The Death of the Significant Property: A Tragedy in Three Acts

Act I: What’s this?

In a defiant act of rebranding, Dappert and Farquhar shed the idea of “significant properties” entirely. Focusing scientifically on the critical and definable elements of each preservation object, Dappert and Farquhar aim to “focus their attention on preserving the most significant characteristics of the content, even at the cost of sacrificing less important ones.”

They enable their scientific precision by introducing a standardized language and a workflow model. This allows anyone who works in the field to be able to relate to the process.

By focusing on the “significant characteristics” of each “entity” Dappert and Farquhar focus their assessment more closely on what each individual item is, it’s format and platform, and then on balancing the actions required to preserve it. Their preservation model takes into account changes in optimal preservation format by building in feedback loops and circular flow of preservation information.

In this way, the effervescent significant properties are discarded for characteristics and relationships that determine the most valuable aspects of the preservation object and the environment required to understand it.

Act II: Why this?

Coming at the matter from a different direction, the National Library of Australia chose instead to focus on the community they serve, the evolving nature and needs of that community, and dedicating their efforts ensuring access the materials chosen in perpetuity – taking into account and meeting the evolving needs. As Webb, Pearson, and Koerbin describe it,

“Like most things to do with managing digital collections, effective ways of making preservation decisions are evolving. … we (the digital preservation community) have no settled, agreed procedures for the full range of digital preservation challenges, nor even tentative plans we confidently expect to ensure adequate preservation for the next 100, 200 or 500 years.”

Because the file types and platforms are such nebulous commodities, Webb, Pearson, and Koerbin explain that their institutions previous efforts with one-size-fits-all definitions of significant properties and policies fell short of a feasible work strategy.

Webb et al go on to explain how the National Library of Australia redefined their work strategy, as described above, by focusing on why something was important – why the user would want it. This re-envisioning lead to redefining “significant properties” not as the building blocks of the preservation itself, but the tent poles of the document that justifies the need for preservation.

Act III: Lazarus?

Despite the effort to rid the profession of a seemingly outdated idea, I would argue that that together the work of the NLA and Dappert and Farquhar fits together magnificently, but in that order. Simplifying the definition of the “significant property” as the aspect of the entity that makes it worthy of preservation and initiations the statement of intent to preserve is enough, then once the priorities of the designated community have been established, the model developed by Dappert and Farquhar comes into play. Using the example of Preservation & Access Framework for Digital Art Objects (PAFDAO)’s preservation of Shock the Ear (1997) and other works developed in the same software – Macromedia Director – the preservation of the art is dependent on knowing the ins-and-outs of the program in which it was developed, a process much easier when conducted at scale. By this I  mean that when a collected such as the PAFDAO has dozens of early works of multimedia digital art all built from the same software, understanding the aforementioned ins and outs becomes easier because the preservationists develop familiarity with what’s a quirk of the software, a facet of the art, or a fatal flaw in a particular file. These actions are the work of Dappert and Farquhar’s model; moving backwards to Webb et al is the drive to determine why these works are valuable to the community, and even further back, to the underlining definition of the most significant of properties: that this is art and every distinction going forward will be informed by that attribution.

2 Replies to “The Death of the Significant Property: A Tragedy in Three Acts”

  1. Great point about the role of feedback loops in Dappert and Farquhar. At least one of the Observations in that paper captures the experimental side of digital preservation, and how logging characteristics, relationships, constraints, and so on over time lets us gauge the impact of the incremental actions we take: “Significant characteristics capture constraints on characteristics across time — before and after a preservation action.” I read this as a way to ask questions of a digital object, the way people talk about asking questions of or interrogating sets of data: “We took preservation action A; what can we learn from the results? Repeat for preservation actions B through G.” Hopefully the outcomes include learning a bit more about the digital object and the preservation action each time.

    Sidebar: Any plans to lead tomorrow’s discussion in voices? Possibly including Vicky Rex?

  2. Amy, this hits exactly what I think the Espenscheid reading brings to the discussion about Balance, “to provide a very authentic re-creation of the web’s past, it is just as important to work on every point of the scale in between to allow the broadest possible audience to experience the most authentic re-enactment.” The feedback loops provide the opportunity to ask those questions of the data and not necessarily “fail better” as the common adage would suggest, but achieve the appropriate balance to reach the best experience for the broadest possible audience.

    Sidebar: Voices always possible; I’ll try to find the tiara.

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