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.