The Three C’s of Digital Preservation: Contact, Context, Collaboration

Three big themes I will take from learning about digital preservation: every contact leaves a trace, context is crucial, and collaboration is the key.

“Every Contact leaves a trace”

Matt Kirschenbaum and an optical disk cartridge in 2013.
Matt Kirschenbaum and an optical disk cartridge in 2013.

Matt Kirschenbaum’s words (or at least his interpretation of Locard’s words) will stick with me for a long while.  That when we will look at a digital object for preservation, we need to consider what it is we are looking at, and know that what we see is not necessarily all that there is.  Behind the screen there is a hard drive, and on that hard drive are physical traces of that digital object.  There is a forensic and formal materiality to digital objects – what is actually going on in the mechanical/physical sense versus what we see and interpret from those mechanical processes as they are converted to digital outputs.  We cannot fall into the trap of screen essentialism – of only focusing on the digital object as it is shown on our screens, without taking into consideration the hardware, software, code, etc. that runs underneath it.  

Which leads into my next point, about platform studies.  I am really intrigued by this idea that as digital media progresses we are seeing layers and layers of platforms on top of platforms for any given digital object.  The google doc that I wrote this blog draft in is written using Google Drive (a platform), which is running on my Chrome browser (a platform), which is running on Windows 7 (a platform).  These platforms can be essential to run a particular digital object, and yet with platforms constantly obsolescing or upgrading or changing, these platforms cannot be relied upon to preserve all digital objects.  Especially since most platforms are proprietary and able to disappear in an instant.  For example, my Pottermore project was spurred by the fact that the original website (hosted on the Windows Azure platform as well as the Playstation Home) had vanished and was replaced with a newer version.  If I had more time I would have liked to further develop the project by exploring the natures of the different platforms used by Pottermore, like Windows Azure and Playstation Home, and how those platforms influenced the experience of the game.

Context is Crucial

If content is king, context is queen!
If content is king, context is queen!

There’s no use in saving everything about a digital object if we don’t have any context to go with it.  Future researchers who have access to the Pottermore website files can examine them thoroughly and still have no idea why Pottermore was so important.  For this reason it is important to capture the human experience with digital objects.  Whether using oral history techniques or dance performance preservation strategies, there need to be records that try to capture the experience of using the digital work.  This can include interviews with the creators, stories from the users, Let’s Play videos, the annotated “musical score” approach so that a work can be re-run in a different setting.

This is really what the Pottermore project was about: providing context to the website that is all but lost to us.  In case the game does reappear, there will not be materials like the Pottermore Wiki and the Let’s Play videos that can explain how the game was played.  Furthermore, it can help future researchers realize the sense of community of the Pottermore users, and why they reacted so negatively when the old website was replaced.

Collaboration is the Key

Pottermore was a collaboration of many different entities, including JKR, Sony, and Microsoft.
Pottermore was a collaboration of many different entities, including JKR, Sony, and Microsoft.

There are a number of roles played by different people in digital preservation, and these roles are conflating and overlapping.  The preservationist may be the user who is nostalgic for an old game and so creates an emulation program for it.  The artist may use feedback from the users and incorporate it into their next work.  The technological expertise of IT folk may need to be ascertained in order to understand how to best save some works – in what formats, in which storage devices, etc.  Archivists and librarians may be the fans themselves, contributing to the fanfiction community that they are trying to preserve.  With funding only getting tighter and tighter and the digital world growing more complex, collaboration is going to become essential for a lot of digital preservation projects.    

What next?

Best practices, next exit sign
We’ll get here eventually… right?

Of course this leaves us with many unanswered questions.  How do we balance out the roles of different experts? How do we match the large scale of digital works on a limited budget? How much context do we need to give a certain work? In almost all cases the answer is going to be “it depends.” But these are questions that I am excited to figure out as I go on in the field.  

Memory and Materiality: An Examination of Dear Photograph

On January 13, 2014, the Tumblr based blog, Dear Photograph reached 150,000 followers. Although the site has not been updated since last fall, its first three years of use provide a wealth of material I will use to examine how people interact with the past, form memories, and view materiality on the web. The blog of focus features digital photos taken by people of physical photos lined up with their original setting, with a caption beginning with “Dear photograph.” Meta right?

