What matters most and how do you make it last?

I found this week’s readings overwhelming. This is primarily because it not only drew on a lot of the themes we’ve covered in class so far, but for me, is really at the heart of what it means to be an information professional. The subject was preservation intent, authenticity and selection, which quite honestly, seemed like everything to me. It turns out this is all interrelated.

What does it mean to be authentic?

Bruner describes four meanings of authenticity – verisimilitude, genuineness, originality, and authority – using New Salem Historic Site, a reconstruction of the village where Abraham Lincoln lived in his 20s. I couldn’t help but think of our discussion of artifactual identity in one of our earlier classes since it referenced another historic site, Mount Vernon (Owens, 15-17). Using Bruner’s terminology, the Mount Vernon mansion is authentic because it is the original. According to its website, “restoration efforts aim to represent the estate as it appeared in 1799, the last year of George Washington’s life and the culmination of his designs for Mount Vernon.” This description conforms to Bruner’s idea of genuineness because the idea is that someone from the same period could believe it to be from that period.

Verisimilitude seems one step removed from genuineness. It may pass as believable for visitors, but it isn’t picture perfect. Bruner’s description of New Salem and Mount Vernon’s website include descriptions of modern-day conveniences for tourists and upkeep. Bruner describes gutters on the log cabins that would not have existed at the time, and Mount Vernon has accessible pathways for wheelchairs. Presumably both have bathrooms somewhere on the grounds.

Bruner’s last meaning refers to an authority that certifies something as authentic. For example, the State of Illinois has authority to approve New Salem Village as the official reconstructed site. 

So what’s an authentic digital object?

We’ve learned in class that “digital information is material.” (Owens, 34) Just like words on a page in a book, it’s written on something like a hard drive. However, as a storage medium, hard drives are much less reliable than books. In order to preserve a digital object, you have to transfer it to something stable and be ready to do it again before the storage conditions fail. This concept is outlined in the storage component of the Levels of  Digital Preservation which we read about in our first week of class. The idea then of an authentic digital object precludes Bruner’s third meaning of “original” because we won’t be able to open and use files under the exact same conditions on the same hardware forever.

So how close can we get to the original and what does that even mean? Last week we learned about platforms layers. Digital objects are constructed within a certain context related to several factors such as software, operating system, file formats, etc. When this context changes, it affects how the object appears to us if it can at all. In order then to recreate the object we have to consider what’s important about it and what parts of the object we need to hold onto that ideal. This brings us to the idea of preservation intent.

Owens presents several examples in our readings of preservation which speaks more to creating an authentic experience of the object, but in order to get there, you have to think about the aspects worth preserving. In one case, it might be the appearance recreated through a screen shot; in another, it might be worthwhile to emulate the platforms that were originally used in order to present an interactive experience.

However, you don’t necessarily have control over all aspects to recreate the experience faithfully. Owens uses one example in Grateful Med, a software interface for searching medical information. In order to recreate the experience of using Grateful Med, you would need to emulate all the platform layers required to run the software as well as preserve the external medical databases used. Because of all the variations in platforms involved, this approach was considered impracticable. Instead of preserving the software, preserving the tutorial  served to fulfill the preservation intent which was to captured how the software worked.

This reminded me our readings last week on Documenting Dancebecause it showed how an experience can be documented without being strictly representational. You don’t have to make a direct copy. You just have to drill down to what you think is important to remember.

Who decides what’s authentic?

Bruner’s last meaning of authenticity dealt with authority. I think this idea was captured in two of our readings – Preserving Social Media Records of Activism (Jules, 2015) and Expanding #ArchivesForBlackLives: Building a Community Archives of Police Violence in Cleveland (Drake, 2016). Both of these articles have to do with social media, but it’s also about who has historically had the authority to save or neglect the history of marginalized people? Drake especially tackles this head on and describes how alienating the archival profession has been for black people. Archivists don’t have a place in preserving this story unless they acknowledge complicity in maintaining the white patriarchal structure.

Social media has been described as a way to give voice to people to tell their own story, but it’s complicated by issues of privacy and ownership as well as a means to capture “authentically” an experience from what may amount to millions of different perspectives.

