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.