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

3 Replies to “Preserving Digital Works: Why and What”

  1. I really liked your point about the “Lures” and the danger of only trying to capture the surface of an object rather than the history/culture behind it. It reminded me of works we’ve discussed in past weeks (Andy Warhol’s computer files, the CD-ROMs from the Rose Goldsen Archive, etc.) where museums would collect troves of hardware but didn’t do anything with it until other groups came in with a project idea in mind to preserve it more fully in context. In this case, even collecting the software isn’t enough. Like Lowood asserts, even if you had a perfectly running game in a virtual world, you would still be missing the point since interactivity among users was a large part of the experience.

    However, I do think that prioritizing is useful and necessary as a preservation tool; as much as we would like to preserve every single detail and story, we just simply don’t have the time and budget to do it. So that’s where prioritizing comes in. When looking at a game and deciding that the user interactivity was significant, then we can prioritize the preservation of the game’s oral histories over, say, preserving every single version of the game that ever existed. So collaborative practices can help ensure that the right priorities are being set.

    1. You make a fair point, prioritization is a very important part of what makes archiving digital works possible. I think what Lowood was trying to say is that while prioritization is important it is also a double edged sword that must be carefully managed or else it will harm just as much as it helps.

  2. I am a big fan of the second Kirschenbaum quote you have up there: “new software is not created ex nihilo.” I think that the misconception is in some ways reinforced by advertisements that promote one “killer app” over all that has come before. Ultimately this obscures our understanding of how and why various types of technology progress. In our reading on MP3 technology (I read ahead to prepare for my blog in the coming week), an interesting question is posed: “why on earth are these low quality audio files so popular when technology should be getting better and better in terms of quality?” Well, the reason has a lot to do with the technology that came before the MP3 and how it influenced its design. The idea that audio formats have been progressing toward 100% fidelity is in many ways just an assumption that is fueled by marketing. [Gee, this is starting to turn into a rough draft of my future post, so I can cut it short.] Needless to say, I hope that code archiving initiatives and the like help us break free from the idea of new technology appearing out of thin air.

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