Here’s an example:


Dear Photograph,
Trafalgar Square 50 years ago and my Granny never looked happier! If my house was burning down, this would be the one possession I would be desperate to save. I miss so many things about my Granny but most of all I miss her beautiful smile.

This example combines a personal photograph and message and places it in a setting of historical significance.

Some of the other photos are inherently more personal, both in place and in subject:


Dear Photograph,
This is when I still had hair and my brother pooped himself.
We were happy, but we didn’t know it.

If you do a quick Google search for “dear photograph” you will find, beyond the actual site (and its manifestations on other social media platforms) a number of articles profiling the site and its owner/curator, Taylor Jones. None of these articles are very long or in depth. The articles focus on “New-age nostalgia” or “digital nostalgia” but few delve into the ideas of memory.

One of the few scholarly pieces that deals with memory, Dear Photograph, and that sets the frame for my study is “Remembering with Rephotography: A Social Practice for the Inventions of Memories” by Jason Kalin. This article briefly mentioned Dear Photograph as part of a larger set of websites involved in “rephotography,” or retaking the same photograph in the same place at a different time to show change. Kalin argues that the way we share digital photos on the web  and use rephotography changes the way we remember things. Its application in a digital social environment allows users to “follow in the footsteps of previous walkers while simultaneously making that walk their own, thus producing a collective text, a collective, public memory of place that responds to past, present, and future.” In essence, these images are not only a way of remembering the past but are a means to create new memories, in a dialogue more public than ever before. This study will build off Kalin’s ideas as well as the general literature about memory to examine how Dear Photograph in particular reveals the changing nature of memory in the digital environment.

A piece in the New Yorker demonstrates another side to Dear Photograph, saying that “the project is a powerful reminder that digital photos can’t ever quite duplicate how it feels to hold a timeworn, sun-bleached, wrinkled old family photo in your hand.” This sentence gets to the heart of ideas espoused by Matt Kirschenbaum in Mechanisms when he discusses how the digital is often associated as something inherently not physical. Dear Photograph represents a juxtaposition of the nostalgia for the materiality of analog photographs while putting these objects within the structure of the new media that replaced them. Looking at these ideas and those of memory outlined above, I question, do memory and materiality relate to one another? Is Dear Photograph an attempt to adapt the memories associated with tactile feel to the digital environment? Through the examination of the content of images and text in the posts of Dear Photograph, I hope to answer these questions and reveal how this platform relates to the way we form memories in the digital age.


Matthew Kirschenbaum is an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland.  He is also the associate director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, making him more than qualified to write Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination.

Mechanisms takes a new approach to studying new media and born-digital writing.  Kirschenbaum explores the contemporary by using case studies from earlier decades to show how technology has changed over time.  In the first chapter Kirschenbaum explains what he describes as ‘Forensic Materiality’ – which “rests upon the principle of individuality” – data leaves distinct marks that are used in computer forensics.  The second chapter is given over to storage technology, specifically, hard drives.  This makes the book unique in its field, as this is a topic that has not really been explored or written about until Mechanisms.  Kirschenbaum argues that it is essential to understand the hard drive in order to fully comprehend new media.

The third chapter focuses on, what Kirschenbaum labels, ‘Formal Materiality’ – “the impositions of multiple relational computational states on a date set of digital object” (9).  The example he gives for this is a digital media file, which contains multiple layers.  Using a walkthrough of the game, Mystery House, Kirschenbaum proves how Forensic Materiality and Formal Materiality complement each other.

Chapter four and five are similar to chapter three in that they use examples (Joyce’s Afternoon and Gibson’s Agrippa, respectively) to show how new media and electronic writing are changed, erased, repeated, and stored over time.  Using computer forensics, Kirschenbaum illustrates how the digital is more material than it may first appear.  It is a tangible thing whose layers can be peeled back despite that fact that we cannot touch the files.

The book is well written though I find it a bit dense.  I was slow in understanding what he meant by Forensic Materiality and Formal Materiality but with later chapters that included the walkthroughs, I was able to gain a better understanding.  This book was definitely written for an audience with some prior knowledge of the history of technology.

How do you think Kirschenbaum’s argument influences us to think differently about storage and born digital media?  Considering how deeply computer forensics can probe into a hard drive or other storage, what should remain private and what should be public?  What effect will this have on ethics?

I leave you with a quote: “Product and process, artifact and event, forensic and formal, awareness of the mechanism modulates inscription and transmission through the singularity of a digital present” (23).