity and whose original! Let me explain by using a few examples from a recent study conducted by the Commission on the problems of preserving text and image. The combination of the two present a series of complex problems not present in the reproduction of text alone or images alone. In our discussions with scholars, librarians, and curators in a variety of disciplines dependent on text and image, we found the following concerns:

These new "standards" serve to complicate further the reproduction process and add to the long list of technical standards necessary to insure widespread access.

We have to find ways to articulate and analyze the costs attached to different levels of standards. In the past, the library profession has set standards in an economic vacuum, and cost considerations have not really been taken into account.

Given this chaos, which promises to be with us for the foreseeable future, I think the best we can do, if we are to act rather than to wait, is to adopt the following general principles:

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