The Death of the Significant Property: A Tragedy in Three Acts

Act I: What’s this?

In a defiant act of rebranding, Dappert and Farquhar shed the idea of “significant properties” entirely. Focusing scientifically on the critical and definable elements of each preservation object, Dappert and Farquhar aim to “focus their attention on preserving the most significant characteristics of the content, even at the cost of sacrificing less important ones.”

They enable their scientific precision by introducing a standardized language and a workflow model. This allows anyone who works in the field to be able to relate to the process.

By focusing on the “significant characteristics” of each “entity” Dappert and Farquhar focus their assessment more closely on what each individual item is, it’s format and platform, and then on balancing the actions required to preserve it. Their preservation model takes into account changes in optimal preservation format by building in feedback loops and circular flow of preservation information.

In this way, the effervescent significant properties are discarded for characteristics and relationships that determine the most valuable aspects of the preservation object and the environment required to understand it.

Act II: Why this?

Coming at the matter from a different direction, the National Library of Australia chose instead to focus on the community they serve, the evolving nature and needs of that community, and dedicating their efforts ensuring access the materials chosen in perpetuity – taking into account and meeting the evolving needs. As Webb, Pearson, and Koerbin describe it,

“Like most things to do with managing digital collections, effective ways of making preservation decisions are evolving. … we (the digital preservation community) have no settled, agreed procedures for the full range of digital preservation challenges, nor even tentative plans we confidently expect to ensure adequate preservation for the next 100, 200 or 500 years.”

Because the file types and platforms are such nebulous commodities, Webb, Pearson, and Koerbin explain that their institutions previous efforts with one-size-fits-all definitions of significant properties and policies fell short of a feasible work strategy.

Webb et al go on to explain how the National Library of Australia redefined their work strategy, as described above, by focusing on why something was important – why the user would want it. This re-envisioning lead to redefining “significant properties” not as the building blocks of the preservation itself, but the tent poles of the document that justifies the need for preservation.

Act III: Lazarus?

Despite the effort to rid the profession of a seemingly outdated idea, I would argue that that together the work of the NLA and Dappert and Farquhar fits together magnificently, but in that order. Simplifying the definition of the “significant property” as the aspect of the entity that makes it worthy of preservation and initiations the statement of intent to preserve is enough, then once the priorities of the designated community have been established, the model developed by Dappert and Farquhar comes into play. Using the example of Preservation & Access Framework for Digital Art Objects (PAFDAO)’s preservation of Shock the Ear (1997) and other works developed in the same software – Macromedia Director – the preservation of the art is dependent on knowing the ins-and-outs of the program in which it was developed, a process much easier when conducted at scale. By this I  mean that when a collected such as the PAFDAO has dozens of early works of multimedia digital art all built from the same software, understanding the aforementioned ins and outs becomes easier because the preservationists develop familiarity with what’s a quirk of the software, a facet of the art, or a fatal flaw in a particular file. These actions are the work of Dappert and Farquhar’s model; moving backwards to Webb et al is the drive to determine why these works are valuable to the community, and even further back, to the underlining definition of the most significant of properties: that this is art and every distinction going forward will be informed by that attribution.

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Vicky_Rex Project Review


Vicky_Rex was a roller coaster. I wanted to explore a historical persona in depth and learn what made her tick; I wanted to understand her in the context of my modern life. I think I accomplished that. I had not originally planned to study such an important historical figure, but Queen Victoria worked for the project, especially as so much about her later life is generally known. The early influences that we explored through the videos with the contextualization provided by the associated WordPress blog show clearly how she was shaped. In her later life, Victoria was famous for not permitting the Prince of Wales to participate in any business of state; a point of view that’s much more understandable – however much one may agree with it or not – when one understand how those nearest to her spent her entire youth and adolescence trying to take her power away from her both directly through regency and indirectly through marriage and manipulation. Though I had no affection for her prior to this project, I have developed a lot of respect for Queen Victoria.

I am quite pleased with how the videos turned out. I had no experience in film or editing before – just a lot of theater experience. I learned to use a lot of different editing platforms and how to correct for the poor microphone as I was filming on the camera that came attached to my laptop. I do wish I’d been able to turn off the brightness auto-correct, but this affected the final product less than the low recording volume. In addition, since Vicky would not have had experience with these technical aspects, my own learning curve would likely have matched hers. I think the costuming and scene decisions I made worked well for the project. Likewise the specific language choices worked well to create the impression of someone out of sync with her peer group.

The key frustration was the lack of feedback. I had hoped that my early viewers would provide comments so that I had an idea of how to develop the project as it went forward. Also, I would have liked to incorporate more comments, to develop a back and forth communication with people watching. One of my viewers did mention that she was afraid to comment on the videos themselves because she didn’t want to make all her details available on YouTube, but she asked me several questions expanding from the videos on exactly the way I’d hoped.

All in all, I’m really pleased with the effort and the results and I hope to be able to come back to Vicky as she matures. I think it would be especially interesting to cover the first few years of her reign from the coronation through the birth of the Prince of Wales, which would cover the scandals of the years before she married, the struggle to form a partnership with the Prince Consort, and her reconciliation with her mother following the birth of the Princess Royal.

Videos Here


There is an Einstein Quote, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” The two games I researched were Cotton Millionaire and Argument Wars and both these games engage the player with simple versions of complex issues, economics and civics respectively, for the purpose of growing understanding.

Cotton Millionaire

Screenshot (7)

It’s the beginning of the industrial revolution and you’re the advisor to a businessman with some money to invest; you have the opportunity to make a fortune. The framing of the advisor is mentioned once and then abandoned; perhaps because it is a tool for inclusivity: only white men were owners at this point, but anyone can be an advisor. There is a single avatar, a blonde-ish white man, and despite the inclusive language (and by inclusive I mean carefully politically correct) at the end of the game, if you fail, you go to debtor’s prison when the avatar is incarcerated.

