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.

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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.

10 Replies to “Understanding Digital Preservation Through Cake”

  1. I like the way you think. : ) Your styrofoam comment reminded me of Sterne’s section on distracted listening – that sometimes, the listener doesn’t necessarily want high definition when listening to music. I can’t image a styrofoam cake ever being preferable to the real thing, but I can appreciate that you can’t make assumptions about what aspects of an object people find the most valuable. Instead of being a “flavor essentialist,” you might want to consider how the architecture contributes to the identity of the object:


    It’s interesting to see how the layers you refer to from our readings are reflected in the Levels of Digital Preservation which we will be using a lot this semester. Two aspects of LoDP, format and storage, are discussed at length. As you progress through the levels of another aspect, metadata, you are increasingly documenting more about these platform layers used to create, modify and render an object.

  2. I think your metaphor of layers of a cake mirror Owens’ point about screen essentialism pretty well– the idea that what you see on the surface (or screen) may seem like it’s the important thing to preserve because it’s the visible thing, but there are elements of a digital file (or cake) running in the background that make the surface layer visible! I’m thinking of file systems and their idiosyncrasies, the specifications of the hardware, and the specific versions of software that enable a file to be opened and looked at. So I guess to continue with the metaphor– the ingredients of the cake?

    Those things are super important to preserve as well in order to have the full information about the (for lack of a better term) finished product.

    I like the idea of having to taste the cake to fully understand it and what about it needs to be preserved. Like in the Chan article (Collecting the present), in the preservation of the app Planetary, a copy of the source code was made available for people to mess with to see what was important to be preserved. What is going to be used? What do researchers want to know about a digital object like this? It’s not necessarily just the image of the cake or even the canonical experience of eating the cake (or using planetary as it was intended) but also getting that contextual information about how that cake (or app) was created, so the ingredient list (or concept/design files) and instructions for baking.

    What is important about a file determines how it will be saved. It’s not just the finished product that’s important, but also the process. I think having the public/researchers involved in determining what is important about digital objects and what will be useful for research is a really cool idea, it removes some of the guess work and ambiguity in collection development and acquisition.

    With regard to your question about donor’s rights, it seems that Kirshenbaum’s digital forensics article poses this issue, that there is the potential for researchers to come equipped with forensic software, which could bypass any restrictions that archivists put on certain files. It seems that there will need to be new collection use policies put into place to account for these possible violations of donor privacy. Maybe it would involve emulating a harddrive and only allowing researchers to interact with that harddrive through the computers at the archives, which come with a specific set of software? I’m not sure, but I think there are some strategies archivists can come up with to both respect a donor’s privacy while also allowing researchers to really dig into a digital object.

  3. Web archiving is an interesting example. As we saw last week in class, we can capture the image on the screen, but features like the search function won’t work. We did a web archiving assignment in Appraisal last semester and we encountered some similar challenges with preserving the functionality of websites. We were attempting to document the March for Our Lives, but we had trouble capturing things like online sign-up forms for march volunteers and video content. My group’s approach was to use the descriptive metadata to explain that some features were missing. We attempted to describe aspects of the site that we could not preserve in the interest of transparency. This was not a perfect solution, but it was the best we could do when we only had a few weeks to do the assignment. To return to your cake metaphor, maybe a Styrofoam cake is okay if we also provide additional context about the internal layers and the way the cake might have tasted or smelled. (for my example, perhaps an image of a real cake would make more sense than a Styrofoam cake. 🙂 )

    1. You raise an excellent point, Emily, regarding the challenges you encountered archiving a website with externally linked content. So much of the online world is a patchwork of content hosted somewhere else that it makes me wonder how to reimagine the cake metaphor to adequately illustrate the problem. It’s like the cake was really made by three different chefs out of constantly changing ingredients. It may always be cake, but depending on when you sample it it might be chocolate or it might be cinnamon apple. How do you reflect that capacity for variation in your preservation strategy?

      1. Andy, the “patchwork” you describe reminds me of a lot of websites, especially websites that use widgets – like WordPress, for example. A blog’s widgets may be an important part of the experiencing and using the blog. I wonder what rights issues might come into play if a web archive attempted to preserve not just the screen, but also the functions of the widgets?

  4. I appreciate your reference to the Kirschenbaum article and the importance of understanding how our data is stored. Two points from that article really jumped out at me. The first was the quote from Jacques Derrida that “what is no longer archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way.” Hard drives are usually viewed as purely technical, and as Kirschenbaum points out they are also “often invisible and certainly unglamorous,” so not much thought is given to the fact that they have a large social and cultural impact as well. The author offers the example of how the iPod and the Tivo revolutionized the music and tv industries as well as individual user’s listening and viewing habits. I’d be curious to read Derrida’s Archive Fever (which I own, but have sadly not yet read) to better understand the quote about how archives change the way we live, and to compare his examples to the ones that Kirschenbaum provides about hard drive. The argument Derrida makes is certainly an interesting one worth exploring in greater detail.

