significance shifts

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

In Chelcie Rowell’s interview with the PAFDAO team, Dianne Dietrich talks about the decision-making behind how and what to document about digital artwork and the preservation decisions involved:

“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.

7 Replies to “significance shifts”

  1. Your points about collaboration and linking appraisal to preservation were two key points that stuck with me as well. Webb et. al. describe the National Library of Australia’s plan behind preservation intent statements, which aim to define what access means, as well as the “priority elements” that must be maintained when rendering a digital object. The preservation intent statements were really getting curators to look at their collecting decisions more closely and evaluate why items were acquired and how they would be accessed. One of the beneficial outcomes of these statements was figuring out what other stakeholders, like users, needed when using the digital collections. For me, these ideas just reinforced the importance of appraisal.

    The NLA’s plan for preservation intent statements seems like a very practical approach to preservation. The documentation ends up being a collaboration between curators/collection managers, as well as digital preservation specialists, and along the way the needs of users have been gathered. The only possible missing thing from this equation for me is the involvement of the creators. Granted, their example of crawling web pages for PANDORA, may not be the easiest project to involve creators in, but for other projects it seems like a logical next step.

    1. Thanks, Kerry! I agree, NLA could certainly stand to involve creators more in linking preservation and appraisal.

      I go back and forth on the PANDORA example. While crawlers and collection management might not be accessible or interesting to creators, there’s a lot creators can do to make their sites easier to capture. Here’s a blog post from the Smithsonian Archives with some suggestions. It’s the one example I happened to know but there are probably more out there. A lot of that advice lines up pretty well with principles of usability and accessibility — important for government sites, for example, if not necessarily on the radar for artists working in the medium of websites.

      So maybe a kind of creator outreach NLA could consider (if they’re not already doing it) is to develop recommendations for making websites easier to preserve based on the web development and web preservation tools currently available, as well as on best guesses about where each of those fields is headed next. The last chapter of Re-Collection is a great example of how such recommendations might look: clear but not too granular; not overly specific to a technological moment in time; and flexible enough that creative decision-making continues to rest with artists.

  2. I agree that technical decisions can be removed from preservation intent statements but I have less faith in archivists documenting their work in general. In my own experience, many of these workflows are often simply institutional knowledge, held within the brain of whoever is doing/did the work. Also there can be written documentation but is it being followed? What are the little idiosyncratic differences in interpretation from archivist to archivist? While this is probably less of a case with digital preservation because of the need to know what actions you take and how to undue them if necessary, I think it is probably still there. Some people are good about it and some people aren’t. It’s definitely something that should be emphasized more.

    That digression notwithstanding, I also agree that preservation intent statements seem like crucial pieces to the preservation puzzle. Documenting what is essential to preserve going forward is extremely helpful to know regardless of the method one takes to enact these goals. In any domain, it is important to stop and think why we’re doing what we are doing. Additionally, I think these statements also reveal the biases of those making the original decision. Like you said “we’re writing the future histories of our profession” and it is important to document these decisions. It would be even better if more groups made their intents public for knowledge sharing within the profession and adding transparency and accountability with the public in general.

    1. Too true — we can’t automatically trust that archivists are aware of their assumptions, biases, blind spots, and so on. Making statements of preservation intent as open as possible could help expose biases that might never come up in internal conversations.

      Now I’m also thinking about situations in which the need to rewrite policy and rethink practice comes from “institutional” knowledge departing with one or two employees. Untangling idiosyncrasies and “what were they thinking?” is a much less exciting opportunity than building on that prior work to explore new territory. So, inconsistent commitment to documentation can really set a preservation program back over the long term. As a bad habit it may not be sinister, exactly, but “perniciously undermining” probably covers the worst of it.

  3. I really appreciate that you focused on the dialogs that happen between people in determining significance and writing a statement of preservation intent. The line from Webb et. al. about format vs. context jumped out at me, although I think I tend to be the opposite: focusing too much on content and context, not as much on the object and its format itself. Statements of preservation intent seem like they would be a great way to expose the way the archivists are thinking on any given project.

    One of the links that Joe and you have highlighted in these comments is a really crucial one, I think: the link between current archivists and future archivists, who might be migrating collections or doing value-added processing at some level. In particular with digital collections, it seems like what people find to be most significant (scholars, archivists, the public) could easily shift over time, and having good documentation of what was seen as important at one time would be crucial to later understanding.

    1. Thanks for bringing in value-added processing! I think we discussed in class how sometimes, given limited resources, it’s only realistic to expect a baseline level of description and preservation followed by successive waves of more in-depth work. I’m reading a book called Extensible Processing for Archives and Special Collections which, in addition to having the world’s most boring title, recommends an initial pass at processing to provide access ASAP, then revisiting periodically to add description and assess changing preservation needs. Applying this to digital art curation, maybe processing in phases is a way to implement the feedback loops Catherine mentions in her post this week.

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