Understanding Digital Preservation Through Cake

When trying to understand this week’s readings together I could only think of one thing: cake. Maybe it’s all the baking competition shows I’ve been watching, but I’ve got cake on the brain.

This metaphor first came to mind when reading “Digital Curation as Communication Mediation.” In one of the examples of the encoding of digital information, an email is sent between two people and the information passes through different layers to be able to be sent, going from the layer that we see, all the way down to the individual bits, then back up to a level that is interpretable by people, mediated through a screen. That can obviously be applied to a cake metaphor, with each layer of the cake as a different layer of digital media. But it can go so much further than this.

I first read Trevor’s chapter to get a handle on this week’s topic and quickly realized that it would be a more technical week than the past few. Not that OAIS flow charts aren’t technical, but that’s a kind of technical that I can understand. Enter the cake metaphor! We always think of digital media as being something that isn’t tangible, it most definitely is. Even a picture of a cake is still a representation of a physical cake and how we see that image of a cake on a screen is the result of very physical processes on a hard drive or other sort of storage media; a cake that is stored in the cloud is still stored in some sort of server farm in the middle of Nebraska. We can’t understand the cake just by looking at it, we have to taste it and look at all of its layers to understand it. To preserve just the image of the cake is artifactual preservation, while trying to recreate its taste and look is informational and represents an interaction with the original cake. Both of these are ways to represent the cake, just from wholly different perspectives.

How then can we extend the cake metaphor to Digital Forensics? Well, it’s the same sort of layer phenomenon described in “Digital Curation.” When investigating digital material, it is important to understand all of the layers of the cake, not just the outside. The outside is how the digital material looks on a screen or on its outermost layer, but that may not be everything and only looking at the layers can confirm or deny that. (Explained without the cake on page 8 of “Digital Forensics”). Of course, unlike with cake, you have to be able to read the data on each layer which may be complicated through obsolete technology. Think about tasting cake without being able to taste or smell; you know it is cake, but not what kind. Knowing what kind of cake is important for the cake preservers because you can’t write a finding aid for the cake without knowing what it is. You then have to confirm that how you understood the cake layers is how they originally were, making sure that people trust you, the cake preserver. This could be done through documenting the cake (or the digital object if we don’t think in the metaphor) when it first arrived and passed through all of the different people before it arrived at the cake repository. It gets stickier with digital objects because it is harder to tell if the object has been edited or changed (especially with date and time metadata). The only thing that can be done in this sort of situation is to give as much information as possible. Of course if the donator of the cake does not want the cake to be completely investigated then as much preservation work that is possible must be done, but without violating the donor’s trust.

This brings up a lot of the discussion that we had last week about not violating a donor’s wishes when it came to their digital and how to not violate their trust. Instead of having a deeper understanding through these readings, I’m still not sure – other than trying to get the agreement as clear as possible. Does anyone else have a real answer to the question of donor relations with digital objects after this week’s readings?

When looking to preserve this digital object (or the cake), how the object is going to be used determines how it should get preserved. Is the information the most important part? If it just needs to look the same, put it in a stable format and store it forever. Like a cake made out of styrofoam, it gives the same visual information but does not have all of the underlying layers but it will last longer. Is it important for the researcher to have the whole view of the object and all of its layers? Then the cake needs to be replicated in a more stable form, but with its layers intact. Instead of being run through an emulator, the digital object is held on a piece of legacy hardware or one of the Rosetta Stone computers, or is copied into a different file form that still has the same physical presence of the original cake. Both of these methods preserve the cake, just in different ways. What the cake metaphor does help with is understanding that if there are going to be layers, most of them have to be there for it to be a cake. An object is not solely its metadata, the rest of the object has to be there as well.

Neither form of preservation advocates for leaving the digital object un-investigated. In “Towards a Grammatology of the Hard Drive” Kirschenbaum is against the notion of the hard drive as a black box into which we shovel data. The hard drive represents a very physical way of understanding how our data is stored and the limitations of that storage (even as it appears that we will be able to save everything in the next few years). Not (metaphorically) breaking the hard drive apart to study and understand it is like leaving the cake uncut; you don’t see the layers and you don’t completely understand the media or the data encoded on it until you can see the layers. This then creates problems with digital preservation because a repository made need the data preserved with all of its layers and the preserver (who doesn’t crack it open) is just handing back a styrofoam replica of an object that needs full functionality.

