It seems that when it comes to preserving born digital works, certain questions need to be raised. In fact, a lot of questions need to be raised since there is no established consensus on which formal framework to use. There’s the question of “who,” involving the roles different people play in the lifetime of a work. This includes the artist, the curator, the preservationist, and the consumer/audience. Next there’s the “why”: what makes this work worth saving, and why did we choose certain components of the work to save? Next comes the “what” part: what exactly do these groups decide to save, and what is it that we are actually saving about this work? And finally there’s the “how”—putting a preservation plan into action.
The “who”: Creators, Curators, Conservators, and Consumers
First comes the artist, who creates the work. The artist makes the initial creative decisions that make his/her work unique, whether intentionally or incidentally. Next comes the curator, who decides that the work is worth collecting and exhibiting and defends the work’s significance. After that is the preservationist or conservator, who determines what to preserve and how. Finally there is the audience/consumer and their role in supporting the work.
What makes born digital works so complex is that the roles of these various groups are often bleeding into each other: the artist creates an interactive work that allows the consumer to feel a sense of authorship in making unique decisions that affect the work; the conservators are now asking for statements of intent from the artists to hear their feedback on what’s significant about the work; and fans of a work can prove crucial in providing the emulation software necessary for preserving that work.
Furthermore, as Dappert and Farquhar insist, different stakeholders place their own constraints on a work. For instance, Chelcie Rowell discusses how Australian artist Norie Neumark used a specific software called Macromedia Director for her 1997 work Shock in the Ear. The audience who experienced it originally had to load a CD-ROM into their computer, which could have been a Mac or Windows. The preservationists chose emulation as the best method to save works like this one, and these emulators were created by nostalgic enthusiasts. So each of these people involved placed constraints on the original work, in terms of hardware, software, and usage. And these constraints changed from its creation to preservation. Dianne Dietrich concludes with this in regards to digital preservation:
“As more people get involved in this space, there’s a greater awareness of not only the technical, but social and historical implications for this kind of work. Ultimately, there’s so much potential for synergy here. It’s a really great time to be working in this space.”
For this reason, it is becoming more important than ever to document who is doing what with the work, increasing accountability and responsibility. Which leads to…
The “why”: Preservation Intent Statements
As Webb, Pearson, and Koerbin express, before we make any attempt to preserve a work we need to answer the “why”. Their decision to write Preservation Intent Statements is a means of accomplishing this. For, as Webb et all say, “[w]ithout it, we are left floundering between assumptions that every characteristic of every digital item has to be maintained forever.”
And nobody has the time or resources to save every characteristic of every digital item. At least I don’t. To try and do this would be impossible and even undesirable for certain works, where the original hardware and software become too costly to maintain.
This leads to a discussion of authenticity. Like Espenshied points out in regards to preserving GeoCities, with increased authenticity comes a lower level of access, but with a low barrier to access comes a low level of authenticity and higher percentage of lossy-ness. In the case of GeoCities, Espenshied says,
“While restoration work must be done on the right end of the scale 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 of Geocities that is comfortable for consumption on many levels of expertise and interest.”
And that gets at the heart of why we should bother to create Preservation Intent Statements before implementing any actual preservation actions. We need to establish the “bigger picture,” the long-term vision of a particular work’s value. Rowell also points out that there are different kinds of authenticity: forensic, archival, and cultural. Forensic and archival authenticity deal with ensuring the object preserved is what it claims to be (if you’ve read Matt Kirschenbaum’s book Mechanisms, you know that this can be harder than you think to achieve). Cultural authenticity, however, becomes a much more complex issue, and explores how to give respect to the original context of the work while still ensuring a wide level of access.
And once we have decided on the best strategy, we then get into…
The “what” and the “how”: Significant
Now that we’ve established the “bigger picture,” we get into the details of exactly how to capture the work for preservation. This is where Dappert and Farquhar come back in. Dappert and Farquhar really get technical about the differences between “significant properties” and “significant characteristics.” Their definition of significant characteristics goes like this:
“Requirements in a specific context, represented as constraints, expressing 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, and their capacity to be accepted as evidence of what they purport to record.”
Sounds confusing, right? The way I understood it was that properties can be thought of like HTML properties for coding. In coding, properties are simply a means of using a logical system language to define certain attributes of the website/game/whatever we are coding. Similarly, for a digital work, the property itself is abstract, like “fileSize” or “isVirusScanned.” We aren’t trying to preserve those properties; rather, it is the pair of the property with its value (like “fileSize=1MB”) that we want to capture, and this is what a characteristic of the work is. You wouldn’t save a property without its value, nor would you save the value without attaching it to a property. And significant characteristics go beyond the basic forensic/archival description of the object by capturing the context surrounding the object. Thus, significant characteristics can evolve and change beyond the original work as the preservation environment changes and as different courses of action are taken. And all of these changes should be documented along the way through these significant characteristics, prioritized and listed by order of importance.
The last question that remains is… is anyone else’s mind boggled by all this?