What matters most and how do you make it last?

I found this week’s readings overwhelming. This is primarily because it not only drew on a lot of the themes we’ve covered in class so far, but for me, is really at the heart of what it means to be an information professional. The subject was preservation intent, authenticity and selection, which quite honestly, seemed like everything to me. It turns out this is all interrelated.

What does it mean to be authentic?

Bruner describes four meanings of authenticity – verisimilitude, genuineness, originality, and authority – using New Salem Historic Site, a reconstruction of the village where Abraham Lincoln lived in his 20s. I couldn’t help but think of our discussion of artifactual identity in one of our earlier classes since it referenced another historic site, Mount Vernon (Owens, 15-17). Using Bruner’s terminology, the Mount Vernon mansion is authentic because it is the original. According to its website, “restoration efforts aim to represent the estate as it appeared in 1799, the last year of George Washington’s life and the culmination of his designs for Mount Vernon.” This description conforms to Bruner’s idea of genuineness because the idea is that someone from the same period could believe it to be from that period.

Verisimilitude seems one step removed from genuineness. It may pass as believable for visitors, but it isn’t picture perfect. Bruner’s description of New Salem and Mount Vernon’s website include descriptions of modern-day conveniences for tourists and upkeep. Bruner describes gutters on the log cabins that would not have existed at the time, and Mount Vernon has accessible pathways for wheelchairs. Presumably both have bathrooms somewhere on the grounds.

Bruner’s last meaning refers to an authority that certifies something as authentic. For example, the State of Illinois has authority to approve New Salem Village as the official reconstructed site. 

So what’s an authentic digital object?

We’ve learned in class that “digital information is material.” (Owens, 34) Just like words on a page in a book, it’s written on something like a hard drive. However, as a storage medium, hard drives are much less reliable than books. In order to preserve a digital object, you have to transfer it to something stable and be ready to do it again before the storage conditions fail. This concept is outlined in the storage component of the Levels of  Digital Preservation which we read about in our first week of class. The idea then of an authentic digital object precludes Bruner’s third meaning of “original” because we won’t be able to open and use files under the exact same conditions on the same hardware forever.

So how close can we get to the original and what does that even mean? Last week we learned about platforms layers. Digital objects are constructed within a certain context related to several factors such as software, operating system, file formats, etc. When this context changes, it affects how the object appears to us if it can at all. In order then to recreate the object we have to consider what’s important about it and what parts of the object we need to hold onto that ideal. This brings us to the idea of preservation intent.

Owens presents several examples in our readings of preservation which speaks more to creating an authentic experience of the object, but in order to get there, you have to think about the aspects worth preserving. In one case, it might be the appearance recreated through a screen shot; in another, it might be worthwhile to emulate the platforms that were originally used in order to present an interactive experience.

However, you don’t necessarily have control over all aspects to recreate the experience faithfully. Owens uses one example in Grateful Med, a software interface for searching medical information. In order to recreate the experience of using Grateful Med, you would need to emulate all the platform layers required to run the software as well as preserve the external medical databases used. Because of all the variations in platforms involved, this approach was considered impracticable. Instead of preserving the software, preserving the tutorial  served to fulfill the preservation intent which was to captured how the software worked.

This reminded me our readings last week on Documenting Dancebecause it showed how an experience can be documented without being strictly representational. You don’t have to make a direct copy. You just have to drill down to what you think is important to remember.

Who decides what’s authentic?

Bruner’s last meaning of authenticity dealt with authority. I think this idea was captured in two of our readings – Preserving Social Media Records of Activism (Jules, 2015) and Expanding #ArchivesForBlackLives: Building a Community Archives of Police Violence in Cleveland (Drake, 2016). Both of these articles have to do with social media, but it’s also about who has historically had the authority to save or neglect the history of marginalized people? Drake especially tackles this head on and describes how alienating the archival profession has been for black people. Archivists don’t have a place in preserving this story unless they acknowledge complicity in maintaining the white patriarchal structure.

Social media has been described as a way to give voice to people to tell their own story, but it’s complicated by issues of privacy and ownership as well as a means to capture “authentically” an experience from what may amount to millions of different perspectives.

I have to digress a little here because my feelings about social media are complicated. As an information processional, it’s not my place to direct how the public creates records. It’s even questionable as whether it’s my place to preserve them. I have to say as my own opinion, I question the value of social media as a way of authentically preserving an experience. Jules acknowledges the limitations of Twitter, but I think there’s a suggestion that these limitations can be overcome, and I’m not sure I believe that. The essence of Twitter is after all a means of surveillance, not sneaky government surveillance but marketing. Owens gave the example of Documenting the Now, an effort to ethically collect and preserve social media content. I have to hope that if smart people are putting their heads together to ethically preserve this, then maybe they can come up with a better alternative to current social media platforms all together.

There was so much more in our readings with week so I’ll look forward to reading your impressions.

6 Replies to “What matters most and how do you make it last?”

  1. Tina, your feelings on the appropriateness of archiving the social media records of an activist movement are very thought provoking. They hearken back to many of the conversations we had in Adam Kriesberg’s Ethics and Policy class.

