Innovation and Preservation

Innovation can mean many different things depending on the topic being discussed. In Nick Montfort and Ian Bogos’ book Racing the Beam they write that “Technical innovations are often understood as the creation of new technology—new materials, new chip designs, new algorithms. But technical innovation can also mean using existing technical constraints in new ways, something that produces interesting results when combined with creative goals.” (p. 53). The idea that things already in existence can be used in a new or different ways is one factor that lead to computers and games to evolve into what we know today.

In Racing the Beam, we learn about the history of the Atari VCS, later renamed the Atari 2600, and its impact on the development of gaming. In spite of what we now consider limited technology, it changed how people relaxed and pioneered the way for future computer and gaming systems. Those programming at the time of the Atari developed a computer opponent to play against, no longer requiring two people to play a game, and created interchangeable cartridges on which to store the games, no longer requiring new hardware to be sold for each game and lowering the price for the consumers.

What interested me most was that they decided to use less than the full computing power of the time in order to make it affordable and attractive to the public. The programmers worked within those self-imposed limitations to create what they needed and wanted the games to do. One of the cost-saving methods was to not include much RAM in the system, forcing the programmers to find creative solutions to complex problems while ‘racing the beam’, or using only the time it takes for a line to be drawn on the TV screen to compute the next one to be displayed. 

While the system was affordable for the average person, it placed a lot of strain on the programmers developing the games. They needed to be creative so that their games would be playable on the limited hardware. This creativity led to more of the game’s graphics being stored in ROMs, a hardware component, and not computed in software, as it is done now. It seems like preserving these old games and programs would be difficult without the original hardware even if we knew how the games were created, without completely re-creating the games within new technology. Everyone has played pong or space invaders at some point in their lives, but few have used an Atari. Can we say that it is really the original game being played and not just something that was created to look and feel like it?

Currently, innovation in games and many other digital media has very little to do with hardware, as the software can accomplish the same task and it is easier to program. However, the problem becomes one of different file formats. As new formats are created and others become obsolete, preserving the original file becomes challenging.  For instance, audio has numerous formats the file could be in but only a few are preservation quality. Should all digital audio in a library or archive be converted to the same format for preservation? Or should the original file be preserved for as long as possible? On the other hand, text is usually preserved as a PDF file, but there are many different subtypes that all have the .pdf extension but only the PDF/A subtype is meant for preservation. How do you know what the subtype is? Or even if the format has subtypes?

Caroline Arms and Carl Fleischhauer in their article “Digital Formats: Factors for Sustainability, Functionality, and Quality” pointed out that “Preservation of content in a given format is not feasible without an understanding of how the information is encoded as bits and bytes in digital files.” (p. 3). However, I would argue that for every information professional to understand how all digital files work is more than is really needed to preserve the information. A basic knowledge that some formats are better than others can be all that is needed in a professional environment, as the details of file formats can be found online if they are required.

Beginning Preservation

Hi, all. I’m in my last semester in the MLS program, unofficially focusing on Digital Curation and Special Collections. My interest in this course is due to studying art in undergrad and professionally creating visual effects for several years before I decided to study Library Science. I recently assisted in the creation of a digitization program at the library in which I work. The greatest challenge to that project was to explain the importance of following the current best practices, such as creating multiple file backups and fixity information. However, the program also needed to be manageable by individuals that are not very technology literate. The program was implemented with only minimal adherence to current preservation standards.

Throughout school, many of the articles that I’ve read about digital preservation start from the idea that the reader is already experienced with digital archiving practices and procedures and are only interested in what other institutions are doing or if the best practices have changed. Few are ever written with the aim of aiding an organization or individual begin their first digital project. Therefore, the reading that most interested me was the one that dealt with the NDSA Levels Chart, as it was most relevant to my current work.

In contrast, the Fino-Radin article only mentions the very technical steps that were followed and how they followed ‘the accepted best practices’, or why they went beyond those standard preservation practices. It also appeared that they were experienced managing similar data, so there was little research on how to achieve the goals of the project, which would have had value for someone with less experience archiving digital materials.

The NDSA article suggests that the different levels are things for the preservation efforts to strive for, instead of boxes that need to be checked off. The article also suggests that it is acceptable if the institution is only able to achieve the Level 1 standards, as not every institution is able to understand and meet the Level 4 standards, especially if they are starting their first digitization/preservation program or have little experience with digital media, in general.

It is refreshing to see that not every digital preservation effort needs to perfect right from the beginning, but that it can grow and expand over time to include the standards and practices that it was lacking.