Digital Preservation: The Legacy Continues

What does it mean to preserve something? Our readings this week took that question to task by expanding (and perhaps exploding) the idea of preservation as it manifests across different communities, contexts, and mediums. The articles, chapters, and documents we read at first feel like they are speaking to unrelated, often niche audiences. When placed together, however, they reveal the complexities underpinning how preservation operates in different contexts. The topical diversity paints a more nuanced understanding of what it means to do preservation and challenges certain self-imposed paradigms for how we think preservation should be maintained.

Yet, most of the readings hardly had to do with digital materials so the question I was left with at the end of the day was how to connect what I was reading to what I’ve learned about digital preservation. I have no hard and fast conclusions but what I’ve listed below are a few of the most striking or recurrent avenues for connecting the complex world of preservation to the specific traits and needs of digital media.

1). Looking to preservation approaches and theories in other media and contexts can enhance our ability to frame preservation problems in our own work

If I had to pick one theme from this week’s readings to stick in my back pocket for future reference it would be this one. Glancing over the reading list for this week, I was initially confused about why we were reading a guide for documenting dance. While interesting, it hardly seemed relevant to the class. Yet, digging into the problems inherent in preserving a performative event brought to the forefront some corollaries, most notably the trouble of pinning a multi-faceted event, by nature irreproducible, into something that could realistically be preserved. I think a similar tension exists in digital media, which relies upon a complex interaction between multiple components to be legible, often while said components are rapidly becoming obsolete. In both cases, there’s a need to account for multiple parts while under the pressure of time. Placing both contexts side-by-side demonstrates a certain transferability in theoretical approach, which grounds digital preservation in a lineage (to borrow Professor Owens’ term) of ideas; a starting-point for developing new approaches to the challenges of novel, specific media.

2). Defining the purpose behind preservation can help shape the action of preservation

Owens’ summation of the three frameworks for preservation (artifactual, informational, folkloric) belies the notion that preservation efforts need to function towards the same end. Read alongside Rinehart and Ippolito’s specific examples in new media art encourages the idea of looking towards the purpose behind the thing to be preserved in order to determine the best efforts for preservation. The example Rinehart and Ippolito give of preserving the candies exhibit is particularly salient in this regard. As they note, locking the candies in airtight containers may keep them “preserved” but completely ruins the intention behind the art piece. This dilemma forces a reconsideration of what preservation means in this context. A similar reasoning can be applied to digital media (as Rinehart and Ippolito highlight). Is the thing to be preserved informational? Perhaps a new software can be applied or a migration to a new file format. Is if artifactual? Good luck. The point being that considering the framework in which preservation is happening can better direct efforts and resources to the desired end.

3). Preservation of a thing can happen through more than one medium

This theme is more of a side note in this week’s readings but it’s one I find intriguing. The Documenting Dance document pulls this idea to the forefront by demonstrating how multiple types of media (i.e. paper documents, motion-capture, film, photographs, etc.) can be employed to capture an event. In fact, the application of multiple types of media can present a fuller picture of the event-being-preserved by compensating for weaknesses in other media and multiplying avenues of access. I’m not sure if there’s an exact corollary in digital media but I wonder how a similar approach might be beneficial in digital preservation or if there’s even room for it.

4). Preservation happens amongst a community of actors

I think this idea manifests itself both horizontally and vertically. As Rinehart and Ippolito note, “…we see rescuing new media as a task that is best distributed across a wide swarth of cultural producers and consumers, who will choose the most appropriate strategy for each endangered work…” (10). In other words, it takes a village and a village that’s more than just professionals. Employing a wide network of individuals with an investment in digital media can expand the perspectives brought to bear on the needs in preservation and contribute towards innovative solutions.

