Bots, Bugs, and Blogs: The Challenges of Preserving, Interpreting, and Sharing Digital Artifacts

This week we look at how digital technology is changing what we preserve and how we preserve it. How do we handle the preservation of digital formats? How can twitter bots create historical interpretation? And how does digital technology open those preservation and interpretation processes up to more people? This week’s readings attempt to grapple with those questions.

Social Memory and Preserving Digital Formats

In Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart discuss the preservation of new media formats in the context of the art world. They focus especially on social memory, which they define as “how and what societies remember” (14). Museums, libraries, and archives have traditionally been key sites of this social memory, but they often do a poor job of handling digital formats. Ippolito and Rinehart argue that in order to handle these formats, institutions need to be more open to preservation techniques like emulation, migration, and reinterpretation, rather than solely storage. If a piece of art was created to display on a computer screen, what matters is usually not the exact computer or even the exact operating system, but the visual experience the viewer has. That experience should be the focus of the preservation, not the physical details. They heavily emphasize “variable media,” and the idea that the works that will survive best are those that don’t rely on a specific medium to function.

Sebastian Chan and Aaron Cope provide a concrete case study of the challenges of collecting and preserving digital media in their article. They examine the Cooper-Hewitt’s acquisition of Planetary, an iPad app that visualizes the user’s music library as a series of solar systems and galaxies. It quickly ceased to be compatible with the current version of iOS, so the Cooper-Hewitt pursued a variety of measures to maintain it. They open sourced the code and encouraged derivative works to keep the program going and maintained an ongoing relationship with the donor to help evaluate those derivative works. They also collected earlier versions, change logs, and bug reports as part of the acquisition – with digital formats, a single “final version” often is not enough. It may not even exist.

Bots and Interpretation

New digital formats can also impact the way people and institutions create and perform historical interpretation. Steven Lubar and Mark Sample both delve into the world of Twitter bots. Lubar (whose work some of us remember from our History of Museums class) shares his appreciation for museum bots, which share random objects from a museum’s collection. They can call attention to how much is not on view and how museums make choices about what to display. Sample turns his attention to protest bots, which in some ways provide interpretation for our present historical moment. His examples are fascinating, but he imposes an extensive and strict set of criteria, and I wonder if he could end up excluding some interesting bot projects.

Dragan Espenschied’s “Big Data, Little Narration,” cleverly presented as a series of text messages, goes a step further and examines not just how we interpret history with technology, but how we interpret the history of technology. It contrasts Google Zeitgeist, a visualization of searches made in different cities, with a tumblr project to share old Geocities pages. Both share the history of what we do with technology, but Zeitgeist has no real interpretive frame and doesn’t invite further exploration. The Geocities project, on the other hand, invites further user interpretation of these old pages. It makes the pages communicative again, which is exactly what they were designed for in the first place.

Inviting the Public In

If we shift gears and look at the Sheila Brennan article, that same idea of inviting the public to engage comes through. She focuses on digitally opening collections. By providing item-level information and metadata online, we can invite users to explore collections in greater depth than they ever could in person, and to engage with multiple perspectives. When collections are displayed in the almost-infinite digital space, rather than in the very finite physical gallery space, there’s room for more than one narrative.

This call to invite the public in brings us full circle, back to Re-Collection. Ippolito and Rinehart don’t just discuss social memory, they also break it down into formal and informal types. Formal social memory is carried out by museums, libraries, and other institutions, but there’s also room for the informal social memory of amateurs and the general public. In many cases, informal practitioners are more willing to embrace flexible forms of preservation, like migration and emulation, while formal institutions lag behind with their insistence on storing the original copy. If we want to preserve old websites, or video games, or other digital media, letting the public take part in the process is often useful and may even be necessary.


