Episode 65

65. Sarah Nguyen Helps Fight Digital Decay with Preserve This Podcast

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About this Episode

Everything decays. In the past, human heritage that decayed slowly enough on stone, vellum, bamboo, silk, or paper could be put in a museum—still decaying, but at least visible. Today, human heritage is decaying on hard drives.

Sarah Nguyen, a MLIS student at the University of Washington, is the project coordinator of Preserve This Podcast, a project and podcast of the same name that proposes solutions to fight against the threats of digital decay for podcasts. Alongside archivists Mary Kidd and Dana Gerber-Margie, and producer Molly Schwartz, Nguyen advocates for Personal Digital Archiving, the idea that for the first time, your data is under your control and you can archive it to inform future history. Personal archiving counters the institutional gatekeepers who determined which data and stories are worth preserving.

In this episode, Nguyen cautions that preserving culture digitally comes with its own set of pitfalls, describes the steps that individuals can do to reduce the role of chance in preserving digital media, and why automatic archiving tools don’t properly contextualize.

Image (left to right): Mary Kidd, Sarah Nguyen, Molly Schwartz, Dana Gerber-Margie, and Lyra Gerber-Margie

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 65. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

Everything is in a constant state of decay.

In the past, human heritage that decayed slowly enough on stone, vellum, bamboo, silk, or paper could be put in a museum — still decaying, but at least visible.

And today, human heritage is rotting on hard drives. The entire internet, everything from social media to Wikipedia, is stored on hard drives on anonymous computer, waiting for the inevitable, and not-too-distant day when they will just wear down and stop working… heritage lost forever to the sands of time.

But there is one potentially beneficial loophole to digital heritage as compared to non-digital heritage: digital files can be copied. They can be copied again and again and again, perfectly every time. The path between past and future for a digital file is to hop from one storage to another every few years in an unbroken chain: staying one step ahead of digital decay. Digital copies aren’t like a Xerox of a Xerox which just becomes unreadable over time do to increasing noise. And best of all, making a digital copy doesn’t destroy the original.

Sarah Nguyen: Wax cylinders there, you can only do it so many times. Or then the grooves we’ll be inaccurate after playing it. But then within the digital interface, because it’s so easy to pick up and throw away, that’s where it becomes even a higher risk of deterioration and loss within the file.

This is Sarah Nguyen, the project coordinator of Preserve This Podcast, a project that proposes solutions to fight against the threats of digital decay for podcasts. She cautions that preserving culture digitally, while having some advantages over other mediums, comes with its own set of pitfalls.

Sarah Nguyen: Hello, I’m Sarah Nguyen. I am the project coordinator for preserve this podcast. So alongside the two archivists, Mary Kidd and Dana Gerber-Margie, and our producer, Molly Schwartz. Currently I am an MLIS student at University of Washington, so I kind of get to bring in the current readings of what people are talking about within preservation or within file formats.

Preserve this Podcast is a tiny and delightfully meta podcast called, Preserve this Podcast, and it is accompanied by an equally-delightful zine, detailing what you can do to prevent digital decay.

The founders saw the podcast industry booming, and wanted to teach independent culture producers who aren’t operating as part of new large, podcast companies, how to keep control of their narratives—now and in the future.

Sarah Nguyen: So podcasts are notorious for being DIY. People who are independent storymakers audio creators who don’t have an institutional backing. We kind of see Preserve this Podcast as supporting what we call the personal digital archiving: so PDA is the acronym for it. We want to make it so that podcasters are able to be autonomous and have the agency to control their content outside of the digital decay as we call it.

Personal digital archiving is the idea that today, individuals, who history might call normal people have the opportunity to preserve via digital methods. In the past, it was only the rulers or the vastly wealthy who could take control of their own data.

This is the first time in human history that your data have a good chance to be archived.

Sarah Nguyen: That’s why this whole kind of subprogram of personal digital preservation has been this movement. I think it’s like once a year or twice a year, there is like a PDA conference host at various institutions around the US, where it kind of just talks about what are low barrier to entry practices that people can use to archive their own work because in how the real world works, when you don’t have the luxury of your job being archiving any sort of digital files because you have to like create these things and make sure that there is a return on investment. Artists and creators aren’t really looking to save their work. At the moment in time when you’re creating something, it’s a disruption to actually have to think about “how do I backup and save things?” Because you get on a wave and kind of just want to make it happen.

Sarah Nguyen: One of my other part time jobs outside of preserve this preserve this podcast is with a dance company. And when you like just like creating like a piece of work or choreographing a piece while you’re in the dance studio, you’re not also making sure that your file is backed up off this camera off of your iPad or iPhone, you know, after you’ve created it.

