Case Study - Professor Harold Garfinkel Project

When comparing the files produced by our digital conversion process against the original, analog material, the most important question to answer is: does the digital collection exceed the functionality of the originals without sacrificing any key properties, while maintaining a high degree of fidelity? This question is not easily answered. It can be argued that, by virtue of being digital, converted media has already exceeded the original, analog material because of its ability to be copied, or because of its ability to integrate more efficiently with modern archival technologies. While not untrue, to take this answer at face value would involve making a number of assumptions about the digital files. A useful example for understanding the value of a digital collection over an analog collection would be the cumulative interviews, lectures, notes and memoranda of Professor Garfinkel*, one of the twentieth century’s foremost sociology researchers.

To evaluate the effectiveness of digital conversion, the analog material must first be evaluated along the same criteria. What was the physical quality of the analog material? More specifically: with what degree of fidelity had the analog material retained the data held on it? How had the analog material been organized? How easily could the analog material be accessed? Evaluating the material along these lines establishes a baseline to compare the digital material against later.

In this case, the analog material consisted of written notes, perhaps five hundred pages worth, and audio recordings with a total duration of approximately twelve-hundred hours of content. The material, physically, had little to no signs of deterioration. For most of their existence, these notes and recordings had been in the possession of their creator. They were then transferred to a colleague who was familiar with the content and had an active interest in preserving them for future use. It can be inferred from the above that every reasonable precaution had been taken to prevent the decay of the original, analog material. While it’s not impossible that degradation had occurred on some scale, it would require invasive methods, methods which may cause damage to the original material, to elevate that argument beyond being conjecture. Regardless of whether or not decay occurred in the material, the important matter is that the physical material is susceptible to it; that isn’t conjecture so much as it’s the recognition that entropy exists. In order to prevent notes from crumpling or magnetic-tape from sticking, certain measures must be taken, measures which require resources, be that physical space, personnel or energy. In contrast, the digital files require resources only in proportion to the investment in them. Making them available online requires a server to host them, but they can just as easily be placed on an external storage unit, unplugged and filed away; or both, as the files aren’t unique and can be copied ad infinitum.

The second matter to evaluate is how the material had been organized. In this instance, the answer is complex. The originals were indeed well-organized, but they were originally organized by their creator; that is to say: someone intimately familiar with every piece of metadata associated with them. Owing to this, the items appeared to have been organized along criteria and subject matter that our technicians were illiterate in. Moreover, most of the physical labels had been handwritten in a shorthand fashion with descriptions too long to be used in conventional indexing. It was determined that best way to harness what organization already existed, while creating a schema that our technicians could understand and adhere to, was to attach a barcode to each item. With the barcodes acting as a common reference, the conversion team coordinated with the clients, who were best equipped to interpret the labeling, to create a merged index of material. This merged index would then allow the digital material to hold both the content-relevant labeling that their creator had intended, while also being anchored to a numerical index entry.

The next point for evaluation is how easily the information contained in the material could be accessed. Given the content of the material and the stature of their creator, it must first be emphasized that we are referring to the original material itself and not the core subject matter, which may have since trickled into other locations, such as published works. On that basis, the written notes could be evaluated as one degree removed from being easily accessed by the target demographic, i.e. students and peers. Even setting aside more modern scanning technologies, fax and copy machines have allowed scholars to share printed notes for decades and along this train of thought the digital files initially appear to only have the advantage of requiring less time to send remotely. What this line of thinking misses, however, is that digital collections can improve the ability of students and peers to identify the material they’re looking for. Once digitized, additional data can be used to search through the notes, allowing researchers to more directly identify relevant subject matter, rather than combing through an entire collection.

The audio content was considerably less accessible in its analog form. To be played, the reels have to be fed through a reel-to-reel player. These players are rarely manufactured at present and have been largely outmoded. Many of the reels were also recorded at 7/4 IPS speed, a playback speed not commonly found on consumer reel-to-reel players. When not played at the appropriate speed, the audio from the reels is unintelligible. Moreover, the reels play in a front-to-back linear fashion and cannot be sped through while maintaining audio playback at a coherent pitch. In contrast, the digital files were adjusted to account for the differing speeds while maintaining a normal pitch. The files can be transcribed, time-stamped and even further subdivided in sections related to specific subject matter, particularly useful considering the longest recordings run over six hours in length. Combined with online file hosting and streaming, this would make the entire twelve-hundred-some hours of audio not only available for use, but actively highlighted by search functions when relevant, no different than if it had been a formally published work.

In summation of the above: when weighing the analog material against in the digital material in the case of the collected media of Professor Garfinkel*, we come to three conclusions. The first, as regards the physical state of the analog and digital materials, is that even when the material has been well-preserved by parties with an active investment in them, the analog material remains at risk of deterioration. Digital files can be made redundant rapidly and cheaply enough to make the threat of damage less real. The second, as regards the material’s organization, is that the analog material had been organized along subtle criteria unfamiliar to a lay person, a not uncommon scenario. While in the specific case of Professor Garfinkel*’s files we created a universal barcode schema, the salient point is that labeling attached to digital files can be updated more easily and can be indexed so as to better take advantage of the metadata attached to it. In the third category, we consider the ease of using the material. While not inaccessible in analog form, it’s here that the digital files far exceed their analog counterparts, in that, by becoming searchable and hosted through a shared medium (ie the internet) they have become as readily accessible as published material.