I have to digress a little here because my feelings about social media are complicated. As an information processional, it’s not my place to direct how the public creates records. It’s even questionable as whether it’s my place to preserve them. I have to say as my own opinion, I question the value of social media as a way of authentically preserving an experience. Jules acknowledges the limitations of Twitter, but I think there’s a suggestion that these limitations can be overcome, and I’m not sure I believe that. The essence of Twitter is after all a means of surveillance, not sneaky government surveillance but marketing. Owens gave the example of Documenting the Now, an effort to ethically collect and preserve social media content. I have to hope that if smart people are putting their heads together to ethically preserve this, then maybe they can come up with a better alternative to current social media platforms all together.

There was so much more in our readings with week so I’ll look forward to reading your impressions.

“To Thine Own Preservation Decisions Be True”; or Deepening the Impact of Intentionality

Our readings this week shifted us from a purely theoretical approach to digital objects and their preservation to a more practical application, albeit in a generalized sense. Much like how you must learn to walk before you can run, one must learn to appreciate the digital forest before attending to individual trees. An underlying principle, inherent in all good preservation practices but particularly emphasized here, is to interrogate and articulate the reasons behind your digital preservation aims. This idea has been percolating in our readings and discussions since day one, but this week’s readings reinforce the need for an agreed-upon sense of purpose before any action commences. As Owens highlights in his fifth chapter, this starts with understanding what is significant about the object you are trying to preserve and how it relates to your institutional aims. We saw how this might play out in practice in the article on the National Library of Australia’s preservation intent statements. The NLA defines its institutional purpose through accessibility and it leverages its preservation intent statements to make explicit decisions regarding its digital collections in those terms. As demonstrated in the article, writing a preservation statement can yield consensus and clarity to stakeholders as well as direct suitable preservation actions based on the digital collection’s unique significance and needs. In essence, a preservation statement of intent is the basis for a road map for good preservation and a key starting point for effective policies.

The need for intentionality in digital preservation cuts to a deeper theme in this week’s reading: what it means to render something as “authentic.” The articles this week sought to upend any assumptions we might hold as to what makes something authentic or inauthentic by pulling the binary rug out from under us. As Bruner’s article on New Salem highlights, authenticity is largely a product of cultural values which not only shift over time but build upon one another. Thus, what makes something authentic is a matter of perspective and cultural context. The multiple iterations and applications of authenticity in Stovel’s article likewise emphasize its contested nature. Stovel’s deep dive on the Nara document and subsequent declarations on authenticity from the world heritage sector cast authenticity as a conditional process and one with an evolving set of definitions and applications.

By deconstructing assumptions about authenticity, Stovel and Bruner’s articles force a reconceptualization of how authenticity might relate to other values like originality. To hijack one of Professor Owens’ examples, the multiple iterations of the game, Oregon Trail, demonstrates the variety of ways a digital object can claim authenticity. For me, an authentic version is the second edition run on a Windows 95 system. It’s the version I played most often as a kid on the operating system my parents had which makes it the one I immediately think of when someone mentions Oregon Trail. The fact that there are earlier and later versions of the game that run on different systems doesn’t make my version inauthentic (though some may argue that); it merely demonstrates the constructed nature of authenticity and the various ways it can manifest across digital systems.

This doesn’t mean that originality can’t exist in digital objects and that that might not have value. This is one of the more perplexing nuances for me. As someone used to thinking of digital objects in an abstract, informational form, it’s difficult to imagine that a singular document or e-mail would claim originality in the same way a manuscript does. This is compounded when you think of the role copies and transfers play in the creation of digital objects. Yet, as Yeo makes clear through his example of the John Poindexter email, “…there may be potentially ‘significant’ properties of originals that are not reproducible or can only survive copying in attenuated form. Originality itself may be significant and cannot be replicated.” We’ve seen that demonstrated in the ways that Salman Rushdie’s laptops revealed contextual information that made his files more informationally rich (not to mention the emotional value of being able to look at a device and say, “This is what was used to create x.”).

Pursuing intentionality in digital preservation also includes more scrupulous attention to transmitting and preserving the community context in which digital objects were generated. Three of our readings took a close look at the ways common archival practices silence or distort the views of marginalized communities and presented ways archivists could better engage with and empower these communities. Bergis’ blog post highlights how social media affords archivists the chance to capture a layer of dialogue surrounding historical events that has often been hidden in the archival record. Similarly, Drake’s post on archiving the Black Lives Matter movement and Shilton and Srinivasan’s article challenge archivists to rethink their approach to basic archival functions within record maintenance and services provided.