    Another point from the Kirschenbaum article that I found particularly intriguing was the idea that we are now reconfiguring our libraries to more closely resemble hard drives. Kirschenbaum offers the example of the University of Texas at Austin undergraduate library which is removing all 90,000 volumes in its collection to offsite storage, where they will be available for recall and retrieval while the main library location will become a “state of the art media and information center, packed with computers.” In my own experience, I’ve seen more and more libraries make use of offsite storage, so I wonder if this is just an unfortunate necessity of running out of space, or if it represents a future trend that may offer benefits for the future? (Or perhaps it might be considered both depending on the circumstance?) If decades down the road most libraries are following the “hard drive” model of providing books from offsite storage, will they eventually do away with traditional library organization schemes and instead shelf books like Amazon warehouses, maximizing speed and efficiency of shelving and retrieval? After all, if no one is browsing the offsite shelves, why keep something like the Dewey decimal system which is based on creating a better browsing experience for patrons? Would it make more sense to shelf the most recently requested books somewhere that would make them easiest to access while those that are less frequently requested are shelved in the hardest to reach areas (our computer systems, of course, having already collected this data)? Will the physical arrangement of the books matter if the discovery process for patrons will be entirely online? (To be clear, I’m merely throwing out a hypothetical “thought experiment,” so please don’t be too harsh on me for suggesting throwing out traditional library shelving. )

  5. In theory, I don’t really have a problem with moving books off-site if the space doesn’t allow for it and it’s being used for something worthwhile that would fulfill a patron need. There is the question of the time lag of getting the title to the reader, but I think there are means of expediting that – like sending scans if possible. If readers know they have to wait a day for a book, they can still time their request to pick it up when needed.

    I’ve actually even thought that you could even do this in public libraries with the non-fiction adult books. These are often things that are so spread out among the branches that it’s pretty likely you’ll have to request them anyway. So why not just embrace that so you can organize and care for the collection efficiently?

    I say in theory because it’s possible that we’re giving in to the idea that a physical collection isn’t important. Out of sight, out of mind so far as funding is concerned.

    It’s interesting that you bring up the Dewey Decimal system because I was thinking about cataloging when Margaret Rose was writing about platform (and cake) layers. These different platforms helped to shape the character of the digital object when it was created. The more you know about them, the clearer the picture is of what makes it unique. It reminded me of cataloging because of all the different ways that you can describe a title. The more you add, the more nuanced the description. Of course, there are practical limits to how long a cataloger can spend on description just as there are practical limits on how much time you can spend digging into the nuances of a digital object. Some objects are more worth the time than others.

    I think call numbers could still have a place because it can still help the reader visualize the arrangement. When we talked about cataloging in some of my other classes the idea of classification bias came up a few times. There was one article in particular that discussed how the arrangement of books can alter your impressions of the subject matter. The author used the example of books on homosexuality being placed in proximity to behaviors that some might consider deviant:


    It sparked a bigger discussion about classification, I believe one person pointed out that religion is arranged in the Dewey Decimal System to focus heavily on Christianity compared to other religions. When our class talked about it, I think there was a general feeling that the way traditional classification systems are organized is a problem but that reclassing everything isn’t practical. Browsing online doesn’t automatically resolve this but I think it does make it easier to manipulate arrangement so that the patron has more than one way to think about a title.

  6. Your point about how the intended usage of an object determines its preservation effort reminded me of a project I’m working on in my current internship. The goal of the project is to preserve photographs taken on the NASA Goddard campus in the ‘90s. The problem is that these photographs are stored on photo CDs with obsolete photo software. I’m using digital forensics, through the help of BitCurator, to acquire the images of the CD (not the photographs per se, but taking what’s on the CD and replicating the files onto the computer). Though the CDs had been used to store the photos, they are only a medium for the desired digital object and are not important themselves.

    In accordance with your cake analogy, I’m also seeing the layers involved with digital objects through this project. Even just acquiring the images is considered “Phase 1” of the project. Seeing the photographs is actually “Phase 3,” so I’m working without actually seeing the photographs I’m preserving. I’m learning through my internship and the readings that the backend, less visible information is important for preservation, too.

    1. Maya, I’m glad you brought up your personal experiences from your internship… it’s always helpful for us to use real life examples to make these concepts more relatable! Just out of curiosity (and tying into the other thread where Leigh asked about our preservation project for this class)… As you are figuring out how to access the images that were stored on CDs, is there any information on there about where the photos came from in the first place? And is there anywhere that the changes you are making now are being documented? Thinking about CDs of course made me think of all the mixes I burned for my friends as a kid. I’m sure I still have some of the ones my friends made for me, too, but now am wondering how I would go about preserving them if I wanted to. The order of the music was so important to the overall meaning, not to mention the little drawings and things that we wrote on the CD itself. When the actual physical medium isn’t relevant (like in your case above, where CDs were just the chosen storage method of many), maybe these issues aren’t as noticeable, but how should we go about preserving those “little things” that make things like burned CDs unique?

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