A Belated Introduction

Hello, my name is Tracee Haupt. I added this class late and am still catching up, so please excuse the belatedness of my introduction post.  First, a little about me–I am in my third year of the HiLS program. I specialize in modern American history and archives and digital curation. I am also in the Museum Scholarship and Material Culture program, which means I will probably end up adding another year to my three year program. I currently work as a graduate assistant in Hornbake Library, where I help to prepare and manage digitization projects, process new collections, provide reference assistance, and participate in outreach to promote the library’s resources. I also work as a Research and Teaching Fellow at McKeldin Library, where I teach library instruction classes to English 101 students, and I just started volunteering with the DCIC’s presidential archive project.

I joined this class because I am already working with digital projects, and I know that digital preservation should be an important component of managing any type of digital collection. Practically speaking, I also frequently peruse job ads, and I know that digital preservation skills are often wanted for the type of jobs I am interested in. Moreover, I’m excited to partner with a local institution to complete the class project.

I was intrigued by the first week’s readings on the possibility of the “Digital Dark Age.” As others have pointed out, the BBC article may have presented an overly pessimistic view by describing the problems of digital preservation without also offering a full account of the people and institutions who are working to solve the potential crisis. I would agree, however, that digital preservation can be “riskier” than other types of preservation. I think, for example, about my own personal archives. From my birth to about high school age, I have thick photo albums that my mother keeps in her closet that I could pull out and look at whenever I want. But right around the time my parents and I both bought digital cameras, the record becomes a lot murkier. There are pictures that I assume must be on my parent’s computers or hard drives, but I don’t know how to access them. There are also pictures I took that are on old computers or hard drives that I can’t access anymore. Some of them I think I may have inadvertently lost through computer failures or just plain sloppiness (like forgetting to transfer them or back them up). So there are entire years of my life in which I have very few, if any photographs. My photographs are not of any lasting value in the archive world, but the point I am trying to make is that when media goes from the physical to digital realm, there seems to be a lot more opportunities to make mistakes or allow items to slip through the cracks. Physical objects are also liable to become obsolete (VHS tapes, for instance), but I find that they are more likely to stick around and not get lost than the digital files I have. Do people agree or disagree that physical objects seem to have more “staying power”?

 

What counts as preservation?/Who decides?

The readings this week introduce a variety of ways of thinking about preservation. They demonstrate that the goals and possibilities of preservation depend on the specific contexts in which objects are being created and used. In The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, Trevor describes three frames for preservation. The artifactual framework is probably the one that is most familiar to archivists and librarians, or at least it is the framework that is most relevant to my experiences thus far. This framework emphasizes the “historical contiguity of a tangible physical object” (p. 15). Preserving the physical form of a work of art or a historic site is important for authenticity in this context. The informational frame focuses on the sameness of the informational content. Copies created through procedures that produce informationally identical versions are considered valid. Finally, the folkloric frame asks us to consider the essential qualities of objects that are not quite as “fixed” and to understand that the variability of narratives and other cultural expressions is worth documenting.

Individual vantage points affect our ideas about what is worth preserving and what counts as authentic preservation. For example, consider Rinehart and Ippolito’s explanation of the difference between formal and informal social memory. Formal social memory is shaped by institutions like libraries, archives, and museums that decide what to canonize. Informal social memory is more distributed across society and involves collaborative efforts by individuals to preserve content that is important to them. The rogue archivists mentioned in class last week fit in this category. Rinehart and Ippolito argue that formal social memory emphasizes the need to preserve original form of the object “as a way of of maintaining its historical accuracy and authorial integrity” (p. 15). This corresponds with the artifactual framework. Informal social memory communities are more open to updating the object through techniques like migration, emulation, and reinterpretation in order to preserve the essence of the item. That is to say, they find informational and folkloric qualities to be the most essential. It’s worth considering how these different groups make decisions about value and whether they have the resources to execute their vision for preservation. What happens if the rogue archivists don’t have the time, money, or expertise to continuously preserve something and how does this affect social memory? What happens when one definition of preservation is privileged over another?

It’s also interesting to consider the role that creators play in determining what preservation of their work should look like. Sol LeWitt created universal instructions for his wall drawings so that they could adapt to different spaces and continue to exist after his death. Other artists, like Eva Hesse, were either less explicit about their wishes or used materials that were more difficult to preserve. The Documenting Dance guide encourages dancers and choreographers to be proactive to prevent the loss of their work while admitting that some useful methods of documentation, like dance notation and motion capture, will not be accessible to everyone. In addition to a lack of resources or specialized knowledge, there can be emotional obstacles to overcome. Sometimes asking people to think about preservation means asking them to confront their own mortality. I’d be curious to know if we have any performers or artists in the class who have experienced preservation challenges with their own work. Should we privilege the artist’s original intentions when developing a preservation strategy or could this approach potentially ignore the needs of future users and audiences?