I think marrying these principles with the purpose of the preservation intent statement can more fully realize digital preservation. As we’ve learned throughout this semester, preservation can follow a variety of paths within the digital world. Thus, it is necessary to be intentional in mapping a preservation purpose to ensure that things get done and stakeholders are on the same page. Yet, these decisions are often done internally without consulting the community from which these objects came. In doing so, archivists aid in the silencing of minority voices. Critical contextual information about the object and its production is also often lost. By bringing community members into the archival process and leveraging their input, we can pursue a better form of authenticity in digital preservation that grounds the object in its contextual heritage. More importantly, we can help community members’ reclaim their authority over their own records and how those objects are presented and preserved.

I began this summary by stating that our readings this week were beginning to move us towards more practical applications but that the content itself was still generalizable. This, I think, will always be one of the key hang-ups when it comes to writing useful but broadly applicable texts for digital preservation. There seems to be so much variance in what forms a digital object can take and what aspects of it are important to preserve that writing with any specificity can create more blinders than illumination. Yet, perhaps an expanded approach is the best way to think about digital preservation. Imagining digital content beyond one aspect or function allows us to appreciate its potential more fully. In doing so, we can develop a preservation plan that speaks to more than just its surface level expressions but captures its complexity in meaningful ways.

To Preserve, You Must Understand

This week’s readings solidified what I see as a collector in the present day (being any librarian or archivist). You will need to understand digital objects and have the confidence necessary to handle them.

Understanding the objects

The need to understand how a digital object functions in the information is imperative for the current and future relevance of the field. As modern information professionals, we all will work with digital objects: ranging from the catalog record, to more complex digital files such as images, articles, and books. The Owens chapter clearly illustrated the minute mechanics of a digital object. (It reminded me of how large internet companies track your internet browsing and searching. It also made me think that this practice may not be as scary as the news has made it out to be.) He also explained the importance of understanding these details and using them to become better digital curators and managers of digital content. Basically, if we know what makes up a digital object, and how we can optimally organize those objects, we can better preserve our collections and provide access to the general public.

When considering physical collections, space is such a clear consideration. Physical items take up physical space. Digital items take up space in a similar, more abstract way. They take up virtual space. We, as digital information professionals would need to work to ensure that our digital objects take up as little space as possible without losing some of the quality necessary to consider the object to be the same.

Practice of preparing, preserving, and using digital objects

In the Chan article, prestigious design museums have begun cataloging and digitally preserving symbols that have become popularized as a digital form (such as the “@” symbol) as claim-able objects. The authors explain the need for a thought process and concept where something like the “@” symbol can be digitally claimed and preserved: “The larger issue facing design museums is that more and more of the products “made” by design practitioners now lack any form at all.” In traditional media, design objects would be fully physical, or at least more easily claim-able by an institution. Now, however, design objects are created and continue to live in a virtual space. Design creators have become unwilling or unable to fully contribute to the longlasting preservation of their work.

Alternately, this can also come in handy when digital forensics are needed. Kirschenbaum and team explain this process and the necessity for awareness of how digital objects could be used for forensics and larger problem solving. In the information professionals’ world, this is often accessing records on outdated and no-longer-used systems. They lay out three reasonable options for ensuring continued access to materials: migrate the files and save both the original and the manipulated files, retain or obtain the original systems required for the media, and create or use an emulation to show the material on modern systems as if it were on the original system.

Questions for the class

How do you think having an understanding of digital objects will help you when you go to consult with your small institution?

How might we (future information professionals) go about preserving these kinds of digital objects now that we understand their makeup and how they can be saved?

Understanding Digital Preservation Through Cake

When trying to understand this week’s readings together I could only think of one thing: cake. Maybe it’s all the baking competition shows I’ve been watching, but I’ve got cake on the brain.