Styrofoam, despite its negative connotations, is not a bad way to store a representation of a cake but it doesn’t retain the information that may need to be accessible to fully understand the object. I don’t know enough about digital objects at this point to know if a representation of something (like the captures of the websites preserved by the Library of Congress or the Internet Archive) can have enough functionality to still be used in a similar way. There still is no one way to preserve a digital object and maybe styrofoam works better than I realize.

digital objects and determining value

This week’s readings were widespread in their content and at times had me feeling a bit at sea with the detailed descriptions of hard drive technology, digital forensics, file formats, etc. (There’s nothing like reading these kinds of things to remind me that I’m nowhere near as technologically proficient as I’d like to think.) I’m grateful for Prof. Owens’ book since it describes digital media and their structures in an accessible, understandable way. I’ll briefly recap his three key points laid out in chapter two, since I saw these ideas echoed throughout the other readings.
1. “All digital information is material.”
Such a basic fact, and yet (as the book mentions) I generally think of my personal digital files in abstract terms, like being lost “in the cloud” or behind this mysterious wall, because my technological know-how is limited.
2. The logic of digital media and computational systems is “the logic of database.”
People interact with digital objects much differently than they engage with analog media. Since databases are ordered based on the query asked of them, digital information can and will always be presented in a myriad of arrangements.
3. “Digital systems are platforms layered on top of each other.”
This one took me a little longer to understand, but I take it to mean that every digital object has multiple informational layers which people are often unaware of. Depending on what someone is studying or looking for, they are going to care about preserving certain layers of the object over others. And these layers are often interdependent on each other.

While reading, I kept thinking of how much we take for granted as we use all of our various devices to function in the world, and the enormous amounts of data and media that will be left behind once we are gone. This quote from the Kirschenbaum article sums up my questions perfectly: “ […] how do these accumulations, these massive drifts of data, interact with irreducible reality of lived experience?” Within the digital preservation field, how do we reconcile that tension between the materiality of our digital footprints and the ephemeral, intangible stuff of life? I’m personally not convinced that you can fully capture someone’s working or personal environment through their digital papers, even with emulation of their computer (thinking of the Salman Rushdie anecdote from the Digital Forensics report). Or even from an ethical standpoint that it’s always advisable. How do we know what digital information is worth saving or recovering, and who deserves access to it?

As the Digital Forensics report points out, it is not immediately clear what digital items are going to have historical or cultural value in the future, making it harder to know what to preserve. And then how can professionals adequately preserve relationships between different items, events, and media (a random aside–the Jackson Citizen Patriot is my hometown’s newspaper. I did a big double take when I read about the photo of the snowmobilers’ accident and its significance.)? This reminded me of our conversation last week about authorial intent, as well. If a creator doesn’t wish for their entire digital footprint to be saved indefinitely (or saved at all), but there is potential cultural value to their information, whose concerns are prioritized? I have a lot of mixed feelings about this. As mentioned before, Trump would love to cover his tracks–he tries daily, either by literally tearing up memos or obfuscating and lying. But the office of the Presidency is bound by laws that prevent this (or try to), and I doubt anyone would argue that these records are not necessary for future generations. Perhaps the question should be, at what point does a person become so culturally or historically influential that their wishes about their data are overridden by other, more pressing concerns?

The Chan & Cope article address these questions from an institutional standpoint. As a museum studies student I was both fascinated by their argument and struggled with it. I definitely like “the stuff” of museums. While I visit museums to be engaged and to relax, oftentimes what draws me to an exhibit (particularly art museums) is a particular piece or an artist whose works I love. I agree with Chan & Cope that collection strategies should serve a different purpose today; there should be a real intention behind acquisition that goes beyond prestige or hoarding mentality.

However, I’m not quite convinced that a “post-objects curatorial practice” is the natural solution. And is it really “post-objects” if a museum instead exhibits the contextual documents surrounding a systems design? The piece that was missing for me was, does a “post-objects” approach reflect the needs of a museum’s community? Collecting a contemporary, provocative item (digital or analog) might generate a lot of buzz, but will it mean something to the average museum-goer beyond taking a selfie with said object? Relevance isn’t necessarily about what’s trending in the moment (btw, The Art of Relevance, a book by Nina Simon, is an excellent read that explores this topic in the museum field in depth).

I realize I have more questions than definitive ideas or opinions in this post. Interested to share more thoughts and discussion with everyone in the week to come!

A Belated Introduction

Hello, my name is Tracee Haupt. I added this class late and am still catching up, so please excuse the belatedness of my introduction post.  First, a little about me–I am in my third year of the HiLS program. I specialize in modern American history and archives and digital curation. I am also in the Museum Scholarship and Material Culture program, which means I will probably end up adding another year to my three year program. I currently work as a graduate assistant in Hornbake Library, where I help to prepare and manage digitization projects, process new collections, provide reference assistance, and participate in outreach to promote the library’s resources. I also work as a Research and Teaching Fellow at McKeldin Library, where I teach library instruction classes to English 101 students, and I just started volunteering with the DCIC’s presidential archive project.

I joined this class because I am already working with digital projects, and I know that digital preservation should be an important component of managing any type of digital collection. Practically speaking, I also frequently peruse job ads, and I know that digital preservation skills are often wanted for the type of jobs I am interested in. Moreover, I’m excited to partner with a local institution to complete the class project.