Sometimes preservation is less intentional. The Documenting Dance guide acknowledges that documentation can be conscious or unconscious. Dance events produce records beyond the actual performance in the form of publicity materials, the memories of the audience, and any written responses created by the audience. It is particularly interesting to consider the act of remembering as an act of preservation, but humans aren’t perfect and sometimes our memories are faulty. Our ability to capture these memories also depends on the technology we have available to us. With his comparison of the phonograph to the human brain, Guyau demonstrates that new advances in technology can help people to store and reproduce impressions. However, the device itself lacks the self-consciousness to truly remember anything and it can’t fully capture the ephemeral. Performances are experienced by each audience member differently and may also contain improvisations or other variations. A scientist can describe what she observed during a rare weather event, but reading an account or looking at photos is not the same as actually being there to experience the event yourself. The folkloric framework suggests that variation is important and when folklore is fixed, it is “no longer living culture but something that has been pinned down dead” (Owens, p. 22). But we keep trying to create representations of ephemeral events anyway-look at the variety of methods listed in the Documenting Dance guide. At what point do you have to accept that something cannot be faithfully preserved? 

Daston’s description of scientists working together to tackle the impossible task of documenting the natural world feels relevant here. We can’t preserve everything and we probably shouldn’t try to do so. There are only so many resources to go around. But we can explore collaborations across disciplines and frameworks to develop more holistic preservation strategies for both digital and analog objects. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to only one definition of preservation. One way to avoid doing so is to look outside our professional bubbles and to listen to perspectives from records creators and users in diverse contexts.

Digital Preservation: The Legacy Continues

What does it mean to preserve something? Our readings this week took that question to task by expanding (and perhaps exploding) the idea of preservation as it manifests across different communities, contexts, and mediums. The articles, chapters, and documents we read at first feel like they are speaking to unrelated, often niche audiences. When placed together, however, they reveal the complexities underpinning how preservation operates in different contexts. The topical diversity paints a more nuanced understanding of what it means to do preservation and challenges certain self-imposed paradigms for how we think preservation should be maintained.

Yet, most of the readings hardly had to do with digital materials so the question I was left with at the end of the day was how to connect what I was reading to what I’ve learned about digital preservation. I have no hard and fast conclusions but what I’ve listed below are a few of the most striking or recurrent avenues for connecting the complex world of preservation to the specific traits and needs of digital media.

1). Looking to preservation approaches and theories in other media and contexts can enhance our ability to frame preservation problems in our own work

If I had to pick one theme from this week’s readings to stick in my back pocket for future reference it would be this one. Glancing over the reading list for this week, I was initially confused about why we were reading a guide for documenting dance. While interesting, it hardly seemed relevant to the class. Yet, digging into the problems inherent in preserving a performative event brought to the forefront some corollaries, most notably the trouble of pinning a multi-faceted event, by nature irreproducible, into something that could realistically be preserved. I think a similar tension exists in digital media, which relies upon a complex interaction between multiple components to be legible, often while said components are rapidly becoming obsolete. In both cases, there’s a need to account for multiple parts while under the pressure of time. Placing both contexts side-by-side demonstrates a certain transferability in theoretical approach, which grounds digital preservation in a lineage (to borrow Professor Owens’ term) of ideas; a starting-point for developing new approaches to the challenges of novel, specific media.

2). Defining the purpose behind preservation can help shape the action of preservation

Owens’ summation of the three frameworks for preservation (artifactual, informational, folkloric) belies the notion that preservation efforts need to function towards the same end. Read alongside Rinehart and Ippolito’s specific examples in new media art encourages the idea of looking towards the purpose behind the thing to be preserved in order to determine the best efforts for preservation. The example Rinehart and Ippolito give of preserving the candies exhibit is particularly salient in this regard. As they note, locking the candies in airtight containers may keep them “preserved” but completely ruins the intention behind the art piece. This dilemma forces a reconsideration of what preservation means in this context. A similar reasoning can be applied to digital media (as Rinehart and Ippolito highlight). Is the thing to be preserved informational? Perhaps a new software can be applied or a migration to a new file format. Is if artifactual? Good luck. The point being that considering the framework in which preservation is happening can better direct efforts and resources to the desired end.

