Preservation intent without the racism

Preservation intent

This week’s readings all build off the concept of preservation intent. In Chapter 5, Owens raises the two key questions of preservation intent: What about the object do you want to preserve? What do you need to do to preserve this aspect of the object? These questions should not be asked just at the beginning of the process, but continually during the processing of the content.

Some files will not be kept or preserved after considering preservation intent. The Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library of Emory University opted to remove such unnecessary files after acquiring Salman Rushdie’s laptop. After realizing preservation intent, Owens notes that archivists may choose not to preserve the object itself, but documentations of the object’s use. This was the case with Nicole Contaxis of the National Library of Medicine choosing to preserve a how-to on using the Grateful Med database, rather than the entire database itself. Owens also uses the example of preserving a screenshot for the Form Art website, rather than an emulation. The National Library of Australia (NLA) opted to use this preservation method for their PANDORA web archive as well.

This week’s readings also introduced the concept of significant properties, which are the aspects of digital objects that must be preserved if the object is to have continued significance. Webb, Pearsen, and Koerbin note that this concept can be more hindering than helpful for approaches to digital preservation. The authors assert that preservation intent should be declared before determining what the significant properties are, meaning the significant properties would be subjective rather than objective and universal. Yeo affirms this notion that there are no objective measures for value. There is no single method for digital preservation and preservation approaches should depend on the situation.

Archives and marginalized communities

Community participation is important for the preservation of objects from marginalized communities. If archival repositories intend to preserve the events and movements surrounding marginalized communities, such participation should be considered when creating the preservation intent.

Shilton, Srinivasan, Jules, and Drake note the foundation of white supremacy instilled in traditional archives – archival processing has historically been done without the input of marginalized communities, leading to finding aids that lack proper context and collections without diverse perspectives.

Shilton and Srinivasan promote participatory archival processing, which means seeking and listening to input from the actual community creators of the objects. Having “narrative and thick descriptions” from the community lead to contextual knowledge for the archival collection. Shilton and Srinivasan refer to these as empowered narratives, where the community is no longer being spoken for by archivists.

Jules addresses the significance of social media as it relates to protesting and causes. Social media helps promote awareness, allows news to spread faster, and helps movements grow. The preservation of social media is an obvious choice if an archive is interested in such topics, but it also leads to ethical and legal issues. Jules raises the concerns of protecting people in the social media collection, such as from repercussions from the police, and potentially being sued by the social media platform.

Drake promotes building allyship with marginalized communities should archives want to preserve their memory. Allyship involves genuinely wanting to learn about the lived experience of people in these communities and aid them, not just using them for collection development. Drake suggests that archivists help build up community archives and use their existing collections “to host dialogues, programs, and exhibits” around the issues faced by the community.

Affordances of media

In Chapter 3, Owens asserts that we can easily make quality informational copies with computing, but that artifactual qualities of these objects are lost. This is due to the platform layers involved with digital objects, à la the cake analogy used last week by Margaret Rose. Owens provides the example of the Rent script, where only the final version was visible in Word 5.1, while Jonathon Larson’s edits were visible in other text editors. According to Owens, the digital preservation field has essentially given up on preserving these additional layers and artificial qualities.

With a focus on informational preservation and ease of use, Arms and Fleischhauer detail the sustainability, quality, and functionality factors that the Library of Congress considers when selecting digital formats for preservation. The 7 sustainability factors are disclosure (documentation of the format), adoption (how widely used it is), transparency, self-documentation, external dependencies and how much work it will be to preserve them, impact of patents, and technical protection mechanisms like encryption.

The format selection is also dependent on who the primary audience is and how will they use the object. This determines what quality and functionality factors are given priority when choosing a digital format. The authors provide an example of the factors for the preservation of a still image: normal rendering (on-screen viewing and printing), clarity (high resolution), color maintenance, support for graphic effects and typography (filters, shadows, etc.), and functionality beyond normal rendering (layers and 3-D modeling).

Arms and Fleischhauer’s article offers technical insight on the outcome of considering media affordance and preservation intent. I found the article more difficult to understand but appreciated its technicality.

The media affordance available to the NLA led to hurdles with their web archiving. They deal with incorrect renderings due to their software, difficulty in preserving websites with many file types, unpredictable issues during batch preservation actions due to the idiosyncratic structures of websites, and some access issues due to file obsolescence. For the NLA, preserving the website “content, connections, and context” are of primary importance, while the preservation of the site is secondary. The master copy is preserved to the bit level, but the display copy, which undergoes preservation actions such as migration for long-term access, is of greater importance. The snapshots that the NLA preserve also only retain limited functionality of the original websites.

Discussion Questions

Have you noticed a lack of diversity or evidence of white supremacy in collections or records that you have worked with? How do you intend to address these issues when working as an information professional?

How can information professionals effectively assist digital community archives, when digital preservation is permeated with quick obsolescence and continual need for migration, documentation, auditing, and so on?

When creating their preservation intent, the National Library of Australia digital preservation team consider what “adequate access” for the digital objects are and how long that access needs to be maintained. This is a new concept for me because I generally think “forever” or “as long as possible.” I suppose an object only needs to be kept as long as it’s useful, but how do we determine what will be useful 25, 50, or 100 years from now? How do we know when to deaccession a digital object?

