Before the “How?”of Digital Preservation Are the Questions of “What?” and “Why?”

Before taking this class, I thought of digital preservation only as a skill set I needed to learn. I wanted to know–how do I accomplish this thing that so many job ads expect me to be able to do? I realize now that by focusing exclusively on the “how?” of digital preservation, I had skipped over the important steps of first determining the “what?” and the “why?”. When these questions are taken into consideration, it becomes clear that digital preservation isn’t just a checklist of methods or tools students need to learn ,  it’s also a set of theories about what preservation means. The readings this week stressed that before creating a plan for preservation, it is important to first ask–what do we want to preserve? And why do we want to preserve it (what aspects of it are the worth saving)? Specific preservation goals will make it so that what we deem most valuable is saved, and (to paraphrase Professor Owens) if compromises must be made for practical reasons, having clear intentions will at least ensure that we are making those decisions deliberately.

Owens writes that the “future of digital preservation does not lie in the maintenance of old computing systems and hardware…[but in] making copies and moving those copies forward to new systems.” This may, upon first reading, seem simple enough, and yet it raises a multitude of questions about what it means to say something is the “same” as something else or that it is an “authentic” copy. Increasingly, archivists are coming to see that preservation judgments are (in the words of Herb Stovel) “necessarily relative and contextual.”

Geoffrey Yeo interrogates the idea of “sameness” in his article, arguing that what makes something the “same” as something else depends upon our definition of “sameness,” describing scenarios that roughly correlate to the ideas of the artifactual and informational frameworks we first encountered in Professor Owen’s book. As the title “Nothing is the same as something else” suggests, however, Yeo is ultimately skeptical of any claim to “sameness” with copies, because “attempts to determine the significant characteristics of records are problematic, not least because judgements about significance will vary from one user community to another.”

I was particularly interested in the comparisons that Yeo draws between historical manuscripts and digital objects. Yeo suggests that scholars may one day scrutinize digital objects in the same way that they now examine handwritten manuscripts for clues about the author’s intent in their handwriting, the spacing of the words, or smudges on the paper. We must, therefore, be mindful of what gets preserved with digital copies since,  according to Yeo, there is no detail so inconsequential that we can assume it will never be of value to some researcher. He also proposes that we may one day fetishize old forms of media like CD-ROMS or floppy disks in the same way we do other objects in museums or special collections. For this reason, Yeo proposes saving both the original and a copy (or copies) when possible, but if not, we need to at  least give careful consideration to who may be using the digital objects in the future and what their needs or expectations will be.

In a way that parallels Yeo’s questioning of “sameness,” Edward M. Bruner uses the example of Lincoln’s New Salem, a historic site in Illinois, to examine different definitions of “authenticity.” He proposes four main types–verisimilitude (the appearance of authenticity), genuineness (historically accurate authenticity), originality (the original and not a copy), and authority (an authorized replica). In New Salem, Bruner sees a mixture of the different types, identifying aspects that correspond to each of the four markers of authenticity. He also notices that the desire for authenticity can be very idiosyncratic and selective, pointing out all the different ways in which New Salem has been deliberately made inauthentic (such as paving the roads or adding bathrooms or gutters) and no one seems to give these details much notice. Bruner argues for transcending the inauthentic/authentic dichotomy and recognizing that tourists are not really there as judges of authenticity, but to “construct a past that is meaningful to them and that relates to their lives and experiences.” The lesson that a digital preservationist might take from Bruner’s article is that what makes a recreation or a copy meaningful is often highly personal and will vary from person to person. Unlike Yeo’s article, which emphasized that importance of details, Bruner seems to suggest that in some instances the details aren’t as important as recreating an experience that people can relate to. This reminded me of video game simulations–getting the game’s exact code correct may be less important than other, more personal factors that people associate with the game.

When it comes to what makes something the “same” or “authentic,” both Yeo and Bruner would say that it depends on the person. This connects to a second theme of this week’s readings–the importance of participatory or community-based archiving, especially for marginalized communities. While it is generally acknowledged that archives need to become more diverse in their representation, Katie Shilton and Ramesh Srinivasan write that archives “have appropriated the histories of marginalized communities, creating archives about rather than of the communities,” which can create distorted narratives. Shilton and Srinivasan propose changing the way archivists acquire and process new collections so that they are involving community members throughout the process of appraisal, arrangement, and description, ensuring that the archives represent marginalized communities the way that they want to be understood.

These ideas have become especially relevant recently in discussions of how to archive Black Lives Matters and other protest movements. Jarrett M. Drake argues that participatory archiving may not be enough, and that perhaps traditional archivists should avoid archiving the movement altogether and instead allow independent, community-based archives to do the job. Drake does, however, offer advice to traditional archives who still want to be involved. He tells traditional archivists to first look at their existing holdings to “see whether or not black lives matter there,” and to “confront [their own] complicity in white supremacy, patriarchy, and other structural inequalities that the movement is seeking to eradicate.” Moreover, they need to build trust among the “people, communities, and organizations around whose lives the movement is centered, a trust they should pursue not under the guise of collection development but under the practice of allyship.”

I’m curious–what did you think of Yeo’s and Bruner’s discussions of “sameness” and “authenticity”? Do you forsee a future in which digital objects are scrutinized for minute details in the same way manuscripts are today? What about the ideas presented by Drake–do you think that traditional archivists should have a role in documenting marginalized communities? If so, what steps do you think they should take to ensure they are doing so responsibly?





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