This metaphor first came to mind when reading “Digital Curation as Communication Mediation.” In one of the examples of the encoding of digital information, an email is sent between two people and the information passes through different layers to be able to be sent, going from the layer that we see, all the way down to the individual bits, then back up to a level that is interpretable by people, mediated through a screen. That can obviously be applied to a cake metaphor, with each layer of the cake as a different layer of digital media. But it can go so much further than this.

I first read Trevor’s chapter to get a handle on this week’s topic and quickly realized that it would be a more technical week than the past few. Not that OAIS flow charts aren’t technical, but that’s a kind of technical that I can understand. Enter the cake metaphor! We always think of digital media as being something that isn’t tangible, it most definitely is. Even a picture of a cake is still a representation of a physical cake and how we see that image of a cake on a screen is the result of very physical processes on a hard drive or other sort of storage media; a cake that is stored in the cloud is still stored in some sort of server farm in the middle of Nebraska. We can’t understand the cake just by looking at it, we have to taste it and look at all of its layers to understand it. To preserve just the image of the cake is artifactual preservation, while trying to recreate its taste and look is informational and represents an interaction with the original cake. Both of these are ways to represent the cake, just from wholly different perspectives.

How then can we extend the cake metaphor to Digital Forensics? Well, it’s the same sort of layer phenomenon described in “Digital Curation.” When investigating digital material, it is important to understand all of the layers of the cake, not just the outside. The outside is how the digital material looks on a screen or on its outermost layer, but that may not be everything and only looking at the layers can confirm or deny that. (Explained without the cake on page 8 of “Digital Forensics”). Of course, unlike with cake, you have to be able to read the data on each layer which may be complicated through obsolete technology. Think about tasting cake without being able to taste or smell; you know it is cake, but not what kind. Knowing what kind of cake is important for the cake preservers because you can’t write a finding aid for the cake without knowing what it is. You then have to confirm that how you understood the cake layers is how they originally were, making sure that people trust you, the cake preserver. This could be done through documenting the cake (or the digital object if we don’t think in the metaphor) when it first arrived and passed through all of the different people before it arrived at the cake repository. It gets stickier with digital objects because it is harder to tell if the object has been edited or changed (especially with date and time metadata). The only thing that can be done in this sort of situation is to give as much information as possible. Of course if the donator of the cake does not want the cake to be completely investigated then as much preservation work that is possible must be done, but without violating the donor’s trust.

This brings up a lot of the discussion that we had last week about not violating a donor’s wishes when it came to their digital and how to not violate their trust. Instead of having a deeper understanding through these readings, I’m still not sure – other than trying to get the agreement as clear as possible. Does anyone else have a real answer to the question of donor relations with digital objects after this week’s readings?

When looking to preserve this digital object (or the cake), how the object is going to be used determines how it should get preserved. Is the information the most important part? If it just needs to look the same, put it in a stable format and store it forever. Like a cake made out of styrofoam, it gives the same visual information but does not have all of the underlying layers but it will last longer. Is it important for the researcher to have the whole view of the object and all of its layers? Then the cake needs to be replicated in a more stable form, but with its layers intact. Instead of being run through an emulator, the digital object is held on a piece of legacy hardware or one of the Rosetta Stone computers, or is copied into a different file form that still has the same physical presence of the original cake. Both of these methods preserve the cake, just in different ways. What the cake metaphor does help with is understanding that if there are going to be layers, most of them have to be there for it to be a cake. An object is not solely its metadata, the rest of the object has to be there as well.

Neither form of preservation advocates for leaving the digital object un-investigated. In “Towards a Grammatology of the Hard Drive” Kirschenbaum is against the notion of the hard drive as a black box into which we shovel data. The hard drive represents a very physical way of understanding how our data is stored and the limitations of that storage (even as it appears that we will be able to save everything in the next few years). Not (metaphorically) breaking the hard drive apart to study and understand it is like leaving the cake uncut; you don’t see the layers and you don’t completely understand the media or the data encoded on it until you can see the layers. This then creates problems with digital preservation because a repository made need the data preserved with all of its layers and the preserver (who doesn’t crack it open) is just handing back a styrofoam replica of an object that needs full functionality.