6 Replies to “Preservation intent without the racism”

  1. Hi Maya,

    Great summary of this week’s readings. I found your paragraph on significant properties and values to be thought-provoking. I agree with both Yeo’s and your conclusion that determining an object’s significance is more of a subjective than an objective process. It makes me think, though, about the use of standards or guidelines for assessing significance. Clearly we as archivists don’t want to be ruled by a rigid way of thinking about value in our collections. However, I think they may have use for providing a place to start and a way to articulate what significance is and why it matters. Should we throw those sorts of measurements out completely or can there still be value in them?

    To answer the first of your discussion questions, I haven’t worked in enough archival settings to personally attest to the racial discourses embedded in the system. However, I remember discussing in my Intro to Archives class about how archivists should approach finding aids or other archival tools that used offensive racial terms in their descriptions. There was definitely tension between wanting to preserve the finding aid as is since it now represented part of the record and how it was viewed and the obvious desire to update an outdated and offensive system. I think the basic consensus was to document the production of the finding aid, when and under what circumstances it was created, so that the context wouldn’t be lost but it wouldn’t be swept aside by the institution either. In a weird way, I think preserving those moments draws attention to the very inequalities in the system and sort of acts as a reminder to archivists about the nastier side of our profession.

    1. Hi Gwen,

      There is definitely still value in using guidelines for assessing significance during accessioning. I agree that standards and guidelines are a good starting place and they should also be referenced throughout processing. I think the difficulty comes in when actions need to be taken that do not fit in with the guidelines or the repository does not have the means to presently fulfill the guidelines. That’s when archivists should practice flexibility in their processing and preservation decisions, while still using guidelines as a frame of reference.

      I agree with the consensus of your class about the finding aid. That’s a great point about how finding aids become records themselves over time and proper documentation definitely adds to the context of the accessioning, describing, and arranging of the record.

  2. In response to your first discussion question, I haven’t yet encountered overtly racist finding aids. I would have thought before this semester that any racist language should just be removed, but now I have come to understand finding aids a record of the record(s) and have a more complicated approach to how to edit them and record those changes.

    In my other archival class (INST 604), we read an article created for archivists and librarians who have contact with materials from Native American and Aboriginal populations. It was a protocol for how to respectfully describe and maintain the collections, and include information for how to deal with racist/euro-centric language within finding aids. Their approach was to either put the correct term in the finding aid next to the other term or to put a disclaimer at the beginning of the document that said that it contained racist statements and that they did not condone the language. Both approaches preserve the original framing but also educate the reader on what the appropriate language is within the context of the collection or the specific item.

    If the collection itself has racist overtones, then there needs to be a statement on how and why the collection was arranged in that way, maybe it needs to be re-described, but a record kept of the changes that are made to the collection so that the chain of descriptions can still be understood.

  3. “How can information professionals effectively assist digital community archives, when digital preservation is permeated with quick obsolescence and continual need for migration, documentation, auditing, and so on?”

    Great questions, Maya. I think our digital consultant project is preparing us for one way to assist community archives – by asking questions to help them think about what they have, what their goals are, their assets, and their limitations. If they don’t have the resources or technical knowledge to keep up with monitoring obsolescence, the answer might be to put the collection in the hands of someone who can. I think we’re reading more about this next week, but I imagine cloud storage services would regularly migrate files to stable media and possibly perform fixity checks. Alternatively, as Shilton suggests, an institution with the resources to maintain a repository can preserve the collection but collaborate with the community on archival functions such as appraisal, description, and order. The main thing is that they know that preservation won’t continue without continued commitment to the collection.

  4. Maya, your question about knowing what will be useful many years from now is challenging to answer, but I will make an attempt. It’s difficult to predict how collections will be used in the future or to identify a specific point when people will no longer need to access them. Even if we do establish a specific retention period for the objects, it seems to me that the exact number of years could be a somewhat arbitrary choice. One way to approach deaccessioning is to rely on current usage statistics to identify objects that aren’t needed, but this can be misleading because research interests, usage patterns, and our conceptions of value change over time. I think a deaccessioning strategy could also be related to changes to the institution’s collection policy and to the availability of resources. When the institution can no longer maintain the object without diverting significant attention away from more valuable digital objects, it may not be worth the effort.

  5. “Have you noticed a lack of diversity or evidence of white supremacy in collections or records that you have worked with? How do you intend to address these issues when working as an information professional?”

    Tl;dr answer – yes. haha There is a lack of diversity in collections – particularly those maintained by large academic or governmental institutions – because historically records and stories of minorities (be it gender, ethnicity, orientation, etc.) have been ignored, suppressed, or destroyed. It’s not a question of if there’s overt racism in finding aids. As Drake aptly describes in his article, institutions uphold white supremacy and patriarchy by virtue of what they are.
    “Our country could not have gotten to this point in its history without the able assistance of the memory workers employed in universities, governments, and libraries.”

    It’s hard to know what to do to fight systemic injustices and power imbalances. But specifically for poc info professionals, I think we partially address this issue simply by putting our bodies in this field. By showing up and putting in the work and providing a different viewpoint in a homogeneous workplace, we’re moving that needle forward ever so slightly. We can also push to create real, lasting partnerships with grassroots orgs that represent marginalized communities. And like Drake mentions, those relationships should not be made only to increase holdings, but because there is a genuine interest in those orgs. And lastly, we can speak out for diversifying library boards and staff.

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