While they examine different aspects of the issue, all six of these texts fundamentally agree that the way we collect, preserve, display, and interpret history will have to change I response to the explosion of digital media. It’s a big topic, and I’d love to hear your overall thoughts on it, but here are few specific questions to get us started:

  • When looking at a digital artifact or project, is there such a thing as a single, definitive original? How do we define what’s important about the “original” version of something for the purposes of preservation?
  • How can institutions grapple with the additional resources and maintenance required to keep digital collections usable? Will this change funding structures, archival practices, and relationships with donors?
  • Espenschied mentions how the youngest viewers of the Geocities tumblr are sometimes confused by unfamiliar aspects of early-2000s technology. When exhibiting digital content, do we need to interpret and contextualize the medium as well as the content?

21 Replies to “Bots, Bugs, and Blogs: The Challenges of Preserving, Interpreting, and Sharing Digital Artifacts”

  1. “Espenschied mentions how the youngest viewers of the Geocities tumblr are sometimes confused by unfamiliar aspects of early-2000s technology. When exhibiting digital content, do we need to interpret and contextualize the medium as well as the content?”

    Well, the whole Geocities thing makes me feel old, first of all. Second of all, I think that like any now-obsolete medium it makes sense to provide context and interpretation to guide the public through understanding its relevance. And the idea of emulation is great for helping with this, even if it isn’t “authentic.” Stereoscopic images, for example, can be seen through the material version of an emulator if an authentic stereoscope is not available, and it’s much easier to understand the concept and the intention of the stereoscopic image that way.

    Part of the challenge with digital visual culture, though, is that so much of it is based on non-digital cultural things. This isn’t really unique; it’s hard to understand a joke in a 19th century newspaper if it’s based on a current event or stereotype with which you are unfamiliar. But with digital visual culture there is a lot of interpretation that may require a lot of context about what was going on at the world at the time, what was popular on TV or musically. For example: what does the use of a specific song on a page mean? Does it mean that the person just liked that song? Or was it absurdly popular at the time? Or was it just the easiest to find in MIDI format?

    It’s interesting to think about how Geocities pages really brought together so many aspects of the contemporary culture in one place compared to print culture.

    1. I completely agree re: Geocities making me feel old! It’s hard to believe that teenage tumblr users don’t know what a Netscape browser looked like. But maybe that’s a good reflection of the importance of thinking about audience – it’s easy for us to assume that a format from less than 20 years ago is universally understandable, but that might not be the case.

      I like your stereoscope comparison, because I think it makes a good point that some of this challenge of preservation, emulation, etc isn’t inherently unique to the digital era. People who work with historical materials and artifacts have faced the challenge of dealing with obsolete materials and technologies forever. It’s not necessarily a new issue, just one that’s accelerating and taking on new forms.

  2. The idea of an ‘original’ is hard to pin down, even in the analog world. For example, a visitor to a historic site might ask, “are these floors original?” The answer might be, “yes,” or, “no,” or, “these are the original floors but they’ve been refinished,” or, “yes, though they paint’s worn off,” or any number of similar caveats.

    When it comes to the digital, the properties of objects change. An item is no longer permanent and made of unique parts. The item itself, though made, is not the literal item, but rather the representation of an item designed to convey certain information to an audience. That information, rather than the medium, is the important bit. Perhaps, then, the impact it made upon its consumers when it was first consumed is the only original piece that matters. The original audience consumed it in one format, but even if the format were to remain stagnant, the audience changes.

    For example, if a modern audience watches The Wizard of Oz or The Star Wars they are not affected the same way the original audiences were affected because their expectations of movies are different than they were 40 or 80 years ago. The same can be said for any intellectual property.

    Therefore, there can be no preserving of the original because even if the mode and the presentation remain the same (which often they do not) the audience will change and can no longer experience the intellectual property as it was originally or intended to be consumed.

    However, perhaps this is where interpretation ought to come in. An explanation of the “splash” some intellectual property made as it entered the world is an essential reference point in understanding the item. Further, there’s nothing wrong with appreciating the item in a modern way with a modern understanding and context. Perhaps it is useful to think of this trade off; what we no longer have in original experience we have traded for context and a wider understanding of of the item and its impact. They cannot both exist at the same time, but they don’t need to, either.

