The Arts of Losing

ACP's acquisition editor Hannah Brooks-Motl on acquiring books while developing a preservability mindset

Likely you’ve lost a digital something: a video that didn’t make it through an upgrade. A website you couldn’t maintain. Such losses are personal and social but they also scale to organizations, institutions, governments, even whole epistemologies. 

The Digital Preservation Coalition released its updated “Bit List” of Endangered Digital Species in 2023. The “Critically Endangered” list includes everything from PC games to smartphone apps to “open source intelligence sources of current conflicts,” “evidence in court,” and “records of local government.” Meanwhile, the merely “Endangered List” encompasses email, oral histories, and “First Nations Secret/Sacred Cultural Material.” This jarring mix of the banal and profound is like digital life in miniature—everything important as well as the nothing much that fills our waking hours is on a server we probably can’t see, being stored in ways we might not understand. One problem of sounding the alarm around digital loss is this sense that digital environments are too large and amorphous for any one person to be in charge. “If digital preservation is possible then data loss is a choice,” maintain the Bit List report’s authors. And yet, just who is choosing to lose the data—who could be choosing otherwise—is difficult to parse, exactly.

Enhancing Services to Preserve New Forms of Scholarship” is one such effort to identify and amplify those inflection points in publishing workflows when choices around preservation are possible. Led by New York University Libraries and funded by the Mellon Foundation, the initiative connects digital preservation institutions like Portico and CLOCKSS, libraries, and university presses to study and address challenges associated with preserving complex digital scholarly books and projects (for more on digital preservation from experts at these institutions, see recent interviews with Portico and CLOCKSS directors and researchers at the Scholarly Kitchen). In its first round, project members studied examples of newer “dynamic forms of scholarship,” that included features requiring extra support or long-term planning for durability and future access. One outcome was a set of sixty-eight preservation guidelines or recommendations for how to make digital projects that are “more likely to be preserved”—how to build publications that are preservable. 

The second round, currently in progress, is meant to test the efficacy of the guidelines and fine-tune a process that folds digital preservability into publishing and library workflows. The group has embedded a member into a digital publication project that presents particular kinds of problems for preservability and long-term accessibility: enhanced e-books, bespoke websites, highly flexible and decentralized publishing platforms. One of ACP’s book projects was selected for this phase and, in September 2023, I joined a cohort of platform developers, publishers, and preservation specialists for two days of conversation and workshops. Rather than technical discussions on repositories and file formats (my fear), our discussion ranged widely. It turns out that thinking about preservation leads to core reflections on the ethics and mission of scholarly publishing. Indeed, as Trevor Owen points out in his book The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (Johns Hopkins, 2018), “ensuring long-term access to digital information is not a problem for a singular tool to solve. Rather, it is a complex field with a significant set of ethical dimensions. It’s a vocation. It is only possible through the consistent dedication of resources from our cultural institutions.” 

Digital preservation might be a vocation albeit a niche one at the moment. Indeed, without consensus around which “cultural institutions” should step in or up and what manner or form “consistent dedication” might take (let alone from which coffers it should come), digital preservation efforts can stall or fail to start altogether. No wonder then that our conversations with the NYU team returned again and again to the roles and responsibilities of preservation work. Who should take charge of what, and when? 

Here physical books offer a historical precedent that might be instructive. Librarians knew about the problems of wood pulp paper–they had shelves of books that were literally disintegrating–in the 1950s; an alternative paper was ready by 1960. Yet it took almost thirty more years for publishers to change their production process. Librarians could only preserve what was preservable–and they didn’t produce the books. So, according to the New York Times, at a gathering of “dozens of publishers and librarians” at the New York Public Library in 1989, publishers signed “a statement vowing to use only acid-free paper, if available, ‘for all first printings of quality hardcover trade books in order to preserve the printed word and safeguard our cultural heritage for future generations.’” The campaign was spearheaded by authors and libraries, with publishers finally joining the charge once they were assured the new paper would cost the same. Acid-free as an industry standard came about because librarians and authors worked with publishers (a group notoriously consumed with bottom lines) to develop an alternative that was not significantly more costly. New digital industry standards will likewise require buy-in from—as well as careful cost-analysis for—many more groups.

As numerous stakeholders needed to come together in the ‘80s to ensure long-term preservability of paper books, we might see an ever-widening circle of professional groups as key to ensuring digital preservation, from rights specialists to librarians, repository specialists, platform managers, vendors galore, authors and acquisitions editors and editorial assistants, all the way to academic leaders such as provosts and presidents. And yet as the thirty-year battle for acid-free paper shows, it’s not always easy to coordinate these groups even around a shared goal. For example, choosing not to lose the data should begin where? Include what? What might be the equivalent of acid-free paper in current digital publishing practices? 

Once we editors began sharing our workflows with platform developers and preservation specialists, the lowly art log emerged as one possible point of preservability convergence. Sometimes called a “permissions log” or, in the parlance of our platform, Fulcrum, the “Metadata Template,” this document records very basic metadata, usually related to images (dimensions, caption, copyright status) and travels widely through the acquisitions and production process; in Fulcrum’s case, the metadata template feeds directly into the publishing platform, which is based on Michigan’s library repository. 

These kinds of logs are familiar to publishers already. They do lots of work. They also are a lot of work—for authors. Confusion can creep in at this moment as it seems like we (editors) are asking them (authors) to do a lot of busy work without clearly explaining why. The conversation around preservation has helped me re-understand this piece of our process. Rather than send the metadata template to authors with a bunch of other production documents, I now try to schedule a meeting to go over it together. I show them examples of what a media asset or resource with lots of good metadata looks like and what a skimpy spreadsheet yields. Someday something will break or not get updated and what will remain—think of it as the “trace” of the resource, I tell authors—is whatever choice someone made to fill out a field or leave it blank. 

I used to struggle to communicate to authors the importance of this template and wondered how to help them “see” what its many columns and rows meant for publication itself, let alone for long-term preservation. I now feel able to give authors a slightly better, if still incomplete, view–if I don’t yet have a whole picture of what digital preservation is (no one does), then at least I can share my own emerging mindset of why it matters. Together we can choose, or not, to make their project a little more preservable. There will need to be many more such conversations that include all of us–preservation experts, library workers, publishers, and authors–if we are going to seriously attend to threats that digital loss poses to our scholarly and cultural record.


Hannah Brooks-Motl is an acquisitions editor at Amherst College Press where she acquires broadly in the humanities and humanistic social sciences and runs ACP's internship program. Hannah is interested in acquiring manuscripts that bring together unexpected archives, objects, institutions, regions, and histories in engaging and accessible ways, and she is committed to helping authors, readers, and students understand the scholarly communications landscape. She earned her MFA from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and PhD from the University of Chicago.