Written by Heather Wacha

Documenting DH is a project from the Digital Humanities Research Network (DHRN). It consists of a series of audio interviews with various humanities scholars and students around the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Each interviewee is given a chance to talk about how they view data, work with data, manage data, or teach data to others. Most recently, we interviewed Dorothea Salo, a faculty associate in the iSchool at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is also the founder and director of RADD (Recovering Analog and Digital Data). Her commitment to the preservation of data has created a career in which she has been instrumental to the digital community at the University of Wisconsin. Her interview is now accessible on the DHRN website.

How do you manage the data you work with?

Salo’s “data” is not what one may usually think of as data, even after having taken into account the diverse data that humanitists are used to encountering. Salo’s raw data consists of objects and artifacts like 8-track tapes, old 5 1/4″ floppy disks, iOmega disks, and reel-to-reel audio tapes. As a librarian who has built her career on preserving data, Salo now collects and manages data that is for all intents and purposes “out-dated.” RADD (Recovering Analog and Digital Data) is an organization that aims to transform analog and early digital data into data that can be preserved beyond the lifetime of its delivery mode.

In this way, Salo tells a wonderful story of one day receiving a variety of “data” in a box sent from the Mineral Point Library and Archives. The box contained an 8-track audio tape with an oral history recorded on it. Salo was both surprised and delighted, having thought that most commercial 8 track cassettes had already been transferred into more modern media formats. But of course, this was not a commercial tape. After a bit of trouble-shooting and problem-solving, Salo was able to take the audio from the 8-track and transfer it into a digitized format so that it might be preserved for future generations.

Salo has used that story to highlight one of her most important concerns and challenges regarding managing the preservation of one’s data – and that is what she calls dealing with “the shiny doomed kind of data.” A recent example of this is Adobe Flash, a multimedia software program that was ubiquitous ten years ago and has now been replaced with html and javascript, among others. In the early 2000s, lots of people used Flash to build websites and educational resources, but these resources can no longer be accessed. If the creators of Flash projects are lucky, they saved the raw materials that went in to the original project, but if not, all that work has disappeared for good.

While Salo can recount numerous cautionary tales, she also notes that it is the very speed at which certain media formats are replaced with others that generates excitement about the data she encounters. She revels at “the immense creativity of humanity in designing new ways to package information and solve problems with old data.” Although perhaps too humble to admit it herself, Salo embodies and manifests this creativity in the significant and crucial the work she does at RADD.

What advice can you give humanists wanting to manage their data effectively?

Salo offers two pieces of advice for digital humanists. First, one must think about data preservation at the outset of a project, not when the project is done. Too often she sees great projects brought to librarians and archivists when the project is already complete, and this may necessitate more work for project managers just when they thought they were done. Consulting with experts, like data librarians, is imperative in the early stages of any digital project. They can advise on data preservation formats, strategies, repositories and more. According to Salo, preservation policies should be written into any project proposal, whether in formal language, such as in a grant proposal, or informal language, such as a simple timetable sketched out for a small research collaboration. The more one thinks ahead, the easier the transition to a sustainable and acceptable home for any given project’s data.

Second, Salo advises humanists to think about their data and its preservation early in their careers. An analog approach is for a scholar to pile up data over a lifetime and then deposit it at a university archives when ready to retire. Coming to a university librarian or archivist at the end of one’s career is not the best way to think about data preservation, especially for “digital stuff.” Catherine C. Marshall, adjunct professor in Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A & M University, has coined a term for this – “benign neglect.” If scholars can consult an expert in data preservation early on, they can put into place standards that have been designed for best practice and create a workflow that minimizes disruption when their work is ready to be housed in a new place.

If you are interested in hearing more, you can go to Dorothea Salo’s interview on the DHRN webpage. Salo describes her career and journey as a digital humanist as sometimes “scary and humbling, but fun”.

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