    1. I’m really liking all the comparisons we’re getting to the “analog” world, I think they’re a useful way of thinking about this given the more analog backgrounds some of us are coming from, and that the whole field is coming from to a certain extent.

      Your comparison, and your broader point about how we can’t experience things the way they were originally experienced, reminded me of one of my favorite historical misunderstandings. We now know, through more advanced study, chemical analysis, imaging, etc that Ancient Greek statues and other marble works were in fact painted in bright, lavish colors. However, since the people who first discovered them didn’t know that, we’ve built up a whole concept of Classical/Neoclassical style that’s based in clean white marble. So not only are we not experiencing these works the way they were originally experienced, but we have a whole few centuries of history based around interpreting them in an entirely different way.

      That’s a long digression, I realize, but the point is to say that I agree – the audience is always going to change, we can’t recreate how an original audience might have experienced something, and we might not even be able to tell what that original experience was.

      1. It’s not a digression; this perfectly relates to our conversations about representation in archives! In articles or videos that have been produced on the coloring of Ancient Greek statues, there’s usually a parallel dialogue on “whiteness” and racism. The white marble statues provide another example of white-washing throughout history, which supports the narrative that archives aren’t as inclusive as they could/should be. That being said, the recoloring or reimagining of these statues leads to a sort of contextualization that points to cultural significance of “whiteness” at the time of interpretation of these objects. So maybe, these misunderstandings shed further light on the thought processes of audiences and “memory keepers” (historians/archivists/etc.) over time?

    2. This reminds me of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “candy spills,” as discussed in Re-collection (25-26). Through the performance of the art piece, the audience was able to interact with the candy pile understood to be art in a way that no other audience would ever be able to. Obviously, the original was not preservable since the art itself required interaction from its audience which involved destroying/eating the piece. However, the context is changed if the art is stored as traditionally thought of in art museums, trapped “behind velvet rope” (26). Does this mean that the art is reproducible or not? I thought of the blue crayon wall drawings from LeWitt that can be seen on page 5. While each installation of the exhibit is not the original, the reproduction is still recognized as the specific piece of art. So as long as blue crayons and candy continue to be made, Gonzalez-Torres and LeWitt should be able to share their ideas with audiences even though the delivery may be slightly different. Therefore, social memory plays a large role in interpretation.

      1. This also reminds me of John Cage’s 4’3″, in which the ambient audience noise is the performance, making it never quite the same experience.

  3. In response to your second question, “How can institutions grapple with the additional resources and maintenance required to keep digital collections usable? Will this change funding structures, archival practices, and relationships with donors?”, we already see a change. In Brennan’s article she shows the increase in the digital presence of museums from 2004 to 2011 and that was 7 years ago! A lot of these readings, made me think of the archival storage readings we did two weeks ago. One of the differences is, those readings were closer to 2018, than the readings we did this week. I’m curious to see how much digital preservation and digital collections have changed in seven years.

    I was trying to think of any digital collections I’ve come across that are usable and work really well in online format as opposed to in-person and I had a hard time coming up with any I’ve come across. I would have to agree with Brennan that The Henry Ford has a great accessible digital collection. The digital collection that the Museum of American History had was awesome as we saw earlier in class, but that’s obsolete now and nothing has risen up to take its place.

    At the OHMAR conference this past weekend, someone said something in a panel in relation to oral histories and it’s really stuck with me and I think is applicable to digital preservation/collections. She said, “I think what is not said in the oral histories, is just as important as what is said. Silence is significant.” In other words, the absence of something says just as much as what is there. The silences in these digital collections are saying something. Maybe the question is, what are they saying?

    1. The silences are a useful thing to think about! The museum bots piece gets into it a little bit in terms of getting us to think about the objects in the collection that are not on view and are not part of the public-facing narrative, but of course those bots can’t easily reflect the objects that were never collected in the first place.

    2. That’s something I wrestle with too, the silences and forgetting. All of history, in many ways, deals with silences, which makes sense because records are always incomplete and the raw data of the past is still insurmountably huge. I, too, wonder what we’re forgetting when we attempt to remember.