    I particularly take your point on the inadequacy of social media records to authentically preserve an experience, at least on their own. I think that at best archiving this material helps preserve some shadow of the zeitgeist surrounding a movement. But as you point out, it is incomplete. Twitter posters are not the sum total of any movement. They are by definition a self-selected group. Your point about the motivations of the social media platform are also well taken, though this immediately made me wonder about how pure the motivations are for any records collection effort. There are a whole lot of ways that exploitation and racism have affected the way our society keeps its records. I mean, I can imagine that at the time redlining maps probably seemed like an innocuous and boring appraisal of home values produced by a benign government body. Only with time has it been called out for the insidious function it served in crystalizing racism as the foundation of our social machinery. I guess your point makes me realize just how wide the moral gray area is for everything.

    As depressing as this realization is I guess it does at least lead me to a pragmatic but uneasy decision of probably supporting the collection of social media posts related to movements like Black Lives Matter… the exploitative motives of Twitter notwithstanding. Ultimately, the posts do represent a snapshot of the community’s voice. Admittedly it’s a snapshot that is potentially skewed and/or sullied, but one thing that photography has taught me is that it’s not possible to take an objective snapshot. The act of putting anything in a frame is an editorial and exploitative act. The best you can do is try to tell a story that approximates the truth. And as the readings this week emphasize, engaging with the community is a necessary component of finding that truth.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Tina. I’m also intrigued by the implications of notions of authenticity for the work of digital preservation. “Authenticity” has something of a bad reputation, philosophically and politically. We know that fascism often begins by asserting an “authentic” national character, or way of life, which is seen as more original; more desirable. I don’t mean to drift into hyperbole but I like the “who are we to decide” tone you take in discussing social media. If I were Bruner, I’d be inclined to group all my definitions of authenticity under authority because I think someone is always deciding what’s authentic. They may document that decision with painstaking transparency in a preservation plan but they’re making a call, one way or the other. It’s tricky though, because moves to control the record of what happened (or to say what constitutes a record) aren’t just made by governments and corporations. They’re also made within the community by self-selected groups. What about the experience of those who don’t participate in social media? Is their experience of events being seen as somehow less authentic?

    1. Hi David,

      You make a great point about authority and “who gets to decide.” I’m inclined to agree that someone is ultimately always making the decisions about authenticity. This discussion reminds me of the tribal disenrollment epidemic that many American Indians are facing. Tribal leaders can disenroll, or kick out or exile, people from tribes by denying their heritage, thus taking away from them any benefits that comes from being in the tribe. People are being disenrolled even when they have evidence of their lineage; their reasons for being kicked out are often personal or related to money, up to the whims of the tribal leaders. The leaders are able to declare a form of “authenticity” that must be obeyed, even when it is objectively untrue. If a community led this way also had a community archive, their records could face the same false “authenticity” only determined by the leaders.

      Here’s a This American Life podcast about the issue, if anyone is interested: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/491/tribes

      1. Thanks for that great example, Maya. I was groping for an example of an assertion of ethnic authenticity and you chose one that also highlights how these dynamics play out in the dark, within groups. With social media, it can feel sometimes like the squeaky wheels get to write the history [mixed metaphor fully intended].

        And thanks for the link!

        1. The Native American example of deciding authenticity reminded me of the portals that some institutions are attempting to create to allow tribes to help in the curation and description of artifacts that were taken by settlers. I think that the Plateau Portals site (https://plateauportal.libraries.wsu.edu/) can be an example of both how archivists and communities can authenticate archival materials, or achieve that authority that Tina and David were talking about, and it provides an example of a way to address the white supremacy within archives.

          The Plateau Portal allows for Native American members to login to their tribe’s artifacts and add additional metadata to the site and database. What is then shown to the public is both an archivist’s interpretation, as well as a community member’s interpretation, which is often a bit more detailed, and it could be argued, more authentic. This illustrates that the archives is providing the community and tribe members to authenticate their, usually stolen, artifacts as connected to their tribe. I don’t remember where I read it, if it was in article, on the site itself or it may possibly have been in a fiction novel, but there may have been a time in which an archivist classified an artifact as belonging to a tribe, then a tribe member said that it was actually not a piece of their heritage. By allowing community members to authenticate materials, they could actually be correcting institutional mistakes. (Again, I can’t remember if this scenario I’m remembering was fact or fiction, but it could potentially happen to any institution.)

          As to addressing patriarchy and white supremacy within archives, by allowing the community to participate in describing their own history, the archives is building the “alliance” that Drake mentions in his blog. I’m not entirely sure the intentions of the archives, if they perfectly align with what Drake wanted of not using the tribes simply for their collections, but it seems like this is a good first step toward creating that alliance and breaking down the purely ‘white’ interpretation of ‘non-white’ archival materials. If other community archives were to offer this type of community involvement, would we be successfully making strides toward Drake’s wishes and creating a better archives to serve that community as well as more faithfully preserve that group’s history? I also wonder how crowd-sourcing could fit into this.

        2. Here is another good example of what Maya is talking about:

          To summarize briefly, the Lumbee are petitioning to be treated as a federally recognized tribe. Without that designation they are not eligible for assistance programs. There are many aspects to this story that involve using documentation of things like “blood quantum” and residency records to decide the legitimacy of an entire group of people with a unique and shared culture. This story is an excellent example of how structural racism can be reflected in how a society’s records are kept and used.

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