Yet, this community of actors is dispersed not only through space but through time. We’ve talked in class about how preservation functions like a relay race; we do what we can to keep things accessible while we are alive, but that task will eventually be handed off to someone else. This idea of community potentially connects with the scientific community described in Daston’s article. Of all the materials we read, I struggled to connect with this one the most. It was fascinating and well worth the read, but I kept trying to attach it to our other readings and repeatedly came up short. I wonder, however, and this is probably a stretch at best, if her description of the transcendental “imagined community” (thank you Benedict Anderson for haunting my steps once more) at play in these scientific archives of early modern Europe could mimic the concept of community surrounding digital media archives through time. Daston emphasizes this idea of a dual-facing archive that finds its momentum from both the past and the future community. I wonder if this concept of community has any bearing on how digital media is approached, particularly through platforms that grant it almost immediate accessibility in space and, with the right mechanisms in place, time.

5). Food for Thought (and Hopefully Discussion)

I’m going to end this post with a bit of a redirect. I found the section in Rinehart and Ippolito’s book on social memory to be provocative. As the authors point out, canonical memory is often the aspect of social memory addressed by cultural institutions but it’s not representative of social memory’s totality. I’m wondering how cultural institutions can be better attuned to the informal aspects of social memory, particularly when social memory is more like social memories. Rinehart and Ippolito highlight a few applications in their book but I’m hoping we can have a discussion in class on this topic.

Introduction and Reflections on Week One

Hello everyone! My name’s Gwen Coddington. I recognize some of the names from the sign-up for the discussion post moderators so to those I’ve met before, glad to be working with you again for another semester! To those I haven’t met yet, I’m looking forward to getting to know you as we dive into the world of digital preservation together. Just a little bit about me, I’m a third year (and hopefully last) in the HiLS program. I’m starting my thesis in the history program and am writing about public libraries in Maryland during WWII, focusing specifically on Baltimore and the Enoch Pratt but also drawing on the experiences of rural Marylanders and state initiatives. So if you like the history of libraries, print culture, or just want to geek out over our profession, let me know!

The readings this week are a nice way to introduce why digital preservation matters not only in the archive/library profession, but to the flow and maintenance of information in society as a whole. Thinking about our readings as a unit, I’m struck by the diversity in where this conversation is taking place. By that I mean, this isn’t a topic limited to academic journals but is impacting discussions across major news outlets, blog posts, and professional organizations. In other words, everyone can and should have a stake in digital preservation.

This, I think, gets at one of the themes in the readings: bridging the divide between information professionals and the general public when it comes to demonstrating why our profession matters and how the work we do has real-world stakes. I don’t think it’s a secret that librarians and archivists often have an image problem. In the popular media, we are often portrayed as out-of-touch, a remnant of a bygone era guarding musty tomes and shushing people. I think we all would agree that that representation is a far-cry from what we do (though I’ll freely admit to shushing undergrads when trying to study in McKeldin). But image and popular misconceptions have real consequences as some of the articles we read demonstrate. Bertram Lyons’ blog post rightfully identifies that librarians and archivists are often a “hidden element” in the general conception of how information is preserved and made accessible to researchers. Eira Tansey’s response expands upon this idea by noting institutional deterrents in bringing archivists’ perspective to the table when appraisal decisions are being made. How do we get in “the room where it happens?” How do we assert our role more visibly to the public? To quotes Terry Kuny’s article, “The challenge in preserving electronic information is not primarily a technological one, it is a sociological one.” It’ll take a reordering of priorities and assumptions to make digital preservation a cultural norm and not simply a specialized responsibility.

A final note, I’ve been going back and forth about how I feel about the term, “digital dark ages.” I’m not a Medieval historian but if I recall properly that label is a bit of misconception for the survival of knowledge and culture in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. I kind of wanted to roll my eyes every time it crept up in our readings this week. Is drawing this parallel an unhelpful way to characterize what are, what I think, some true challenges facing archivist and librarians as the digital age expands? Am I being overly sensitive to what is really a cosmetic issue in this discussion? I’d love to know other people’s thoughts in how terminology and language is shaping the debate around this topic.