  4. The Ippolito/Reinheart reading’s focus on social memory reminds me of Jay Winter’s “Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning” and the discussion of mass memory. For those that didn’t read this in Historian’s Craft or another class, this book discussed how World War I was memorialized in Europe. When this discussion was happening in the Ippolito/Reinheart piece, Callie points out the focus on museums, libraries and archives in shaping social memory through digital means, but I kept thinking about Winter’s book and if there is a way for monuments and memorials to have digital formats. There are of course some ways that this happens- virtual tours, for example, and the National Parks Service often has some online component for locations under their purview. But I doubt there will ever be a truly digital format for considering these sites.

    We’ve already spent some time discussing what Chan & Cope- that a final version might not even exist. Thanks to changing software, upgraded technologies requiring different compatibilities, and many other factors, projects can always be updated and made more perfect (we can’t really perfect them completely). I think this comes back to the discussion we had about knowing when to stop a project even if it’s not finished, but if you have to be finished with it. The need/desire to have others take over either through directly handing over a project or crowdsourcing feels very appropriate.

    “Espenschied mentions how the youngest viewers of the Geocities tumblr are sometimes confused by unfamiliar aspects of early-2000s technology. When exhibiting digital content, do we need to interpret and contextualize the medium as well as the content?”
    -I feel like this is part of our job as budding historians- to analyze the source as well as the content. I mean, when we are reviewing books and journal articles, we look at factors like what period something was written, who the author was in conversation with, and the format of the overall text. In a way, contextualizing the digital medium is similar to this. We need to provide the context as historians for others to better understand how and why these pieces were created. This is an important step in the study that, if we all haven’t been doing this already, we might want to start.

    1. I read “Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning” way back in my freshman year of undergrad (so, 2010?) so you’ll have to forgive me if my memory of it is a little bit vague. But I know it dealt with the social function of memorials and monuments, and I think it’s useful to think about how that could or could not work in a digital space.

      The same goes for museums and other spaces as well, and I think it’s part of why it’s important to draw a distinction between the digital and digitized and how they’ve presented. If you’re seeing an exhibit, artifact, or art piece that utilizes digital media, but you still go to the physical space of a museum to see/experience it, that’s a completely different social experience than looking at something on your computer screen. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large we go to museums as a social activity and use our computers alone. I wonder how that changes the experience, even if the thing you’re seeing is ultimately the same?

      1. It would change the experience because some exhibits require in-person interactions. In an earlier comment I posted about Gonzalez-Torres’s “candy spills,” the exhibit allowed visitors to eat the art as a way to interact with his piece. This purpose could not be accomplished the same way if only viewed from a computer. While many other digital exhibits or displays can be accessible online, seeing and sharing history with other visitors and museum personnel allows for an interaction that is different than one you could receive at home.
        However, I think both forms are beneficial to visitors for varying reasons. While some could explore the exhibit online, others could use this as a tool to figure out what to expect and what to look for at the museum. I work in the Spark!Lab at NMAH and we have these resources available so parents can understand the kinds of things to do in our space before getting there. For children with different abilities, these resources (which are usually packets of information in our case) allow the children to get more out of their experience because they can plan ahead what activities will be best for them.
        Therefore, the physical and the digital experiences should be used in tandem to prepare visitors for what to expect. While everyone might not want to utilize both, it’s important that the option is still there.

      2. This is a really important point to consider. Many times I think that museums focus too much on attempting to create online exhibits that mimic the exhibits they already have in their museums. It usually includes photos of an object that they have in their exhibit with reproduced text. Occasionally this is successful but most often, it fails to provide the same experience. The computer usually transforms the experience into something a lot more passive. This is something curators of the digital and the digitized should certainly keep in mind.

  5. Ippolito gives an example in Re-collection of an artist who recommends how to re-write his digital work once its original code becomes obsolete. I find this fascinating in that digital works do appear to have a singular point of origin, the source code, that can be manipulated or emulated in ways that other works of art cannot, but for that reason don’t last as long. In the case of this artist, Mark Napier, whose art is written in Java, it is the digital rendition that is to be saved, but for the example of Toy Story, it is the computer files (in other words, the source code) that are to be saved because of their ability to render in “variable” ways.