I was intrigued by the first week’s readings on the possibility of the “Digital Dark Age.” As others have pointed out, the BBC article may have presented an overly pessimistic view by describing the problems of digital preservation without also offering a full account of the people and institutions who are working to solve the potential crisis. I would agree, however, that digital preservation can be “riskier” than other types of preservation. I think, for example, about my own personal archives. From my birth to about high school age, I have thick photo albums that my mother keeps in her closet that I could pull out and look at whenever I want. But right around the time my parents and I both bought digital cameras, the record becomes a lot murkier. There are pictures that I assume must be on my parent’s computers or hard drives, but I don’t know how to access them. There are also pictures I took that are on old computers or hard drives that I can’t access anymore. Some of them I think I may have inadvertently lost through computer failures or just plain sloppiness (like forgetting to transfer them or back them up). So there are entire years of my life in which I have very few, if any photographs. My photographs are not of any lasting value in the archive world, but the point I am trying to make is that when media goes from the physical to digital realm, there seems to be a lot more opportunities to make mistakes or allow items to slip through the cracks. Physical objects are also liable to become obsolete (VHS tapes, for instance), but I find that they are more likely to stick around and not get lost than the digital files I have. Do people agree or disagree that physical objects seem to have more “staying power”?


What counts as preservation?/Who decides?

The readings this week introduce a variety of ways of thinking about preservation. They demonstrate that the goals and possibilities of preservation depend on the specific contexts in which objects are being created and used. In The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, Trevor describes three frames for preservation. The artifactual framework is probably the one that is most familiar to archivists and librarians, or at least it is the framework that is most relevant to my experiences thus far. This framework emphasizes the “historical contiguity of a tangible physical object” (p. 15). Preserving the physical form of a work of art or a historic site is important for authenticity in this context. The informational frame focuses on the sameness of the informational content. Copies created through procedures that produce informationally identical versions are considered valid. Finally, the folkloric frame asks us to consider the essential qualities of objects that are not quite as “fixed” and to understand that the variability of narratives and other cultural expressions is worth documenting.

Individual vantage points affect our ideas about what is worth preserving and what counts as authentic preservation. For example, consider Rinehart and Ippolito’s explanation of the difference between formal and informal social memory. Formal social memory is shaped by institutions like libraries, archives, and museums that decide what to canonize. Informal social memory is more distributed across society and involves collaborative efforts by individuals to preserve content that is important to them. The rogue archivists mentioned in class last week fit in this category. Rinehart and Ippolito argue that formal social memory emphasizes the need to preserve original form of the object “as a way of of maintaining its historical accuracy and authorial integrity” (p. 15). This corresponds with the artifactual framework. Informal social memory communities are more open to updating the object through techniques like migration, emulation, and reinterpretation in order to preserve the essence of the item. That is to say, they find informational and folkloric qualities to be the most essential. It’s worth considering how these different groups make decisions about value and whether they have the resources to execute their vision for preservation. What happens if the rogue archivists don’t have the time, money, or expertise to continuously preserve something and how does this affect social memory? What happens when one definition of preservation is privileged over another?

It’s also interesting to consider the role that creators play in determining what preservation of their work should look like. Sol LeWitt created universal instructions for his wall drawings so that they could adapt to different spaces and continue to exist after his death. Other artists, like Eva Hesse, were either less explicit about their wishes or used materials that were more difficult to preserve. The Documenting Dance guide encourages dancers and choreographers to be proactive to prevent the loss of their work while admitting that some useful methods of documentation, like dance notation and motion capture, will not be accessible to everyone. In addition to a lack of resources or specialized knowledge, there can be emotional obstacles to overcome. Sometimes asking people to think about preservation means asking them to confront their own mortality. I’d be curious to know if we have any performers or artists in the class who have experienced preservation challenges with their own work. Should we privilege the artist’s original intentions when developing a preservation strategy or could this approach potentially ignore the needs of future users and audiences?

Sometimes preservation is less intentional. The Documenting Dance guide acknowledges that documentation can be conscious or unconscious. Dance events produce records beyond the actual performance in the form of publicity materials, the memories of the audience, and any written responses created by the audience. It is particularly interesting to consider the act of remembering as an act of preservation, but humans aren’t perfect and sometimes our memories are faulty. Our ability to capture these memories also depends on the technology we have available to us. With his comparison of the phonograph to the human brain, Guyau demonstrates that new advances in technology can help people to store and reproduce impressions. However, the device itself lacks the self-consciousness to truly remember anything and it can’t fully capture the ephemeral. Performances are experienced by each audience member differently and may also contain improvisations or other variations. A scientist can describe what she observed during a rare weather event, but reading an account or looking at photos is not the same as actually being there to experience the event yourself. The folkloric framework suggests that variation is important and when folklore is fixed, it is “no longer living culture but something that has been pinned down dead” (Owens, p. 22). But we keep trying to create representations of ephemeral events anyway-look at the variety of methods listed in the Documenting Dance guide. At what point do you have to accept that something cannot be faithfully preserved? 

Daston’s description of scientists working together to tackle the impossible task of documenting the natural world feels relevant here. We can’t preserve everything and we probably shouldn’t try to do so. There are only so many resources to go around. But we can explore collaborations across disciplines and frameworks to develop more holistic preservation strategies for both digital and analog objects. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to only one definition of preservation. One way to avoid doing so is to look outside our professional bubbles and to listen to perspectives from records creators and users in diverse contexts.

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.