Screenshot (9)

This game is of a very simple construction. It consists of four choice points and the value of the choices are carefully weighted so that it is almost impossible to not make it to the end of the game. I had to purposefully choose what I knew to be the worst choices to get tossed in jail in only three turns.

I have one major complaint about the construction of the game itself and that is there a semiotic shift between the first and second turns. In turn 1, you select a map location and it tells you about your choice before you pick it; this is not the case in later turns which I found irritating but having read some more of Gee, interesting. I understand the first turn, having presented the goals of the game, they then present you with information relating to the options and you make the choice and then it is explained why this was or was not a good choice.

Screenshot (8)

In the later turns you just have to guess and to me this is counterintuitive of what the goal of the game seems to be. Especially considering the frame that you are the advisor to the industrialist, the goal would be to use your knowledge to make good decisions, the later turns where you are guessing and then find out if you guessed right is, to me, gambling and not constructive game-play.

Argument Wars

Screenshot (3)

The point of Argument Wars is to teach students both about the constitution and how to construct cohesive arguments. Play is dictated by connecting ideas to the key argument of the case. I played a case about the 4th Amendment so the ideas were all related to illegal search (probable cause, warrants, the special circumstances of a school) and the rights of minors.

Screenshot (5)

As you make your arguments, the Judge tells you how you are doing and awards points based on how relevant your argument is to the case at hand – and in some cases, how well you can construct a sentence based on that argument. You have options populated by the computer, you just have to choose.

Screenshot (6)

While some parts of the game are abrasive – the ridiculous posturing of the avatars and especially the music – it is actually quite well designed. The game play is consistent, the objectives are clear, and you have the option of retrying the case on the other side. As a legal game, that is I think the most important aspect, being able to see and argue both sides of an issue. The screen at the end of the game that tells you if you’ve won or lost the trial also tells you how the actual case turned out.

Both of these games have their flaws and neither is, to my knowledge, directed at any age group outside of school, but the simplicity makes engaging with the ideas presented both fun and informative. It is especially the secondary benefit of Argument Wars, the construction of supported arguments that I like best because to win at one thing, it requires building a skill in another.



Drowning in Context

The Rossetti Archive is terrifying.

It is massive and as a recovering student of literature it makes me want to run screaming for the hills because it has everything. I don’t mean everything a scholar could want with rainbows and puppies; I mean everything the man ever produced, the entirety of the journals is poems appeared in, the source materials upon which be based is translation efforts, the major scholarship about him, the works of his friends, mentees, and scholarship about them, and drafts: every possible draft of a poem or painting, plus all the reproductions they could get the creators could get their hands on. It’s all there. Plus, bearing in mind that Dante Gabriel Rossetti (DGR) was both prolific and popular – the leader of an artistic movement – not only did he make a lot of stuff, a lot of people bothered to keep (and his popularity brought attention to the work of others who we now think of as being in the canon, like William Blake). It’s a terrifying amount of material. How is one person ever supposed to read everything when everything is relevant? How can scholarship not be crippled in the face of such an abundance of so much data?

Panic attack aside, what the Rossetti Archived is simply a collection of the digitized works of DGR plus as many contextualizing resources as possible. There just happen to be loads of them. Ere go an elaborate searching mechanism. The below is a screen shot of the search engine with all the possible ways of searching.


Herein lies my only major criticism of the archive, the search returns are mysterious and lack a way to know why something in particular was relevant to the search. It is otherwise comprehensive, expansive and easy to use, except for the part about actually reading every thing that you get back and considering it complexly as the researcher is meant to do.

God is Definitely Having a Laugh

McGann, who made the thing, is aware of its vastness and complexity and his argument is that by putting it all together, the scholar is no longer bound by the confines of a print edition which like a car depreciate in value the minute it goes to press. The “bewildering array of documents” is a challenge, but it then becomes the privilege of the scholar to decide what is important, what should be included in his or her work of scholarship. The appraisal is put into the hands of the user, instead of the archivist.

Defaulting to Goat

The intention of the archive is clear and well-fulfilled, but perhaps overly so. The data is so expansive and so robust that it can be difficult to get a grip on something small. There is so much context that it begins to obscure the purpose. When I started playing with the search function, I turned to my default search term, goat; the word I use whenever I’m testing out a new search engine because I think its kind of funny. The results were inconclusive, so I turned to something I knew a bit about; DGR’s sister Christina Rossetti, a poet in her own right, and one I prefer to her brother. Now with 153 search results, I began to see the outer extremities of the archive. Not every poem Christina wrote was included; in fact I didn’t find the text for any of her works, only references to it where it coincided with her brother’s efforts.

But this in itself raises another issue. What the Rossetti archive is attempting to do – and I will argue doing very well – is establishing the authority we associate with scholarly editions and putting it in the public sphere; it is the level up from Wikipedia because it is a moderated source. But what we suddenly lack is a middle ground. There is now vague (and potentially corruptible) overview via Wikipedia or everything that could possibly be associated with the topic via dedicated HyperArchives.


And the same thing is in the works with the Shelley-Godwin Archive, seen above. They have commitments for 90% of the papers of Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and William Godwin and they are going to put them all online with transcriptions and search functions. Though right now only Frankenstein is available, what happens when a thorough examination of a text and its relevant contextualizing data for a close reading balloons into data analytics like Morretti’s Distant Readings from Graphs, Maps and Trees? And what does it mean for the Archivists of the world when resources like these take away our call to curate? Are such fantastic resources actually the death of the archival profession?