Digital Preservation: The Legacy Continues

What does it mean to preserve something? Our readings this week took that question to task by expanding (and perhaps exploding) the idea of preservation as it manifests across different communities, contexts, and mediums. The articles, chapters, and documents we read at first feel like they are speaking to unrelated, often niche audiences. When placed together, however, they reveal the complexities underpinning how preservation operates in different contexts. The topical diversity paints a more nuanced understanding of what it means to do preservation and challenges certain self-imposed paradigms for how we think preservation should be maintained.

Yet, most of the readings hardly had to do with digital materials so the question I was left with at the end of the day was how to connect what I was reading to what I’ve learned about digital preservation. I have no hard and fast conclusions but what I’ve listed below are a few of the most striking or recurrent avenues for connecting the complex world of preservation to the specific traits and needs of digital media.

1). Looking to preservation approaches and theories in other media and contexts can enhance our ability to frame preservation problems in our own work

If I had to pick one theme from this week’s readings to stick in my back pocket for future reference it would be this one. Glancing over the reading list for this week, I was initially confused about why we were reading a guide for documenting dance. While interesting, it hardly seemed relevant to the class. Yet, digging into the problems inherent in preserving a performative event brought to the forefront some corollaries, most notably the trouble of pinning a multi-faceted event, by nature irreproducible, into something that could realistically be preserved. I think a similar tension exists in digital media, which relies upon a complex interaction between multiple components to be legible, often while said components are rapidly becoming obsolete. In both cases, there’s a need to account for multiple parts while under the pressure of time. Placing both contexts side-by-side demonstrates a certain transferability in theoretical approach, which grounds digital preservation in a lineage (to borrow Professor Owens’ term) of ideas; a starting-point for developing new approaches to the challenges of novel, specific media.

2). Defining the purpose behind preservation can help shape the action of preservation

Owens’ summation of the three frameworks for preservation (artifactual, informational, folkloric) belies the notion that preservation efforts need to function towards the same end. Read alongside Rinehart and Ippolito’s specific examples in new media art encourages the idea of looking towards the purpose behind the thing to be preserved in order to determine the best efforts for preservation. The example Rinehart and Ippolito give of preserving the candies exhibit is particularly salient in this regard. As they note, locking the candies in airtight containers may keep them “preserved” but completely ruins the intention behind the art piece. This dilemma forces a reconsideration of what preservation means in this context. A similar reasoning can be applied to digital media (as Rinehart and Ippolito highlight). Is the thing to be preserved informational? Perhaps a new software can be applied or a migration to a new file format. Is if artifactual? Good luck. The point being that considering the framework in which preservation is happening can better direct efforts and resources to the desired end.

3). Preservation of a thing can happen through more than one medium

This theme is more of a side note in this week’s readings but it’s one I find intriguing. The Documenting Dance document pulls this idea to the forefront by demonstrating how multiple types of media (i.e. paper documents, motion-capture, film, photographs, etc.) can be employed to capture an event. In fact, the application of multiple types of media can present a fuller picture of the event-being-preserved by compensating for weaknesses in other media and multiplying avenues of access. I’m not sure if there’s an exact corollary in digital media but I wonder how a similar approach might be beneficial in digital preservation or if there’s even room for it.

4). Preservation happens amongst a community of actors

I think this idea manifests itself both horizontally and vertically. As Rinehart and Ippolito note, “…we see rescuing new media as a task that is best distributed across a wide swarth of cultural producers and consumers, who will choose the most appropriate strategy for each endangered work…” (10). In other words, it takes a village and a village that’s more than just professionals. Employing a wide network of individuals with an investment in digital media can expand the perspectives brought to bear on the needs in preservation and contribute towards innovative solutions.

Yet, this community of actors is dispersed not only through space but through time. We’ve talked in class about how preservation functions like a relay race; we do what we can to keep things accessible while we are alive, but that task will eventually be handed off to someone else. This idea of community potentially connects with the scientific community described in Daston’s article. Of all the materials we read, I struggled to connect with this one the most. It was fascinating and well worth the read, but I kept trying to attach it to our other readings and repeatedly came up short. I wonder, however, and this is probably a stretch at best, if her description of the transcendental “imagined community” (thank you Benedict Anderson for haunting my steps once more) at play in these scientific archives of early modern Europe could mimic the concept of community surrounding digital media archives through time. Daston emphasizes this idea of a dual-facing archive that finds its momentum from both the past and the future community. I wonder if this concept of community has any bearing on how digital media is approached, particularly through platforms that grant it almost immediate accessibility in space and, with the right mechanisms in place, time.

5). Food for Thought (and Hopefully Discussion)

I’m going to end this post with a bit of a redirect. I found the section in Rinehart and Ippolito’s book on social memory to be provocative. As the authors point out, canonical memory is often the aspect of social memory addressed by cultural institutions but it’s not representative of social memory’s totality. I’m wondering how cultural institutions can be better attuned to the informal aspects of social memory, particularly when social memory is more like social memories. Rinehart and Ippolito highlight a few applications in their book but I’m hoping we can have a discussion in class on this topic.

