Why is who saving what, and how?

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 Properties Characteristics

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?

10 Replies to “Why is who saving what, and how?”

  1. Lots of stuff to chew on here! A couple thoughts that struck me as I read your post:

    I think it’s not so much that there’s no formal framework to use for preserving born digital works as no one framework that will work for all things. We’re lumping ‘digital’ into too big a category. It’s like trying to use the same methods for preserving books and sculptures. Broken down into more discrete technological levels or eras and more consistent approaches can be used, in a similar way to the ‘at scale’ approach Catherine mentions in her post.

    Otherwise, the question such as who, why, and what can be asked for conserving or preserving any type of material. And in fact, cases where they aren’t can be very telling, even on just a popular culture or marketing level. Take for instance Nabokov’s Lolita. There are several articles out there, including this one in the New Yorker, regarding Nabokov’s insistence that the subject of the cover should not be a young girl, which is in fact one of the more frequent and (obviously) fetishized cover images for the book.

    Also another example of the fluidity of the ‘who’ roles in born digital works is that the artist may also act as curator, as art that goes directly to the web or is otherwise posted publicly (Banksy is a good, if not digital, example) is not mediated by a separate curator before it is seen by the world.

    1. Thanks for the article! What struck me about the Lolita covers is that the article’s author Arons concludes with this: “Although there are many covers here that I love, a complete picture is really only achieved through seeing the covers in aggregate.” No particular cover is as fascinating to study as the evolution of the changes between the different covers seen together. It ties together nicely with some of the themes of this semester: that a single work can take on a more meanings than its creator originally intended, and that it is important to look at the “bigger picture” of a work.

      Also, your point about how ‘digital works’ is too big a category is something that I hadn’t even thought of, but that I completely agree with. It would help a lot to break down digital works into discrete categories, like video games, YouTube videos, Word documents, just to name a few. It would help scale it down a lot and make the idea of preserving all ‘digital works’ a little less daunting.

  2. I agree, the key issue in preserving digital works is that the sheer scope and scale of the category is ridiculous. Digital works is as useful category as ‘Written works’ or ‘Art’ or ‘Government Records’. Breaking this category down into smaller more manageable and useful categories would be a great step in the right direction. while creating categories based on tech levels or eras would work I think that another method would be format and coding structure. Formats and coding structures are typically unique, define the underlying form of the digital work, and are a factual property of the work, rather than an interpreted one. I find this to be very important because the majority of the complexity in preserving these works comes from the fact that so much interpretation is necessary. Having categories that minimize the amount of interpretation should hopefully make the process easier.

    1. Great point, James, I do think that categorizing by format would make sense. The question that comes to me from your comment and reading the Webb and the Dappert articles is this: do we separate completely the documentation between context/interpretation (i.e. preservation intent statements) and the significant characteristics (including formats/coding structures)? Do we need different teams of archivists/preservationists assigned to each role, so that archivists would either only need to focus on the interpretation or only focus on the factual properties? Or should they be responsible for all of it to a certain degree?

  3. I’m inclined to agree with Sarah — it’s the lack of a single framework and need to cobble together solutions for different situations that seems to bother people. (Caveat: in my limited experience) In a more positive light, though, where frameworks are lacking is where resourcefulness thrives. So maybe not having a comprehensive/cohesive framework isn’t the end of the world but rather the beginning of a beautiful friendship between interested parties.

    Thanks for this post tying lots of different concepts together — it’s really helped me make sense of the readings this week. The overlapping constraints and authorities that different stakeholders bring to digital preservation are tough to untangle, for sure. Mind boggled in solidarity!

    1. Glad I’m not the only one with a boggled mind. Loved the Casablanca reference by the way, though hopefully a new and beautiful friendship can form with a little less violence!

  4. The question of “for how long” raised by Webb, et al.–as you incorporate in the “why” section–was revealing to me! I know general libraries (as in in comparison with special libraries) routinely conduct “weeding” of physical books to secure shelving space; but do you know whether they have any criteria other than the records of circulation frequency and/or the knowledge of redundant copy’s existence? Though careful documentation of the importance and the nature of digital artwork will surely help archivists make the decision to let the item go as needed, I can imagine how such an action would be accompanied with trepidation (well, “my” trepidation, anyway). Did anybody find the rational provided by Webb, et al. concerning the discard of items a little bit trouble some? They write that the library’s “preservation intent” helps determine which items can be discarded “when no longer in use or when access to them becomes troublesome.” I have difficulties wrapping my head around the latter reasoning especially. Isn’t that the reason a cultural institution looks after such item in the first place? What do you all make out of this?

    1. I interpreted the “discard” section as pertaining more to formats that were no longer considered safe for long-term preservation. Rather than discarding objects / records etc. that aren’t popular, maybe the authors mean discarding instances or expressions of archival or museum objects in certain formats while retaining instances in other, safer, more accessible formats. Which seems extraordinarily tricky when the proposed discard is arguably an “original” or “only” in some way. I don’t know very much about library or museum collection management, but archives do reappraise and deaccession even unique material for a variety of reasons and Webb et al. don’t seem entirely out of place in that tradition. Deaccessioning and destroying records are disturbing to people too!

    2. Like Amy said, I think the authors meant formats more than anything else. However, I do think you raise a valid question. How should archives/museums go about deciding when to let go of a digital artwork? The field is so new that we’ve spent most of our time talking about how to preserve the work, but haven’t really talked about how to decide when to de-accession/”weed” a work. I know at the public library I used to work at, we would weed titles based on circulation stats and physical condition (there were a lot of children’s books that get really grubby really quickly). However, whenever we would discard a title, we would check the inventory and if it was the only copy left, we would request an order for a new copy. But for archives and museums I would imagine the process would be different since a lot of their collections contain more unique items as opposed to the mass published books found in public libraries.

  5. I agree that this was all a little mind-boggling; the minutia of the terminology and the variety of potential frameworks for implementing these concepts were hard to untangle. What ended up sticking out most for me were the communicative and collaborative aspects involved in creating these statements of significance and preservation intent. Given the shifting nature of significance and the overall lack of experience with these kinds of projects, focusing first on developing a framework to clearly communicate the decisions we make seems critical.

    I liked Webb et al’s characterization of the statement of preservation intent as not only a method of communication with future archivists, but as an important means of building collaboration and ensuring understanding among the different people involved in the initial archival process. Ideally this sharing of information can lead to more developed and detailed frameworks for how to preserve specific types of digital works, both from a format side and from the context angle, but in the meantime we’ll at least leave a clear record to help future archivists interpret the decisions we’ve made.

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