    So I would say that the “original” of a digital work is its source code because it is written to perform a particular rendition, at least in the case of a static work. In the original days of the internet all web pages were static HTML, whereas nowadays everything is dynamically produced from databases, increasingly asynchronously. There couldn’t possibly be a singular original for something like that: it is crowdsourced, altered, fluid, and again, dynamic. We are becoming a trend society, which means even the computer programs we build are intended to fulfill content requirements by pulling in new data based on what is trending, and if we’re not careful it could easily produce a culture of forgetting; in fact it is of serious concern in the gun debate in which there seems to be a time lapse in which action can be generated after a mass shooting, before people simply move on.

    I am digressing, but this is related to Callie’s question about “what” in the original is worth saving. In the case of static digital art forms, I think it is rather straightforward. If you save the source code, you have the intended output, provided you have the right hardware to produce it. If that hardware becomes extinct, there are ways to emulate a similar rendition. In the case of the increasingly dynamic, asynchronous outputs, it is more difficult to reproduce outside of personal memory, and I suppose it will be memory and hindsight that determines the saving.

  6. When discussing the preservation of the original version of digital collections and the usability of the collection in the future, the usability, the example in Re-collection with Pixar and the preservation of the Toy Story was something i thought was really interesting and presented in interesting conflict, plus I love Disney. Instead of wanting to preserve it in its orginal form in an archive, Pixar wanted to preserve the film in a way that would allow them to continue showing the film wih changing technology in the future. I thought this was an interesting conflict for digital collections. Chan raises this issue as well and called for ongoing preservation of digital collections, stating that the unwillingness for the creaters of digital content to ensure its longevity in the face of technology changes will only grow in scope.

    1. I was really intrigued by the idea Chan brought up of not just ongoing preservation, but ongoing relationships with donors or creators. The whole concept of donation or accession as a single, discrete event could change with some of these digital forms.

      Chan doesn’t really address the long term implications of that strategy though. It’s really cool that the Cooper-Hewitt has an ongoing relationship with the creators of Planetary to assess preservation and derivative content, but what about 50 or 100 years from now, when the app’s creators are gone?

  7. I’d like to offer some thoughts about your question on how the funding structure, archival practices, and relationships with donors change in relation to additional maintenance required for digital collections. I think that this increased relationship with digital collections will certainly change funding structures. At this point even the smallest museums are attempting to put up digital collections and online exhibits but all of this will require more funding. This means that funds could be funneled away from the physical collections or exhibits themselves and redirected. With a strong emphasis on accessibility for everyone, I think museums are already leaning in this direction. Because not everyone can get to museums more money is being spent in providing online information and even experiences like distance-learning.

    In thinking about donors, while most donors today are a generation removed from the digital age and may currently be more interested in funding traditional archives, research, and exhibit spaces, I think this will only continue to shift. In a few years I think donors will also place tremendous emphasis on digital media. At a certain point I think that if something does not have a digital media component, it will not be considered for funding.

    1. I agree, especially seeing the growth of digital collections in recent years. Going back to previous weeks readings about the collaborativeness and participatory aspect of the internet and digital media, I feel like the accessibility and interactivity of digital collections will continue to appeal to donors in the future.

  8. One of the biggest challenges for me as a budding historian is the pervasive apolitical and safety of the historical narratives who are preferenced. I think the article “Getting to the Stuff” really encapsulates for me this struggle—the fact that remembering history is much more a process of forgetting, though often strategic forgetting. I certainly think it’s important to remember both that museums are relying on donors and that museums are often viewed by those who visit them as “truthful,” more so, as Brennan writes in “Getting to the Stuff,” than the textbooks in history classrooms. I don’t necessarily have an answer to how to balance a world that isn’t always neat, pleasant, and child-friendly with the usual practices of museums, but I think it’s important to note history’s propensity for forgetting, as well as remembering.

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