Creativity in Conservation

Up to now, most of our readings in most of our courses (or at least my courses) have been about preserving data, or objects, things qua things – the corners might be scuffed or we might not know the letter-writer or who the data represents, but the thing is what it is and that’s all that it is. But now we’re really getting into what a thing is, preserving meaning and intent. We’re getting to the art part of this course. We’ve touched on it a little already, asking ‘how do you solve a problem like a Flavin (with carcinogenic lamps)?’ We’ve talked about emulation versus preservation. But we haven’t talked about what 8-bit art will mean to audiences in 50 or 100 years, when nostalgia is a lesser factor. Yes, we’ve got the Atari and it’s still running, but now we need the rest of the arcade and the drinks, and a carefully curated collection of small objects to line up along the bottom of the screen to denote who’s playing next.Безопасные SEO эксперименты

A couple of years ago I worked on a production of Ordinary Days, which takes place in contemporary (or contemporary to premiere date) New York. Several significant scenes make either direct or indirect references to 9/11, and how it impacted everyday life. There was a talkback after one of the performances, and the Associate Producer talked about the production process: how the production team had discussed how delicate a touch to handle the subject matter with, how obvious some of the visual references might be, who might be too young to remember, and how the play might have to change over time. In turn, audience members talked about how effective the imagery was for them, including one woman who had been in New York that day. Whereas I lived in Phoenix at the time, and knew only one or two people directly affected. Until that talkback, I’d actually thought one of the 9/11 references was implying that a character had died in a housefire. Very, very different interpretations of the same materials.

Ask me about the time a friend and I were the only people laughing in the audience for a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

To me, performances, video games, even works of fiction, really exemplify the FRBR model. There is the work, the keystone idea, the motivating image in the original creator’s head. This is expressed or manifests physically in whatever manner is possible given limitations such as physical ability, monetary funds, etc. It is then viewed by the audience that the producers have managed to draw in, and interpreted through the filter of their own views and experiences. The finalized work as it lives in each person’s head – creator, performer, viewer – is the item level, just as valid and important as the physical evidence of the expressions.

I have to admit, I’m not much more of a gamer than Allison — I’m mostly a gamer-by-proxy, I guess you’d say. I’d primarily watch my friends play, especially since there were never enough controllers for all of us — I’m familiar with the games discussed this week, but mostly on a social level, like the casual GTA players in the DeVane & Squire article. But I can appreciate the community aspect of it, and how important that is, how it has its own culture. And that’s what I’m here for – cultural heritage. Tetris has evolved as far from the black and white version I first played, with the Soviet background images and no special effects, as Korobeiniki has evolved from its roots as a folk song.

And we want these new works to last just as long, and to be just as transformable. Forward-thinking, adaptive preservation is the key to not only keeping the works accessible, but the heart behind them. Performative arts have been documenting these aspects for centuries – whether it be in religious cases as such as Dance Heritage Coalition’s Buddhist monks, or through more rigid formal notation, such as that used for ballet. Finding ways to apply it to alternate digital media forms is up to us.

Documenting the ephemeral

So far we’ve discussed the multiplicity of formats and technical issues that make preserving a digital work and accurately recreating it tricky, as well as the difficulties involved in determining what is significant about a work of digital art. This question becomes even more complex when we consider the interactive, socially constructed, performative, and ephemeral nature of much digital art. While this aspect is present in a lot of digital and web art, video games and similar virtual spaces invite users to get particularly involved in creating the story, history, and meaning of the work. Continue reading “Documenting the ephemeral”

Preserving Digital Works: Why and What


In the archiving field there has been an ongoing debate on what to do with digital works.  Do digital works, unique objects born digital such as software and video games, possess value that should be preserved for the future?  And if that is the case what kinds of works should be taken into consideration?  Many argue that digital works do possess long term value and should be preserved, however the question of what to preserve is more difficult to answer.

The Importance of Preservation

“In the end one preserves software not because its value to the future is obvious, but because its value cannot be known.” (Kirchenbaum, p18)

Preserving digital works is important because they possess cultural and technical value. According to Mathew Kirchenbaum, software is just as expressive of its environment and cultural surroundings as physical objects are. (18)  This is true of not only software and video games but of all digital works.  While we might not be able to determine what will make them valuable in the future that fact that possess some form of  cultural value is certain.  From how they function to their content to even the Easter eggs often hidden in them digital works contains cultural information. (190) This makes them unique viewpoints into not only their creator and the culture they come from, but the culture of the user base as well.

