Preserving digital culture

We all know that what’s on the internet usually stays on the internet. But what about obsolete sites? Systems rendered inaccessible as technology changes? Parts of the internet that once played a huge role in the internet’s evolution, but have since fallen into obscurity? People are out there collecting it (let’s hear it for the Wayback Machine), but the question falls on preservation. How to collect, preserve, and make accessible this digital culture and history?

Sebastian Chan and Aaron Cope’s paper “Collecting the Present: Digital Code and Collections,” written for the 2014 Museums and the Web conference, addresses how museums should preserve and acquire in the day and age where born digital artifacts are quickly becoming the norm.

Chan and Cope start by covering MOMA acquiring the “@” symbol – how that works, what the logistics are behind it, the decision-making process. They move on to a few different design museums, leading up to a focus on the Cooper-Hewitt museum. There, they quote the museums’ founders expressing a wish to pass on an “artistic tradition” more than just a collection of objects.

Chan and Cope focus the rest of the paper on this interaction between “original” artifacts and the propagation of design and intent – specifically in a world where those artifacts are born digital. As they are focused on the museum approach, they discuss the issues behind acquisitions, legal rights, sources codes, and preservation.

To do this, they use the example of a program called Planetary.

Planetary was a system made by a now defunct company called Bloom in 2011. Planetary would transform users’ music libraries into solar systems and galaxies by categorizing planets and orbits along factors like artists, albums, and track lengths.

How it works
Planetary in action

In preserving Planetary, Chan and Cope state the preservation strategy was to open source the code with a Berkeley Software Distribution license, so that anyone anywhere could access and use the code without permission. Not only is the code open sourced, but the code’s history and all its bugs and tweaks are also made available – so people can not only use the code but also understand how it came to be. They host the code on Github, so they’re able to keep an “original” code while users download and modify alternate copies.

Putting the code out there as a preservation strategy allows a focus on “design and intent,” as Chan and Cope put it. Derivative works are a way to preserve Planetary. After all, if the original company were still around, it’s possible Planetary would have gone through a number of evolutions at this point. Because technology evolves, does that mean best preservation is allowing that evolution in the spirit of the project?

Chan and Cope end on the note that there is more and more an issue of “inaccessible history,” quoting Ben Fino-Radin from Rhizmo’s Artbase. As technology changes and renders some digital history inaccessible, they believe the responsibility falls to the creators to maintain projects and ensure longevity. This might not be an unfair assessment – but as the number of creators willing to assume such responsibility remains low, the role of museums in collection and preservation of digital history becomes more complex.

Speaking of Rhizmo, Dragan Espenschied’s “Big Data, Little Narration” digs further into Artbase. As an employee of Rhizmo, Espenschied has published a mix of their manuscript and transcript of their keynote/closing lecture at the 2014 Digital Preservation conference on the Rhizmo site. In this lecture, Espenschied digs deeper into Artbase.

The presentation and format of the paper might come across as obnoxious at first to those who don’t expect it, and might not seem to contribute much at first beyond showing where the laugh breaks were.

Do the emojis quantify the level of laughter? Or is this a representation of how the speaker interpreted the response?

But one thing the form does do is put the audience into the conversation. The emojis might not be entirely fulfilling, but Espenschied also includes tweets audience members who tagged the talk.

A tweet from the aforementioned Ben Fino-Radin, also a Rhizmo employee.

This means that Espenschied’s lecture followed the age-old saying, “Show, don’t tell.”

Of course, since it’s a lecture, Espenschied also tells. But it supports one of the lecture’s primary tenants: Users must be included.

Espenschied focuses his lecture on digital culture, and the question of how to historicize by focusing on Artbase, founded in 1999 as a “collection of born digital artifacts in a user generated archive.” What particularly interested him though, was how Artbase went from a base platform where people uploaded art, into a static archive – the connection between the archive, the user, and usability.

Espenschied brings up two examples when talking about the necessary link in digital culture and history between performance and activity.

First, he shows an example of how Google decided to present popular 2014 New Years Searches: a globe that lists the popular searches according to major city. He spins the globe to show the features to the audience, but concludes the globe is just bad.

The issue with the globe is: there’s no relevance.

The globe uses user activity to support the database designer, but there’s no interaction, no method to prompt more user activity. As Espenschied puts it, it’s an endpoint. Relevance, for digital history, is making it an entry point.

To that effect, Espenschied brings up a project he’d been co-leading on collecting and preserving Geocities.