3 Replies to “Digital Preservation: The Legacy Continues”

  1. Great post! A very nice synthesis of the readings. I had the same struggle connecting the Daston, even though I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I don’t think it’s a stretch to see that connection in her “imagined community,” though. That’s where I’d locate it. The scientists of the archive may interact with that community somewhat differently than their colleagues in the humanities would, but the impulse is the same, I think; to see their work as part of an infinitely long conversation and much like the archival relay race.

  2. Nice summary of our readings this week!

    Prof. Owens’ chapter on “divergent lineages” was quite compelling. In a vague sense I understood that preservation takes different forms depending on the object, what information one is trying to preserve, etc. But his three frameworks really helped solidify that concept for me. And I keep thinking about a question that came up in last week’s class – “What does it mean to render digital objects authentically?”
    The readings all touched on authenticity in different ways. What’s considered authentic (or of value) differs depending on the context and the domain that object (or performance) is situated in. So of course digital preservation can’t happen in a vacuum, nor will there ever be a “one size fits all” solution to preserving items. While I also struggled with the Daston article, by the end I understood that it was assigned to further illuminate this point. Preservation and archival practices have a long, varied history that still inform current approaches. The idea of an imagined community also stood out to me. I agree that this concept could be applied to digital media archives.

    Your question about how cultural institutions can better capture informal social memory is a tough one (but worth discussing!). Will institutions differ on their approaches of reflecting social memory depending on which culture or community’s memory they’re trying to capture? Or is it more universal than that?

    This is a random aside, but every time I wrestle with ideas of authenticity and how society deems what is/isn’t culturally valuable , I think of this book by Frans de Waal, The Bonobo & the Atheist. It’s been too long since I’ve read it to recall specific examples, but I just remember that de Waal discusses how people have come to assign value to things from an evolutionary/humanist perspective, and it was very thought-provoking.

  3. Hey Gwen,

    I like the way you approach the readings, especially that you’ve sussed out some of the more nuanced aspects of digital preservation, and the ways it differs (or is similar!) from analog preservation. Particularly, your first two points, that preservation techniques used on other objects can inform how we approach digital preservation, and that the method of preservation is chosen based upon why we’ve decided to preserve something.

    The ideas I picked up in the readings were similar, and I was super excited to gain the vocabulary and conceptual tools to really dissect preservation. Owens’ chapter introduced the ideas of artifactual, informational, and folkloric approaches to preservation, and it seems that these are generally good rules of thumb for defining the reasons why we preserve certain things differently– a 12th century manuscript has value not only for its text (informational value) but also for the way in which it was created (artifactual value). This value informs the way we seek to preserve the item (vellum or parchment needs to be stored at certain temps and rh to be preserved) and so the preservation action is storage, we don’t want to reformat this object because we would be destroying the artifactual value.

    But, what then do we do with digital media? Rinehart and Ippolito’s chapter from Re-Collection kind of blew up my conception of digital preservation and really helped me put words to general ideas about why digital content must be preserved differently than analog. They bring up the idea of digital files on a computer— the approach we used for the 12th century manuscript would be downright neglectful if applied to a computer. We can’t just store a computer in a warehouse for 30 years!! It will eventually become totally unaccessible as software and hardware become obsolete, and parts become scarce. In that way, digital media is so much more ephemeral and at risk than analog media, as the means of preserving it seems so much more involved.

    I think Rinehart and Ippolito really emphasize the need for variable media and different preservation approaches by again asking us to consider why we want to preserve something in the first place. What is important to remember? What is the intent behind the object? Why was it created? I think the authors are pointing us to consider more informational and folkloric approaches to preservation when it comes to digital files, in that there often *isn’t* one single physical object that can be preserved, and *by necessity* a digital file can’t stay in its original file format or storage media, lest it risk being rendered inaccessible over time. We preserve digital media because we are interested in its parts (like the assets from Toy Story), or the content, or for the experience of the complex digital object as a whole (like videogames). We are interested more in the feel or content of the object, which is why it’s okay that a file is migrated or reformatted to the new industry standard– because that enables us to keep getting at that content!

    The biggest take away for me was really that : The artifact approach to preservation is totally inappropriate for digital media, flexibility and variability are key to digital preservation.

    Migration, emulation, and reinterpretation are the ways we can ensure the longevity of a digital object– I feel like the folkloric approach here is very applicable, we don’t necessarily need a videogame to be playable on its original console or even have the same controls, as long as we can emulate the system and play it, that’s what matters.

    Probably not the best articulated comment, but I’m really excited that these readings gave us the tools to really dig into the conceptual aspects of digital preservation.

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