“New software is not created ex nihilo. The software today has… a functional genealogy to concepts, prototypes, and programs that are now many decades old.” (Kirchenbaum, p13)

In addition to their cultural value digital works can also possess technical  value such as unique code, mechanics, or technical innovations. Digital works, such as software and games, act as records of the technical capability and exemplify the standards of when they were made.  Additionally these types of works provide a wealth of secondary data sources such as developmental records, creator insights, and other external records. These records not only provide unique insight into the digital work itself but possess valuable technical information that cannot be found elsewhere. (Kaltman, p. vii, 63)  Because of this, failing to preserve digital works such as software and video games would result in losing important technical information.

What Do you Preserve?

“Our finding is that code archiving across scientific disciplines is very uneven.” (Allen, p25)

While the importance of preserving digital works has been determined, the problem of deciding what to preserve is still an issue of debate. Determining what to preserve is a difficult question because of the sheer number of digital works and the difficulty of defining what valuable means.  It is one thing to say that a piece of software or a video game has cultural and/or technical value but it is another thing saying what specific property makes that work valuable and worth preserving. The issue gets even more complex when you take into account the different organizations, fields, and institutions that have different records practices and culture.  (p25)

This is made even worse by the nature of collection development and digital works. The nature of collection development drives archivists and records managers to create and adhere to a policy in what they decide to accept into their collection.  Because of their nature, digital works are greatly affected by this process. Unlike other kinds of works, digital works can be preserved in disjointed way. Digital works are almost always multifaceted and comprised of many distinct parts or records. This makes it very easy for an archivist or records keeper to preserve or prioritize a particular facet over others or even the whole digital work itself.  A good example of this is how a video game can be preserved in an archive completely, but without the proper software/hardware it can only be read, not played. (Lowood, p8-9)  Another example is how a word program can be preserved but without its license, software companies require you to have in order to run proprietary programs, it is completely unusable.

“A lure, according to the Oxford Dictionary is “something that tempts or is used to tempt a person…”” (Lowood, p7)

It is this phenomenon that creates what Henry Lowood calls “Lures” that draw archivist and records managers to preserve digital works with certain priorities rather than others.  He further postulates that this has negative consequences on the field as a whole and the digital work itself.  Prioritizing might seem like the best practice, but it can result in losing valuable information.  One example, which he calls the lure of the screen, illustrates the danger of focusing only on what the digital work looks like and ignoring everything else. The end result being the loss of valuable, developmental, structural, and other no readily visible information. (p7-8) Lowood’s argument highlights just how significant the issue of deciding what to preserve has become for archives and collections.


Although the future for digital works looks promising, it remains rife with challenges.  While it has largely been decided that these kinds of works possess value and must be preserved, the big issue now is deciding what specifically demands preservation and what kinds of information, works, and their facets we should prioritize.  The nature of digital works makes this a difficult issue to solve but it is a challenge that the field must overcome in order properly preserve digital works for the future.

National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (U.S.). (2013).exe: toward a national strategy for software preservation. Washington, D.C.: National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program at the Library of Congress

Kaltman, E., Wardrip-Fruin, N., Lowood, H., & Caldwell, C. (2014). A Unified Approach to Preserving Cultural Software Objects and their Development Histories.eScholarship

Capturing Culture from South Karana to San Andreas

First thing’s first: I confess I’m not a gamer.  

As an 80s baby, I naturally have a fondness for good ole Mario and its various permutations along with Donkey Kong and a few other Nintendo classics.  But World of Warcraft?  Grand Theft Auto? Pokémon?  Not so much.  I didn’t even know what Everquest was until I did the readings for this week.  When I began to delve into the readings, I suddenly became concerned that I was not the right person for this blog post.  Reading through the first oral history example in Josh Howard’s “The Oral History of MMOs,” I struggled with a complete disconnect with the interviewee, “Swiftarrow.”  Intellectually, I knew that this individual was trying to convey the formation of deep connections and friendship.  Yet, as the player described camping at “the claw monoliths around Splitpaw” and the gift of “a full set of Banded Armor,” I couldn’t find a single way to connect with this person’s experience.  By the time I reached Henry Lowood’s description of  player initiated 9/11 vigils with glowing virtual weapons in “Memento Mundi: Are Virtual Worlds History?,” I was downright distressed.  I was desperately trying to figure out how I could relate to this large community of individuals with a very serious stake in the preservation of their digital worlds.  