He shows how they were staging contextualized screenshots of Geocities pages and posting them on Tumblr. Uploading them on a blog platform with younger users, Espenschied argues, means that digital culture and history becomes an entry point. Users can share and upload the screenshots to other platforms. It becomes a conversation starter, and leads to further user activity.

Both articles by Chan and Cope and Epenschied bring up interesting questions on how to collect and preserve born digital artifacts. Clearly, the approaches differ based on the institution and background, whether a museum or media company is making the decisions, whether the individual is inclined to follow more academic or artistic methodology.

I do think a really interesting question is about responsibility – does the creator have the responsibility to ensure their digital projects are preserved? If not, who does? Or should? And if creators aren’t willing to assume that responsibility, does that mean it’s effectively death of the creator and open sourcing codes is the next step?

13 Replies to “Preserving digital culture”

  1. Thanks for your post Cameron, it really added another layer to these two readings for me. In particular, I liked how you tied them together with the thought of giving an entry point to users. Epenschied’s work interested me most because of that style used of a conversation, where the audience/reader is not interacting in real time. Additionally, I thought what he had to say about preserving things, especially from his perspective, provides a lot of context for scholars trying to understand one method for preserving digital objects. As for your question, my gut reaction was to say the creator should assume the responsibility– thinking it is too much to expect all historical organizations to assume it. However, I also wonder how we assign that kind of responsibility to preserve something without making sure all historical organizations can understand how it should be done? It will require more work on their part, but it would also be necessary work to ensure these objects are preserved.

    1. Jess and Cameron,

      I wonder if it should be the responsibility of these creators to preserve their own work– as historians, though we wish historical figures had intentionally aimed to preserve their letters or personal papers, I don’t see think it has ever been an explicit expectation. It feels unfair to extrapolate digital sites like these further, to put even more work on the creator… not sure… just a thought!

  2. You raised some really interesting points in this post, Cameron! And I tend to agree with Sarah regarding your question; it seems unfair to put that pressure on the creator. However, I think as digital historians (and historians in general living in a digital world!) we should educate people to preserve their digital projects and the importance of doing so. Perhaps museums and cultural institutions should lead the charge on this, as more artifacts become digital.

    This all makes me wonder what museums will look like in the future. Do y’all think some will start being completely digital, full of digital artifacts? Can we still call something a museum if it’s solely online? At what point does an obsolete/archived website become a kind of museum?

    1. Jenna,

      Interestingly enough, I can think of a few museums that are currently completely online (or in development for a physical space and manifesting an online presence in advance), though they aren’t both super well-known. One is the National Women’s History Museum: They have online exhibits, digital resources, lessons, and more, without a brick and mortar site. This is definitely a more successful case study.

      Another is older and less usable now (hello, lack of preservation/upkeep): the Tucson Gay Museum, which devoted an online platform to exhibits without a physical space in mind:

      I love the idea of these, but I have to say… I hope we don’t have to rely on them as our only source due to lack of funding for museums. In any case, it’s a cool way to see the very definition of a “museum” change with digital technology!

      1. Sarah,

        Thank you for adding the National Women’s History Museum and Tuscon Gay Museum as examples of solely-online examples. Definitely an interesting addition to the conversation. My one push-back, though, is do you think that these have (or have the potential to) the same gravitas as a brick and mortar institution? I fully believe the answer to that question differs by the person and their connection to the mission, but it is interesting to think about the effectiveness of online museums at creating meaning. It also begs the question of who would be responsible for updating an exhibit…the initial creator (who may no longer work there) or the institution itself?

  3. I agree with Jenna and Sarah that the onus shouldn’t necessarily be on the creator to keep in mind how their work might be preserved, especially with how complicated it can be to create web archives on ever changing platforms. It makes more sense to me that digital archivist and people who want to dedicate their time to conserving art would better poised to take on this challenge. This could happen in a more collaborative way, though, where the artist helps to create and document the context while archivist find the best way to preserve the artifact with some longevity. This way both pieces, the data and the context, could be present in a way that’s living and accessible.

  4. Cameron,

    Thank you for a great post! To answer your question, I definitely agree with everyone in that we shouldn’t force creators to be the sole bearers of responsibility when it comes to preservation, but we should surely encourage them to aid in preservation efforts with the things they create.

