The Three C’s of Digital Preservation: Contact, Context, Collaboration

Three big themes I will take from learning about digital preservation: every contact leaves a trace, context is crucial, and collaboration is the key.

“Every Contact leaves a trace”

Matt Kirschenbaum and an optical disk cartridge in 2013.
Matt Kirschenbaum and an optical disk cartridge in 2013.

Matt Kirschenbaum’s words (or at least his interpretation of Locard’s words) will stick with me for a long while.  That when we will look at a digital object for preservation, we need to consider what it is we are looking at, and know that what we see is not necessarily all that there is.  Behind the screen there is a hard drive, and on that hard drive are physical traces of that digital object.  There is a forensic and formal materiality to digital objects – what is actually going on in the mechanical/physical sense versus what we see and interpret from those mechanical processes as they are converted to digital outputs.  We cannot fall into the trap of screen essentialism – of only focusing on the digital object as it is shown on our screens, without taking into consideration the hardware, software, code, etc. that runs underneath it.  

Which leads into my next point, about platform studies.  I am really intrigued by this idea that as digital media progresses we are seeing layers and layers of platforms on top of platforms for any given digital object.  The google doc that I wrote this blog draft in is written using Google Drive (a platform), which is running on my Chrome browser (a platform), which is running on Windows 7 (a platform).  These platforms can be essential to run a particular digital object, and yet with platforms constantly obsolescing or upgrading or changing, these platforms cannot be relied upon to preserve all digital objects.  Especially since most platforms are proprietary and able to disappear in an instant.  For example, my Pottermore project was spurred by the fact that the original website (hosted on the Windows Azure platform as well as the Playstation Home) had vanished and was replaced with a newer version.  If I had more time I would have liked to further develop the project by exploring the natures of the different platforms used by Pottermore, like Windows Azure and Playstation Home, and how those platforms influenced the experience of the game.

Context is Crucial

If content is king, context is queen!
If content is king, context is queen!

There’s no use in saving everything about a digital object if we don’t have any context to go with it.  Future researchers who have access to the Pottermore website files can examine them thoroughly and still have no idea why Pottermore was so important.  For this reason it is important to capture the human experience with digital objects.  Whether using oral history techniques or dance performance preservation strategies, there need to be records that try to capture the experience of using the digital work.  This can include interviews with the creators, stories from the users, Let’s Play videos, the annotated “musical score” approach so that a work can be re-run in a different setting.

This is really what the Pottermore project was about: providing context to the website that is all but lost to us.  In case the game does reappear, there will not be materials like the Pottermore Wiki and the Let’s Play videos that can explain how the game was played.  Furthermore, it can help future researchers realize the sense of community of the Pottermore users, and why they reacted so negatively when the old website was replaced.

Collaboration is the Key

Pottermore was a collaboration of many different entities, including JKR, Sony, and Microsoft.
Pottermore was a collaboration of many different entities, including JKR, Sony, and Microsoft.

There are a number of roles played by different people in digital preservation, and these roles are conflating and overlapping.  The preservationist may be the user who is nostalgic for an old game and so creates an emulation program for it.  The artist may use feedback from the users and incorporate it into their next work.  The technological expertise of IT folk may need to be ascertained in order to understand how to best save some works – in what formats, in which storage devices, etc.  Archivists and librarians may be the fans themselves, contributing to the fanfiction community that they are trying to preserve.  With funding only getting tighter and tighter and the digital world growing more complex, collaboration is going to become essential for a lot of digital preservation projects.    

What next?

Best practices, next exit sign
We’ll get here eventually… right?

Of course this leaves us with many unanswered questions.  How do we balance out the roles of different experts? How do we match the large scale of digital works on a limited budget? How much context do we need to give a certain work? In almost all cases the answer is going to be “it depends.” But these are questions that I am excited to figure out as I go on in the field.  

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