3). Preservation of a thing can happen through more than one medium

This theme is more of a side note in this week’s readings but it’s one I find intriguing. The Documenting Dance document pulls this idea to the forefront by demonstrating how multiple types of media (i.e. paper documents, motion-capture, film, photographs, etc.) can be employed to capture an event. In fact, the application of multiple types of media can present a fuller picture of the event-being-preserved by compensating for weaknesses in other media and multiplying avenues of access. I’m not sure if there’s an exact corollary in digital media but I wonder how a similar approach might be beneficial in digital preservation or if there’s even room for it.

4). Preservation happens amongst a community of actors

I think this idea manifests itself both horizontally and vertically. As Rinehart and Ippolito note, “…we see rescuing new media as a task that is best distributed across a wide swarth of cultural producers and consumers, who will choose the most appropriate strategy for each endangered work…” (10). In other words, it takes a village and a village that’s more than just professionals. Employing a wide network of individuals with an investment in digital media can expand the perspectives brought to bear on the needs in preservation and contribute towards innovative solutions.

Yet, this community of actors is dispersed not only through space but through time. We’ve talked in class about how preservation functions like a relay race; we do what we can to keep things accessible while we are alive, but that task will eventually be handed off to someone else. This idea of community potentially connects with the scientific community described in Daston’s article. Of all the materials we read, I struggled to connect with this one the most. It was fascinating and well worth the read, but I kept trying to attach it to our other readings and repeatedly came up short. I wonder, however, and this is probably a stretch at best, if her description of the transcendental “imagined community” (thank you Benedict Anderson for haunting my steps once more) at play in these scientific archives of early modern Europe could mimic the concept of community surrounding digital media archives through time. Daston emphasizes this idea of a dual-facing archive that finds its momentum from both the past and the future community. I wonder if this concept of community has any bearing on how digital media is approached, particularly through platforms that grant it almost immediate accessibility in space and, with the right mechanisms in place, time.

5). Food for Thought (and Hopefully Discussion)

I’m going to end this post with a bit of a redirect. I found the section in Rinehart and Ippolito’s book on social memory to be provocative. As the authors point out, canonical memory is often the aspect of social memory addressed by cultural institutions but it’s not representative of social memory’s totality. I’m wondering how cultural institutions can be better attuned to the informal aspects of social memory, particularly when social memory is more like social memories. Rinehart and Ippolito highlight a few applications in their book but I’m hoping we can have a discussion in class on this topic.

Thinking About the Objects We Preserve More Than the Objects We Use to Do It

“If the phonograph could hear itself, it would learn to recognize the difference between the voice which came from the outside and forced itself onto it and the voice which it itself is broadcasting and which is a simple echo of the first, following an already grooved way.”

Jean-Marie Guyau, Memory and Phonograph (1880)

It’s worth remembering that Edison’s phonograph was a device not only for the reproduction but also the recording of sound impressions. Still, while I’d agree with Guyau that “discoveries frequently start with metaphors,” there’s something lacking in the analogy he draws between the human brain and an “infinitely perfected phonograph—a conscious phonograph.” Perhaps that’s because the human brain as computer metaphor has only recently dried up.

Guyau treats a memory as an informational object. His self-conscious phonograph recognizes that the information is the same even if it’s not the original voice it hears. The informational is one of the three preservation frameworks Trevor Owens identifies in his book. The other two are the artifactual and the folkloric. The actual cylinder recording that Guyau might have listened to on his phonograph would be informationally identical to another recording of the same sonic event, just as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is still the same book whether it’s a first edition or a bargain paperback or an e-book. The words are in the same order. The spelling is the same.

But, that first edition would also have artifactual qualities. Any edition might, really. I’m sure James Whale’s copy would fetch a considerable sum at auction. Preserving a historic building—Trevor uses the example of Mount Vernon—is a more clear-cut example of the artifactual framework. Preserving a picture of Mount Vernon or a house that looks like Mount Vernon in Orlando, isn’t preserving Mount Vernon.

Finally, folkloric preservation traditions seek to document the ways that traditions and customs are passed on. This necessarily involves documenting particular instances or retellings but they are not intended as the final expression of the content of the tradition. Folkloric preservation doesn’t seek the best copy to digitize. The variability is the object.