“Early in my adventures, maybe around level 12, I was camping the claw monoliths around Splitpaw.  Two players who were passing by threw me a full set of Banded Armor and wished me well.  About a month later, I would join their guild.” -Swiftarrow as quoted in “The Oral History of MMOs”

Then I read Ben DeVane and Kurt D. Squire’s “The Meaning of Race and Violence in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” and it suddenly clicked.  Reading through the descriptions of the focus groups and the meanings created within those circles, it occurred to me that I would never “understand” the world of Grand Theft Auto, or World of Warcraft, or Everquest -not in the same sort of deep, experiential way at least.  Why?  Because these virtual worlds are first and foremost about a specific organic culture that comes together often out of mutual interest.  Qeynos will never mean anything more to me than “a big digital city” as described by Howard just as I will never truly understand the interplay between “play” violence in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and real life violence as experienced by the adolescents in DeVane and Squire’s study.  And yet as a historian and a digital curator, the importance of preserving these worlds becomes abundantly clear when reading the emotional recollection of relationships formed between MMO players, online conflicts so heated they spill over into “in-world” attacks as described by Lowood, or the varying interpretations of race as described through demographically different groups of young men.  Even unprecedented events like Twitch Plays Pokémon where over a million people participated in a game together make me appreciate that there is a massive and immediately relevant culture thriving in these digital worlds.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

The same can be said of performance art as well.  As indicated by Christina Manzella and Alex Watkins in “Performance Anxiety: Performance Art in Twenty-First Century Catalogs and Archives,” there is specific culture surrounding that realm with vested interests in how those worlds of art will be captured and represented for the future. L. Smigel, M. Goldstein, E. Aldrich, and D.H. Coalition echo this sentiment in Documenting Dance: A Practical Guide as they list “representing the cultural impact” as a crucial reason for preserving dance documentation along with representation of the process and of the event itself.  In this instance, the community wishes to preserve not just their culture in isolation, but how it affects others as well.  Much of what these authors grapple with is how to preserve the essence of the underlying culture related to virtual worlds and active art.  It is a pivotal question since, as Lowood indicates, preserving the software or the recording of a performance means little if you don’t also preserve the interactions, meaning, and culture that made those moments significant to begin with.  

Creative Commons Image from
Creative Commons Image from

The other complicating factor in the preservation of virtual worlds and performance art is its temporality.  The fleeting nature of both genres is part of what makes them so meaningful for their respective cultures.  There is something magical about being present for the moment when that act is performed or that guild was created or that world unlocked.  In these cases, it’s not just the interactions which are temporal.  It’s also the space itself.  This is clearly evident in the gaming world when a server goes down for good.  However, it’s also true in performance art when an experimental artist’s installation is dismantled or when the congregation present for a performance disassembles.  The moment is gone.  The space which surrounded the performer is gone.  The act itself is gone like a flash.  From Howard to Lowood to Manzella and Watkins- the field appears to acknowledge that the space and/or medium and the action must be preserved in conjunction with the culture of the community utilizing and producing the art.  Preserving one without the other leaves behind a brittle record for future gamers and historians.  Perhaps the larger question is how much focus do we place on preserving one or the other better?  Where should curators cut bits if the budget doesn’t stretch?  The above authors seem to lean towards emphasizing the culture around the experiential art, but I’m curious as to how gamers and performance artists/aficionados feel.  

“Thinking of virtual worlds as history reminds us that our solutions to these problems will need to provide access not just to software, but to materials that document the events and activities that took place in the virtual spaces created by that software.” -Henry Lowood

I’m still not a gamer.  I’ll likely never exchange goods in the Commonlands Tunnel or hang out with a troll on a train ride to Nettleville.  Because of this, I am and will always be an outside observer of the culture.  So that left me with a nagging question: does that matter when it comes to preservation?  Can someone outside the gaming or performing arts culture effectively assist in the preservation of these worlds, or should the preservation efforts be led by someone from within the culture?