Infinite possibilities, infinite complexities

Hi all, my name is Brittany and this is my second semester in the MLS program at UMD, on track for Archives and Digital Curation.  I really wanted to take this course because a) it’s the only course offered by the iSchool MLS program so far that deals specifically with the arts, and b) I was an Art History major as an undergrad and hope to one day work for an art museum in their library or archives, so I will most certainly be dealing with these issues at some point!

One of the main themes that stuck out to me in Re-collection was that the preservation of digital art has to become more dynamic because the materials and concepts of digital have become vastly complex and infinite in possibility.  There is an enormous variety of technologies available now for artists to use and mash together.  And because of the way technology developed to be user-friendly to non-programmers, the physical technology is separated from the logical presentation provided to the viewer.  That is to say, When I’m typing away words in a Word document and saving it to my hard drive, I’m not seeing the tiny magnet moving across the disc to store my document in binary form.  Instead I see my document as a “file” saved in a “folder,” which is a way of simulating the print environment we are familiar with, where papers would be filed away in folders.  When you have these layers upon layers of technologies interacting with each other, and then on top of that you have a conceptually and materially complex artwork, it’s no wonder that preservationists are having such a hard time.  The effort and thought processes necessary to preserve these digital artworks need to be multi-layered and dynamic.

One common thread between all of the readings was that the metadata stored with the artworks need to change for born-digital collections.  The metadata standards, whether using MANS or a customized variation, need to be able to capture the different layers of that digital artwork.  Not only the different technologies used, but the relationships between those technologies, the hardwares and the softwares, the cultural and aesthetic context, the blueprints for recreating the work, etc.  Incorporating as much information as possible about the artwork into the metadata from the start will enable a more secure preservation future.  However, I think it is important to note, as the NDSA points out, that most of this metadata should be computationally generated and not manually, because that would just be way too much work for our preservationists and catalogers, and the information overload would become a serious issue.

3 Replies to “Infinite possibilities, infinite complexities”

  1. Hi Brittany, Thrilled to have you in the course. It’s great to have someone with an art history background wading into this world of born digital works. You’re points about the issues around the layers involved in computing is really spot on. We’ve got files, and file formats, we have the way information is laid out on underlaying physical media, and we have the actual inscriptions on physical media and all of them are part of what shapes and structures what can be done. As you work through Mechanisms and Racing the Beam I think it will become apparent how important the affordances of all these layers are for being able to step back and think through what is significant about a given work.

  2. I think another thing that’s important to keep in mind with new metadata standards is making sure that holding institution’s catalogue interfaces are able to handle that standard. These articles were primarily written from a museum point of view, though Rinehart and Ippolito did occasionally touch on libraries and archives. Many libraries still use a cataloging interface that can handle MARC records only, they can’t create records using XML and multiple metadata standards. Finding a way to help institutions upgrade their systems in a cost-effective manner would also help bridge the gap of ‘we would love to have it, but we literally can’t catalogue it unless we treat it like a film.’

  3. Brittany, I resonate with your opinion about the cost of manual labor. I thought the ArtBase example Rinehart and Ippolito provides might provide a good model: invite artists to produce metadata. While I wish metadata production would create new jobs, I am not positive about the financial capacity of cultural institutions to afford that. I wonder whether a body of student can contribute to metadata production? The Shelly-Godwin Archive ( has tried this route. A model like this can provide a learning opportunity for students to attend to the resources closely and, consequently, to contribute with their working knowledge to the encoding of artwork.

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