Book Reviews

Trevor Owens. The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. 226p. Paper, $34.95 (ISBN 978-1-4214-2697-6).

Book cover for The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation

The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation presents an overview of the issues inherent to undertaking digital preservation, with an eye to getting the reader to understand the theoretical building blocks of the topic so they can develop preservation plans that will meet the unique needs of their collections. The book is written by Trevor Owens, the head of digital content management for library services at the Library of Congress. Owens has been actively involved in digital preservation planning, playing a part in developing the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Levels of Digital Preservation.

The introduction of the book provides 16 guiding “axioms” for digital preservation; this list offers an insight into Owens’ approach to the topic. Included in these axioms are key concepts regarding digital preservation, including that “backing up data is not digital preservation” (6) and that “the scale and inherent structures of digital information suggest working more with a shovel than with tweezers” (8). Owens takes a practical approach to the topic, with the book providing not a prescriptive way of specifically how to do digital preservation, but instead advice to consider when attempting to develop and implement a customized digital preservation plan. His target audience of those who are established or new to the fields of libraries, archives, and museums, as well as those who may have an interest in practicing digital preservation in other fields, is well served by the accessible language used throughout the volume, as well as clear explanations of any technical jargon.

This book can be divided into two sections. The first focuses on the theory behind digital preservation. This is particularly useful for those who have not had exposure to the guiding principles of digital preservation and helps to establish a common framework for those reading the book. It carefully lays building blocks from chapter 1 through chapter 4 to scaffold a deeper understanding of digital preservation as a concept and the theoretical knowledge that is necessary for developing a preservation plan as discussed in chapters 5 through 8.

The first chapter provides context for establishing the goals of digital preservation and how they differ based on the type of object. Throughout this book, but particularly in the first chapter, Owens uses concrete examples to give footing for abstract ideas, which is particularly useful for those who are new to the area of preservation. One of the best instances of this is Owens’ inclusion of three different examples to illustrate that, while the goals of preservation can be the same, different approaches may be required because of the type of objects (artifactual, informational, and folkloric) being preserved. By getting at the root of the reason for preserving an object and understanding what it is that someone is actually trying to preserve—be it the object itself or the idea inherent to the object—the reader is then able to understand the best approach to meet the goals of preservation.

The second chapter focuses on helping the reader to understand digital objects and how they might appear in digital systems. It would be easy for this to devolve into technical jargon, making it difficult for a beginner in the field to understand; however, Owens demonstrates his commitment to helping the novice preservationist and clearly explains the various levels of digital objects (including a table to provide a visual representation of the level, the description of it, and a concrete example) and key concepts related to them including compression, exchange protocols, information encoding, and object rendering.

Digital preservation’s challenges and opportunities are presented in the third chapter. This is imparted yet again through relatable (and sometimes humorous) examples. Chapter 4 focuses on defining digital preservation as a craft and outlining the next four chapters to come, which focus on how to approach digital preservation, with suggestions for developing digital preservation plans.

Chapter 5 explores the idea of determining what is being preserved, and why, to develop the best approach to digital preservation for an object or collection. Once again, Owens relies on wide-ranging examples, this time to illustrate his point of developing an understanding of the intent of preservation. The underlying tenet is that, by understanding why something is being preserved, it is possible to develop a focused digital preservation plan that accomplishes the goal of preservation in a reasonable approach. He finishes this chapter with an exploration of principles of collection development as focused on digital preservation.

The book continues to dive into preservation specifics in chapter 6, where the focus moves to the practice of managing multiple copies and multiple formats of materials. Specific topics include bit preservation and maintaining fixity, key topics to know for someone involved in digital preservation. The highlight of this chapter is the presentation of models of preservation that could apply for institutions of varying sizes with varying means of support available. It brings home the idea that all are capable of, and responsible for, digital preservation in a reasonable and accessible manner.

Chapter 7 explains the importance of describing the preserved digital objects in a way that allows them to be usable and organized. The topic of “More Product, Less Process” (MPLP) is highlighted as a way of scaling preservation to a manageable load. This discussion helps to set up the final chapter, which focuses on accessing and using digital objects and the idea that providing users access to digital content, even by an imperfect method, is more important than providing “perfect” access to digital content. The key topics of ethics, privacy, and copyright that frequently cause hesitation on the part of librarians and archivists are also addressed, with suggested ways of respecting these principles while also preserving digital objects.

Owens frequently refers to topics discussed previously in the book while keeping in mind the convenience of the reader by providing a one-sentence summary or definition of the referenced topic instead of making the reader hunt through the book for a reminder of what a term meant. An index provided at the back of the book does provide access to key topics within the volume for those who would like to dive deeper into the original mention of the topic or example. While a substantial bibliography is included at the end of the book, because much of the volume is based on personal experience and recommendations, it is not a volume that contains many citations used within the endnotes for the text.

The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation is a valuable primer for those who are interested in developing a better understanding of digital preservation and the key areas to cover when developing a digital preservation plan. Owens’ expertise on the topic and highly accessible writing style allow him to craft a volume of great value to those who are new to the area of digital preservation, or who are looking to develop an understanding of the key principles of digital preservation to be able to support others who are actively working in this area.—Lisa M. McFall, Hamilton College

Copyright Lisa M. McFall

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