    Something I found really interesting with these articles is what Espenschied distinguished as performance and activity. Performance, to him, was defined as essentially the computer’s ability to do things, and activity is the user’s ability to use said thing. Espenschied is seemingly a big advocate for activity over performance. Obviously, the thing has to perform well for users to work with it, but the performance should not overshadow the users and their activity. He points this out with the Zietgiest in article and it really reminded me of our conversation about Google Ngram when he says the context of the archive is important. With Google Zeitgiest and Ngram, we aren’t getting any context, just the performance of the application whether it’s Google searches or popular words. I think Epsenschied would believe that the Planetary application was much more activity centered, still showing off the cool technology performance that it brings. It allows for that personalization with adding your own music to make your own solar system. That’s what archives should be all about, people and their activity, rather than the performance of the archive.

  5. Hi everyone! Love all the thoughts here. I’m going to take the diplomatic middle ground and say there is responsibility on both ends. With a little bit of education and digging around the creator/owner/artist can ‘preserve’ their work by using different formats. For example, in the Oral History class I took last semester we were required to save information in three (I think…) different formats. This way the data will likely be accessible long into the future.
    By taking the extra step in preservation (and creation), we of the digital age can ensure a lasting presence, which is the goal for many people. (Especially app developers!) I love that Planetary preserved the old bugged versions of the app. This really gets at the process of history that Brennan gets at. Sure, this won’t be the objective for many organizations or even individuals, but it can certainly promote institutional goals/missions.
    Sarah S, I also loved the distinction between performance and activity! As a non-technologically savvy person, the clarification of the definition of the term really helped me understand how computers function! I’m also obsessed with language, but that’s a different tangent.

  6. Thanks, Cameron, for your post! I found the responses very interesting. I’m not sure who should be responsible for preserving digital projects. I think so much of it depends on the circumstances of the creator and the institution (if any) was involved in the creation of it (the project, item, etc). I think funding is central to this question. Perhaps a tenure track academic would be incentivized to preserve a digital project or have access to the infrastructure necessary to do so while an independent academic might have to pay out of pocket to do so. Those (extremely hypothetical and likely not-too-realistic scenarios) positions would mean, for me, very different levels of responsibility to maintain a digital project. I guess for me, it depends on the funding and institutional context of the creator.

  7. Very much enjoying this discussion!

    Cameron, I really appreciate the connections you were able to draw out between the two pieces. I think it’s important to stress that the kinds of questions that we are exploring in these readings about how to collect, preserve, and interpret born digital cultural forms are still very much open ended at this point. We’ve been doing digital preservation for half a century now but things keep rapidly changing. Case and point, is something like trying to preserve an iPhone app. In the case of Planetary, it’s also worth drawing out that the idea of making the source code openly available fits in a lot of ways with the concepts that Ippolito & Rinehart are getting into with the Re-Collection book. That is, making the source code available provides traces of the process and history of the object but it also opens up possibilities for use, reuse, and reinterpretation.

    With Dragan’s talk I think there are two really key things for us to be thinking about here. One of them is about vernacular culture. This comes out in some of Dragan’s other work, like the points he makes in this interview ( ). The work that goes into taking the raw material of the archive of geocities and “reenacting” it over tumblr is facaniting in that it takes these creations of everyday folks from the early web and then “re-performs” them out on a different digital vernacular format in tumblr.

    That get’s at the other aspect that I think is really important about what Dragan is getting at in his concept of “little narration” over “big data.” A lot of that talk is about storytelling and narrative, which is a really key thing for us this week as we think about exhibition. His examples of how google poems work, and the kinds of ways that smaller scale forms of digital storytelling are powerful and important has a lot of potential for us for thinking about the expressive potential of digital media for doing public history.

  8. Great analysis of the articles! The question of who is responsible for preserving digital projects is an interesting one. On the one hand, I can’t really think of nay other format where it is expected that the creator continues to make their physical project accessible to the public. But on the other hand it can’t always be expected that the public is able to access a project just because it’s now in a digital format. I think I would agree with the middle ground road others have mentioned before. Creators should have some responsibility to keep their projects accessible by adapting to new formats and technology. But they can’t be expected to do this forever if their project becomes obsolete like so many things on the internet have before.

  9. Thank you everyone for your comments! You’ve all made some very interesting points. On the question of responsibility towards preservation, I think I also agree with the middle ground. If creators put the work and care into a project, why not also try and ensure its longevity, especially as we are aware of how fast technology changes. As Trevor pointed out though, it’s an open-ended question. Open sourcing code definitely seems to be a promising avenue. I’m interested in seeing how it all evolves!

  10. I’ll be honest, I always thought of preservation as something that can only be done with a place or object so your post really made me re-think what we consider as valuable enough save. I myself am also guilty of leaving a digital project abandoned but now I wonder how I can keep it going.

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