I will admit it here: I am a hobbyist PDA-er. I have systems that automatically log everything I can about my activity and health to custom spreadsheets. I built a private server that my phone automatically updates my location to several times a minute, so I can always know every museum I’ve ever visited. You can be sure that the file you’re listening to right now will be transcribed and backed up in multiple locations.

But according to Nguyen, automatically backing up is only half of what properly archiving actually means. Automatic backups and automatic transcriptions are in some ways making it easier to preserve, but proper achieving is also about contextualizing.

So it’s not enough to just record podcasts or my locations as individual entities. I need to contextualize them, too.

Sarah Nguyen: And that’s kind of like the biggest one of the bigger bottlenecks of archiving is like are you contextualizing that object, that file correctly so that it’s represented in the correct way? So I think that in certain processing, like the manual side of it potentially is becoming easier, but the more intellectual side of representation and identity of a thing is becoming more difficult because, especially with podcast or almost anything on the internet, Youtube videos, whatever, things are being created at a much faster rate.

Many, many hours of video are being uploaded to YouTube every second of every day, and each video is analized by machines looking for patterns. Expecting the machines to contextualize all those hours of content is only going to lock in biases — either mirroring society’s or introducing new ones.

Sarah Nguyen: The way that people have perceived libraries, museums and archives is an educational space, right? They think that it’s all fun and fun and interesting and educational versus like having a specific opinionated point of view. The whole point of a podcast is that you have a story, you as an individual have this idea of how the world works and you want to share it. That’s what makes it even more important to be able to assign your own descriptive texts to it so that you ensure that people know what you’re trying to say to them upfront.

Sarah Nguyen: So like in our most recent episode with Kaytlin Bailey, who does the Oldest Pro Podcast, she talks about, basically the oldest profession, which is sex work. And like for her to say, you know, specific words within her podcast, it can be misinterpreted completely by Google’s algorithm. Then her podcast could potentially be taken down just because through automatic flagging, they’ll misinterpret it as she’s trying to promote sex work.

It strikes me that we are in the middle big shift from archiving tools of the past: now, that archiving is in control of an individual — you! — instead of being left to a third-party like a museum or library. That changes the valence of collections if everyone can take control over their own story.

Whether any of this data are going to be useful or interesting to the future is beside the point. By reducing the role of chance, and eliminating the institutional gatekeeper who determines which data and stories are worth preserving, anyone and everyone’s data has a chance inform future history.

Sarah Nguyen: We put this under the guise of a PDA, a personal digital archive. Right? So it is up to you if you want to and you feel the need and, and the just want to save your work for the future, it’s under your responsibility. I kind of, that’s kind of where we’re putting it at. It’s kind of like if you want to share your story, then you will go as far to preserve it, versus just handing it off to someone who might preserve it under the wrong context. So I think that it’s important to the point where you as a creator believe it’s important. And so if we can give you all the tools and a step by step guide to do as necessary, we would love for anyone to be able to do it.

In the past, museums and libraries would control who got to be collected. The best way forward might not just be to force these institutions to open up, but also bypass them altogether by making the archiving tools accessible to all.

Sarah Nguyen: In libraries and archives, there is this whole debate about the archives and libraries are not neutral. We’re not neutral because there is that idea that like, yes, we want to give you the options to have access to all different types of materials, even if it is racist or can be hurtful to someone. But, um, should we, because our, we actually neutral in that way. Like is it going to actually help or is it misinformation at that point? So we want to make sure that within your podcast, when you’re creating it, you’re able to control, uh, so that someone doesn’t misinterpret it in a way.

Sarah Nguyen: That’s why we want to give the agency to the creator themselves, not to put it under the onus of someone else. And if this does take off, which we kind of hope it does that like someone will be able to fund an actual server or institution where people will be able to submit it for the long term versus in the generalized, internet archive. First steps are just kind of making it in an accessible way in a zine, a podcast, workshops where people can kind of dip into the waters and feel if it’s important to them and if they want to do it. And then if not, we’re totally fine with that too.

Preserve This Podcast can be found wherever podcasts are available — for now. In the final episode, Nguyen and the other hosts acknowledge that accessing their podcast into the future depends on a 301 redirect and remembering to pay server bills. The project is funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and is hosted by the Metropolitan New York Library Council.

Preserve This Podcast is also traveling to various workshops and conferences to take podcasters, producers, and audio archivists through their curriculum of archiving podcasts. You can find a full list of where they’re going at PreserveThisPodcast.org.