“To Thine Own Preservation Decisions Be True”; or Deepening the Impact of Intentionality

Our readings this week shifted us from a purely theoretical approach to digital objects and their preservation to a more practical application, albeit in a generalized sense. Much like how you must learn to walk before you can run, one must learn to appreciate the digital forest before attending to individual trees. An underlying principle, inherent in all good preservation practices but particularly emphasized here, is to interrogate and articulate the reasons behind your digital preservation aims. This idea has been percolating in our readings and discussions since day one, but this week’s readings reinforce the need for an agreed-upon sense of purpose before any action commences. As Owens highlights in his fifth chapter, this starts with understanding what is significant about the object you are trying to preserve and how it relates to your institutional aims. We saw how this might play out in practice in the article on the National Library of Australia’s preservation intent statements. The NLA defines its institutional purpose through accessibility and it leverages its preservation intent statements to make explicit decisions regarding its digital collections in those terms. As demonstrated in the article, writing a preservation statement can yield consensus and clarity to stakeholders as well as direct suitable preservation actions based on the digital collection’s unique significance and needs. In essence, a preservation statement of intent is the basis for a road map for good preservation and a key starting point for effective policies.

The need for intentionality in digital preservation cuts to a deeper theme in this week’s reading: what it means to render something as “authentic.” The articles this week sought to upend any assumptions we might hold as to what makes something authentic or inauthentic by pulling the binary rug out from under us. As Bruner’s article on New Salem highlights, authenticity is largely a product of cultural values which not only shift over time but build upon one another. Thus, what makes something authentic is a matter of perspective and cultural context. The multiple iterations and applications of authenticity in Stovel’s article likewise emphasize its contested nature. Stovel’s deep dive on the Nara document and subsequent declarations on authenticity from the world heritage sector cast authenticity as a conditional process and one with an evolving set of definitions and applications.

By deconstructing assumptions about authenticity, Stovel and Bruner’s articles force a reconceptualization of how authenticity might relate to other values like originality. To hijack one of Professor Owens’ examples, the multiple iterations of the game, Oregon Trail, demonstrates the variety of ways a digital object can claim authenticity. For me, an authentic version is the second edition run on a Windows 95 system. It’s the version I played most often as a kid on the operating system my parents had which makes it the one I immediately think of when someone mentions Oregon Trail. The fact that there are earlier and later versions of the game that run on different systems doesn’t make my version inauthentic (though some may argue that); it merely demonstrates the constructed nature of authenticity and the various ways it can manifest across digital systems.

This doesn’t mean that originality can’t exist in digital objects and that that might not have value. This is one of the more perplexing nuances for me. As someone used to thinking of digital objects in an abstract, informational form, it’s difficult to imagine that a singular document or e-mail would claim originality in the same way a manuscript does. This is compounded when you think of the role copies and transfers play in the creation of digital objects. Yet, as Yeo makes clear through his example of the John Poindexter email, “…there may be potentially ‘significant’ properties of originals that are not reproducible or can only survive copying in attenuated form. Originality itself may be significant and cannot be replicated.” We’ve seen that demonstrated in the ways that Salman Rushdie’s laptops revealed contextual information that made his files more informationally rich (not to mention the emotional value of being able to look at a device and say, “This is what was used to create x.”).

Pursuing intentionality in digital preservation also includes more scrupulous attention to transmitting and preserving the community context in which digital objects were generated. Three of our readings took a close look at the ways common archival practices silence or distort the views of marginalized communities and presented ways archivists could better engage with and empower these communities. Bergis’ blog post highlights how social media affords archivists the chance to capture a layer of dialogue surrounding historical events that has often been hidden in the archival record. Similarly, Drake’s post on archiving the Black Lives Matter movement and Shilton and Srinivasan’s article challenge archivists to rethink their approach to basic archival functions within record maintenance and services provided.

I think marrying these principles with the purpose of the preservation intent statement can more fully realize digital preservation. As we’ve learned throughout this semester, preservation can follow a variety of paths within the digital world. Thus, it is necessary to be intentional in mapping a preservation purpose to ensure that things get done and stakeholders are on the same page. Yet, these decisions are often done internally without consulting the community from which these objects came. In doing so, archivists aid in the silencing of minority voices. Critical contextual information about the object and its production is also often lost. By bringing community members into the archival process and leveraging their input, we can pursue a better form of authenticity in digital preservation that grounds the object in its contextual heritage. More importantly, we can help community members’ reclaim their authority over their own records and how those objects are presented and preserved.

I began this summary by stating that our readings this week were beginning to move us towards more practical applications but that the content itself was still generalizable. This, I think, will always be one of the key hang-ups when it comes to writing useful but broadly applicable texts for digital preservation. There seems to be so much variance in what forms a digital object can take and what aspects of it are important to preserve that writing with any specificity can create more blinders than illumination. Yet, perhaps an expanded approach is the best way to think about digital preservation. Imagining digital content beyond one aspect or function allows us to appreciate its potential more fully. In doing so, we can develop a preservation plan that speaks to more than just its surface level expressions but captures its complexity in meaningful ways.

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