Reflecting on Digital Preservation is Still Digital Preservation

A teacher friend of mine once said that anyone can teach anything if they stay one chapter ahead of the class. My only real teaching experience has been as a native speaker teaching English to non-native speakers; a knowledge gap that gave me a lot of wiggle room, even with my more advanced students. My friend wasn’t talking about digital preservation and this project wasn’t exactly teaching, but you can see where I’m headed….

I’ve been fortunate enough to be partnered with two dedicated women at WheatonArts and Cultural Center who are only about a chapter behind me in digital preservation. It’s been fun and challenging. I won’t use the past tense because we’re still in communication and I hope to follow their preservation efforts for as long as they’ll put up with me.

One of the more satisfying aspects of digital preservation, if you’re partial to theory, is the way theory and practice are interwoven in this work. When I sat down with the staff at WheatonArts, they didn’t just want to talk about bit-level preservation…. When an artist says, “don’t digitize my work; don’t preserve it,” what’s a responsible curator to do? Does suggesting a more sustainable file format to artists constitute interference with the creative process? WheatonArts’ mission is to draw visitors into an exploration of creativity. So far, artists guide much of that exploration by providing their own documentation of their creative processes. Resources notwithstanding, should the Center take a more active role in that documentation process? How do you represent creativity faithfully? Is a video good enough? Our early readings in this course, like Documenting Dance, ask these kinds of questions.

But what about the bits? Shouldn’t we talk about storage first? Toggling between philosophy and hurricane recovery is the joy of this work. There’s real immediate work to be done but you’re never too far from epistemology or aesthetics, either.

Museums welcome not only the opportunity but the responsibility to think through these puzzles. And it is a responsibility. Enduring (and expanded) access will mean that eventually, most visitors to museums and other cultural heritage institutions will never step foot in their buildings. Visitors won’t have the chance to reckon with an analog artifact. As objects are increasingly born-digital, the idea of faithfulness, of whether an analog object could be reassembled, will drift further and further to the backs of visitors’ minds. So, part of the job of digital preservation must be to ask these same questions that thoughtful curators have always asked.

WheatonArts and Cultural Center’s Digital Preservation Project Report

3 Replies to “Reflecting on Digital Preservation is Still Digital Preservation”

  1. David, your experience is a perfect example of how to approach this type of project from a different starting point. It’s wonderful that your institution has been so eager to participate and that you’ve learned from them, as well. I can’t say I’m *partial* to theory, but I definitely appreciate its usefulness more when I can intertwine it with practice – and I agree that this is the perfect project for that!

  2. I also found the mix of theory and practice to be satisfying. I agree that with you that “you’re never too far from epistemology or aesthetics” with digital preservation. And since I have more of a humanities background, the case studies from contemporary art helped me to feel less intimidated by digital preservation because I was familiar with some of the examples. It helped me to see that you can’t just start doing technical work, you still need to think about issues like authenticity and the role of the creator’s intentions.

  3. This is less of an academic comment than a fun aside inspired by your opening sentence. My first semester at UMD I was asked to be a GA for a class on the history of zombies, and I barely knew anything at all about zombies. I was terrified my students would discover this “secret” and call me out on it, but that wasn’t the experience at all. I was learning along with the class and just made sure I was always thoroughly prepared. I read the class materials multiple times and made sure I had good discussion questions lined up, and I don’t think anyone noticed that I wasn’t a zombie expert.

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