Furthermore, the affordances of our media can condition our preservation techniques and expectations. Trevor cites the proceedings of the first National Colloquium on Oral History in 1966 where it was suggested that the “tape recorder [was] important enough to oral history to constitute almost a part of the definition [of oral history].” On the surface, that doesn’t sound terrifically controversial, but it is a choice. To my mind, that’s one major takeaway from the Dance Heritage Coalition’s Documenting Dance: A Practical Guide. Regardless of how we choose to document, we have to be aware of the limitations, i.e., dangers, of our approach. Can we reconstruct a dance from even the best HD video representation?

Guyau gives us a model of the human brain that relies on a medium (the phonograph) that would, within a generation, be surpassed. His analogy sounds impoverished today because the problem is always older than the technology and still manages to outlive it. Preservationists might not make the same mistake if they see their work as a continuation of the work of their forbears and not a task for which they are uniquely historically positioned to complete; if they believe that nothing’s preserved, it’s only being preserved.

There is No “One Size Fits All” for Digital Preservation

Digital preservation is a hot topic these days. The ever-increasing reality that we produce a lot of stuff in digital form has concerned information professionals for decades, but has been slow to result in concrete practices that all cultural institutions follow. Finding the balance between theory and practice is a tricky task when there is no “one size fits all” approach to digital preservation concerns.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that each institution has its own unique set of problems to address when it comes to ensuring access to collections over the long-term. It would be impossible to draft a master set of step-by-step instructions for how to approach digital preservation and expect all institutions to be able to follow them. Vastly different collection sizes, budgets, and manpower are just a few of the variables that each institution must factor into planning for preservation. As much as we’d like it to be, preservation is not a one-time, one-step task, but an ongoing process that requires planning, supervision, and revision. Leaving room for mistakes and accepting that they will happen is a healthy way to remember that dealing with long-term digital preservation is new territory for everyone – keeping up to date on current practices and sharing successes and failures will only help smooth our path forward.

Rather than focus on specific technical steps, then, information professionals have largely rallied around a few widely agreed upon frameworks and models for digital preservation. Of these, the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) is one of the most established frameworks. Drafted in 1999, the OAIS model revolves around two main purposes: to preserve information and make it accessible. Separate entities – Managers, Producers, and Consumers – work together to ensure that items are properly transferred, stored, and delivered in a way that is easily understandable by those who wish to access it. Institutions who subscribe to the OAIS model all demonstrate a commitment to long-term preservation of data, though the ways they do so in practice may vary greatly. It may seem counterintuitive that a set of standards that can be loosely interpreted would be more helpful than a straightforward set of instructions – but having the OAIS as a global standard has made it much easier for institutions around the world to share information and create more concrete standards along the way.

Of course, there comes a point when vague frameworks and models don’t translate into doable steps that people can follow, and can even be discriminatory or exclusionary for those who lack a background in or knowledge of archival practices (see Owens’ 12th axiom: “Highly technical definitions of digital preservation are complicit in silencing the past.”) In answer to that valid concern, recommendations like those found in the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA)’s Levels of Digital Preservation (LoDP) have emerged to give institutions a set of technical guidelines to follow, as well as track progress over time. The LoDP focuses squarely on the technical aspects of digital preservation, things like where items are stored, who has access to them, and the reliability of their format as technology changes over time. By keeping the guidelines straightforward, but untethered to specific technologies or formats, the NDSA’s levels provide institutions with a helpful jumping-off point for measuring where they stand –and where they need to improve – on digital preservation.

The most important thing that these guidelines and models have fostered is an ongoing dialogue between cultural institutions on the issues, challenges, and successes of digital preservation. As Owens writes, “Digital preservation is not about universal solutions” but about “crafting the right approach for a given preservation context.” If you think too hard about the sheer amount of digital material that we are creating on a daily basis (and how much of it is at risk of being lost), it’s easy to convince yourself that digital preservation is out of reach. The fancy technical aspects that we tend to get hung up on – like convincing ourselves that we need certain kinds of expensive software or don’t have the manpower to handle preservation tasks (Chudnov) – are the reason that so many institutions have yet to face the problem of long-term digital preservation. Doing something is better than doing nothing, but an even better plan is to collaborate with those who are facing the same challenges and learn from those who have faced them before.

Debates over the acceptable standards and purposes of digital preservation haven’t always translated into easy-to-follow steps, but efforts by information professionals everywhere from international conferences to university classrooms have helped clarify and make accessible the most fundamental aspects of digital preservation. It can be easy to forget that debates over theory do lead to concrete advances. The key is to continue to work towards translating models like the OAIS and recommendations like the LoDP into concrete actions that encourage institutions to take a hard look at how they are approaching digital preservation, not just today, but in the long-term.