Styrofoam, despite its negative connotations, is not a bad way to store a representation of a cake but it doesn’t retain the information that may need to be accessible to fully understand the object. I don’t know enough about digital objects at this point to know if a representation of something (like the captures of the websites preserved by the Library of Congress or the Internet Archive) can have enough functionality to still be used in a similar way. There still is no one way to preserve a digital object and maybe styrofoam works better than I realize.

digital objects and determining value

This week’s readings were widespread in their content and at times had me feeling a bit at sea with the detailed descriptions of hard drive technology, digital forensics, file formats, etc. (There’s nothing like reading these kinds of things to remind me that I’m nowhere near as technologically proficient as I’d like to think.) I’m grateful for Prof. Owens’ book since it describes digital media and their structures in an accessible, understandable way. I’ll briefly recap his three key points laid out in chapter two, since I saw these ideas echoed throughout the other readings.
1. “All digital information is material.”
Such a basic fact, and yet (as the book mentions) I generally think of my personal digital files in abstract terms, like being lost “in the cloud” or behind this mysterious wall, because my technological know-how is limited.
2. The logic of digital media and computational systems is “the logic of database.”
People interact with digital objects much differently than they engage with analog media. Since databases are ordered based on the query asked of them, digital information can and will always be presented in a myriad of arrangements.
3. “Digital systems are platforms layered on top of each other.”
This one took me a little longer to understand, but I take it to mean that every digital object has multiple informational layers which people are often unaware of. Depending on what someone is studying or looking for, they are going to care about preserving certain layers of the object over others. And these layers are often interdependent on each other.

While reading, I kept thinking of how much we take for granted as we use all of our various devices to function in the world, and the enormous amounts of data and media that will be left behind once we are gone. This quote from the Kirschenbaum article sums up my questions perfectly: “ […] how do these accumulations, these massive drifts of data, interact with irreducible reality of lived experience?” Within the digital preservation field, how do we reconcile that tension between the materiality of our digital footprints and the ephemeral, intangible stuff of life? I’m personally not convinced that you can fully capture someone’s working or personal environment through their digital papers, even with emulation of their computer (thinking of the Salman Rushdie anecdote from the Digital Forensics report). Or even from an ethical standpoint that it’s always advisable. How do we know what digital information is worth saving or recovering, and who deserves access to it?

As the Digital Forensics report points out, it is not immediately clear what digital items are going to have historical or cultural value in the future, making it harder to know what to preserve. And then how can professionals adequately preserve relationships between different items, events, and media (a random aside–the Jackson Citizen Patriot is my hometown’s newspaper. I did a big double take when I read about the photo of the snowmobilers’ accident and its significance.)? This reminded me of our conversation last week about authorial intent, as well. If a creator doesn’t wish for their entire digital footprint to be saved indefinitely (or saved at all), but there is potential cultural value to their information, whose concerns are prioritized? I have a lot of mixed feelings about this. As mentioned before, Trump would love to cover his tracks–he tries daily, either by literally tearing up memos or obfuscating and lying. But the office of the Presidency is bound by laws that prevent this (or try to), and I doubt anyone would argue that these records are not necessary for future generations. Perhaps the question should be, at what point does a person become so culturally or historically influential that their wishes about their data are overridden by other, more pressing concerns?

The Chan & Cope article address these questions from an institutional standpoint. As a museum studies student I was both fascinated by their argument and struggled with it. I definitely like “the stuff” of museums. While I visit museums to be engaged and to relax, oftentimes what draws me to an exhibit (particularly art museums) is a particular piece or an artist whose works I love. I agree with Chan & Cope that collection strategies should serve a different purpose today; there should be a real intention behind acquisition that goes beyond prestige or hoarding mentality.

However, I’m not quite convinced that a “post-objects curatorial practice” is the natural solution. And is it really “post-objects” if a museum instead exhibits the contextual documents surrounding a systems design? The piece that was missing for me was, does a “post-objects” approach reflect the needs of a museum’s community? Collecting a contemporary, provocative item (digital or analog) might generate a lot of buzz, but will it mean something to the average museum-goer beyond taking a selfie with said object? Relevance isn’t necessarily about what’s trending in the moment (btw, The Art of Relevance, a book by Nina Simon, is an excellent read that explores this topic in the museum field in depth).

I realize I have more questions than definitive ideas or opinions in this post. Interested to share more thoughts and discussion with everyone in the week to come!