As we explore the more granular planning involved in digital art curation, we repeatedly encounter the idea that significance shifts. Whether it’s evolving re-interpretations of artworks in Re-Collection, the strange history of a video game platform in Racing the Beam, or the fluid readability and scope of Agrippa (as detailed in Mechanisms), it’s becoming clear that preservation over time involves multiple solutions in response to multiple meanings, use cases, and instances of any given artwork.
tracking the shifts
Going further, Dappert and Farquhar (2009) dismantle the idea that significance is either a binary (significant or not significant) or an all-or-nothing proposition (it is or it isn’t). They frame it instead as a ranked series of priorities that can even accommodate digital object characteristics whose preservation needs conflict. As a process of making and remaking these priorities, preservation over time involves a kind of storytelling, documenting changes in the constraints that challenge access.
We’ve previously discussed constraints as the limitations that platforms enact on creativity and use. Constraints per Dappert and Farquhar are “a combination of characteristics of preservation objects or environments that must be preserved or attained in order to ensure the continued accessibility, usability, and meaning of preservation objects.” The authors distinguish constraints from representation information as defined in the Open Archival Information System model/standard (see Lavoie, 2014, p. 16; automatic PDF download) in that representation information offers a snapshot (one user group, one set of needs, at one time) while constraints have the capacity to reflect changing needs and different acceptable forms of access over time. What “derived data object” is good enough varies by who accesses what when; there are no absolutes inherent in a given digital object or format.
The “good enough” derivative copy also figures in how Webb et al (2013) refer to emulation for preservation: The point is to “emulate the presentation of those significant properties of the content.” Often, how we perceive a thing to behave or operate is as or more important than how it actually behaves or operates. Archivists need to determine, contextually, how these two interpretations of “behavior” should factor in determining what and how to preserve.
we’re still archivists
Following this line of thinking, Webb et al. further distance the idea that significant properties can be closely tied to the types or formats of digital objects. They suggest that preservation strategies are so linked to collection policies and appraisal as to be meaningless without them. Statements of preservation intent reflect negotiation between those who tend to “see things in terms of genres, workflows and intellectual entities” and those whose work more “typically deal[s] with types of file formats and individual files.”
Focusing too much on format at the expense of understanding context and intellectual content is a mistake I often catch myself making at my day job, and I can only imagine the impact of an entire collecting institution falling into this way of thinking. To ignore how context and content shape the technical sides of preservation and access impoverishes each of these key archival functions.
It’s a useful reminder that archivists working with new media and new forms of work can be susceptible to professional amnesia in the face of so much novelty. Webb et al. write, of digital preservation, “There are no evident orthodoxies or assumed outcomes to build upon.” Working in a discipline that’s perpetually “emerging” is exhilarating and terrifying at once. No assumption is left un-questioned, technical details can change overnight, and guidance seems hard to come by. It can be tempting to end the conversation at “Digital preservation is hard!” But by forging ahead, documenting how we develop and fulfill preservation intents, we’re writing the future histories of our profession — and covering our asses.
writing the docs
“One thing we learned during the project was that, because there are so many utilities for characterizing digital objects, there was so much metadata and description that we could have created, and so we had to select what we thought was essential for our future colleagues.”
We’ve been so focused on description for use, reuse, recreation, and reinterpretation that description to inform future preservation practices has sort of fallen by the wayside. But I like this idea of description as a way to extend provenance and support the periodic reaffirmation of the statement of preservation intent.
In separating preservation intentions from significant properties, Webb et al. seem to suggest that technical details don’t belong in policy, which is more about establishing roles — “This is basically a call to take responsibility for deciding what happens to the collections” — and identifying broad categories of preservation activities and challenges. Plus, the technical details are changing all the time so why bother to write them into policy when a rewriting is always just around the corner?
One weirdly practical reason to excise technical details from statements of preservation intent is that we can be confident archivists will produce the necessary documentation to fill in the gaps. We can’t help ourselves: Documentation is a key part of how we develop and practice professional identity. Workflows are a kind of social capital, there are awards for finding aids, and much of our professional literature consists of case studies. Each new generation of archivists tasked with preserving digital art and other born-digital material will have to face, anew, the challenge of how to fulfill the preservation intent. Writing the docs on how they choose to solve the problem adds to an artwork’s penumbra of documentation and doubles as a professional induction.
In a talk last week about the hidden histories of ENIAC, documentation emerged as a key factor in the making of the first computer. Said documentation continues to support the uncovering of ENIAC’s labor history. (“Documentation ftw.”)
Webb et al. get at a vital, related point in their summative disclaimer: “This approach doesn’t try to solve the deep, dark problems of digital preservation but it does give us some more information and some vital organisational engagement and recognition of shared responsibility to work with.” I would argue that people and getting them to work together are two of those “deep, dark problems,” so there is nothing lightweight about mobilizing among or within organizations. Framing the conversation around preservation intent is useful not only for how it links appraisal and preservation but also for how it demands that we collaborate.