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New Mac: that syncing feeling

By flickrich

Image by flickrich

Having used Windows since Win95, I recently switched to a new Mac laptop. Perhaps I should have waited until Win 7, but this Mac has a better screen that any earlier machine I’ve used, so I went for it. Getting used to the Mac – different shortcuts, lack of a right mouse button, etc. – has been a bit of a drag on productivity, even for me. But this isn’t about Mac vs Win.

I also have an iPod, so clearly there would be no concerns about using that with a Mac. I plugged in the USB cable and the Mac duly fired up iTunes. What happened next will not surprise anyone who has had an iPod long enough to switch computers, but is rather shocking from a preservation perspective. It seems you can only synchronise an iPod with one iTunes library, and in this case the library was on another machine. I had a choice: do nothing and disconnect, or sync with the library on the new machine. Since that library was empty, that option would effectively erase everything on the iPod. As with the floppy disc formatting option of old, I was one click away from deleting everything.

There are ways around this. Retrieve the original data sources, e.g. music CDs or purchased MP3s, and reload the library, this time on the new machine. Alternatively there are a number of software tools that will manage the transfer process for you. According to reviews these differ in their effectiveness for transferring data associated with the, in this case, mainly music files, such as cover artwork and other related metadata. Now we are beginning to see a connection with repositories.

The reason for the constraint on iTunes libraries isn’t explained. There may be some good practical reason; at the moment from my perspective it simply looks inconvenient. Most likely it is due to rights, or IPR, and fears of piracy. So there’s another connection with repositories: rights constraints.

Now, this project is about preservation of digital repositories. The iTunes library issue is not strictly a preservation problem. Since my iPod does not contain original (music) data, I can delete and rebuild. The data is not lost for good. Yet I am looking at an inconvenience, time and cost. And that’s for a few dozen music albums.

Scale that up to a fully functional and established institutional repository. If it’s an open access repository, the contents are author copies, or supplements, of papers published elsewhere, in order to make them freely accessible to everyone even if the published versions require payment to access. So for that content, it has been argued, preservation is a non-issue: the authoritative copies are (should be?) preserved elsewhere. On the basis of the iPod problem, that is correct. Also on the basis of the iPod experience, it’s not a good position to be in when you need to replace content on any significant scale.

Take a very simple (and unlikely) case, comparable with the ITunes choice, of deleting the repository with a single click having taken no preservation precautions whatever. The repository may be theoretically replaceable, but at what time, effort and cost? Notwithstanding that few, if any, repositories are purely OA content since they have diversified to include other types of content, much of which will not have managed copies elsewhere. The iPod example, and in particular the software to transfer content, should also alert us to the value of metadata. In the case of repositories that is likely to be value-added content quite specific to the repository and distinct from any other archive.

Unfortunately preservation is not simply about taking steps to avoid inadvertent disc erasure. Yet this simple example should begin to reveal the value of well managed digital repositories, even OA repositories where the content may not be the original or ultimate copies, and justify the effort that goes into presenting and maintaining that content. Exactly how far repositories should go beyond basic precautions is not yet clear, and in time is likely to become more complex. Between trying to justify the effort without scaring repositories away, we are working on it.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Data deletion: it happens - Diary of a Repository Preservation Project linked to this post on September 16, 2009

    […] previous post considered the prospect of single-click deletion of data, i.e. inadvertent or unexpected sudden […]

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