How You Can Help Launch a Digital Preservation Q&A Site

Stack Exchange Q&A site proposal: Digital PreservationTL;DR- Please consider clicking the commit button for the proposed site. The biggest hurdle is getting people who already participate in stack exchange sites to commit, here are three ways you can help with that.

1) If you have over 200+ rep on any stack exchange site we really need you, please commit.

2) If you don’t, consider answering, asking and commenting on any one of the 80 some stack exchange sites that relate to your other interests.  It won’t take long to get 200 rep and you will learn about the system. After answering and asking two questions on the Academia site I had more than two-hundred rep.

3) Please send a link to the proposal out to others in your organization or email lists that you are on. In particular, please share this with groups of folks at your org likely to have participated in stack exchange sites, like software developers, system administrators, and folks in the sciences who you think might be interested

Now for some Background on this Idea

A few of my colleagues at a range of different national and international organizations working on digital preservation have put together a proposal for a new Stack Exchange question and answer site focused on Digital Preservation. You can see the initial definition for the site below.

At different conferences, and different projects I’m associated with I keep hearing a lot of the same kinds of questions. I feel like there should be a place where I can point folks to a solid Q&A knowledge base. While there is an abundance of good research on digital preservation, great standards documents, and a range of different levels of solid technical guidance there isn’t really a place to go where you can ask and find answers to the kinds of straightforward questions seen below.

Why Stack Exchange?

I’ve talked with folks about starting our own site, like what DH Answers did. However, in further discussion we thought it would be better to first try and see if we could get something started through the Stack Exchange process. Here are some reasons to do this thorough Stack Exchange.

  1. Built in network effects:  Many of the existing stack exchange sites, while very distinct from digital preservation, have people who overlap between them. Being on Stack Exchange means being in an integrated network of sites that others already participate in.
  2. Open Data Dumps and CC-BY Knowledge:  Importantly, all the content of Stack Exchange sites is open data in several levels. We can take it, move it, share it and build from it.
  3. Not having to support technical infrastructure is nice: Stack Exchange has a dedicated staff working on refining and enhancing their platform, so the folks who want to participate can focus on the Q&A.
  4. Outreach and Big Tent Digital Preservation:  Promoting the proposal is a chance to reach out to members of other professional and technical communities to raise awareness of digital preservation. Further, if the site is launched, being part of Stack Exchange’s network would help to generate more traffic to discussions and could help lead to a broader base of digital preservation professionals.
  5. The process of proposing the site helps conceptualize it: I already think of this as a win. Just the existing prioritized list of questions that folks have is a great resource in and of its self. Even if the proposal fails and we end up needing to think about standing up our own Q&A site the process we went through on Stack Exchange will be helpful.
  6. Getting some seasoned Stack Exchange folks involved will help digital preservationists cut their teeth on best practices for participating in Q&A sites: There is an art to composing good questions and a related art to composing good answers. Getting some seasoned Stack Exchange folks in the mix would be helpful in getting us to do this in the best and most useful way.

Background on Stack Exchange

For anyone unfamiliar with Stack Exchange their about page is a nice quick read. I’ve copied some of their info below to give a bit of context for how they describe themselves.

Stack Exchange is a growing network of individual communities, each dedicated to serving experts in a specific field. We build libraries of high-quality questions and answers, focused on each community’s area of expertise. From programmers sharing answers on parsing HTML, to researchers seeking solutions to combinatorial problems, to photographers exposing lighting techniques, our communities are built by and for those best able to define them: the experts and enthusiasts.

Other ideas? Places to Reach Out To?

If you have some other ideas for how to make this happen I want to hear them! Are there other groups to contact? I bet there are, share your ideas in the comments and I will follow up with them, or just take the lead and go contact some folks yourself.

The New Aesthetic and the Artifactual Digital Object

I’ve had a lot of fun following The New Aesthetic and I think there are some neat parts of this that relate to digital preservation.  If you haven’t seen much on this neologism, the post colon part of the recent SXSW talk is a bit more explanatory, The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices. For further reading I would suggest this, this, or this. In my work on digital preservation I tend to spend a good bit of time thinking about digital objects, and there are a few points of connection between that I wanted to spend a moment teasing out.

The part of the New Aesthetic that I am excited about is the recognition that the digital is fundamentally artifactual, not simply informational and that the formal and forensic materiality of digital and material objects leaves traces that offer potential for aesthetic, interpretive, and potential evidentiary provocation. The characteristics of mediums, of processes, of interfaces are all offering this potential.

Digitization is an Act of Artifact Creation Not of Information Translation

People (quite justifiably) love to get in a huff about poor scans in google books.  We are losing considerable informational qualities of the books in the poor scans, or poorly processed scans. With that said, the information translation part of the project is only part of what is happening. The Art of Google Books does a great job at getting us to think about the artifactual qualities of the newly created digital objects and the process through which they were created. I find it particularly amusing that we use the term “artifact” in computing, in the sense of compression artifact to generally signal a failure to represent the thing. The New Aesthetic can be a way to think about those artifacts not as defects, but as an aesthetic in and of themselves.

Consider, “Image mistaken as the finger of an employee, with attempted autocorrect.” The piexlated section of the image that is removed tells us a bit about how the algorithm sees the image. We can try and fill in the gaps with our mind and think about what it was about this particular illustration that made Google think that he was a finger that should be removed.

Similarly, a “Black-and-white frontispiece photographed in color and through tissue” creates fundementaly different ways of seeing the black and white image. The accidentally colored in image looks great, and in the context of a black and white book is completely unexpected. The ghostly image through the tissue paper almost looks like a kind of static problem in the scanning process, but in context we know that we are actually seeing an attempt to scan through tissue paper. What is one supposed to do to digitize tissue paper? In both cases, we are reminded that digitization is not simply copying information, that through digitization we can see the pages of the book through different physical and computational processes.


Reading the Products of Reading Machines

Similarly, as our devices further bring our ability to read the world, to layer information on top of the world, the products of that layering can also be captured and reflected on.

So when I used Word Lens to attempt to translate things it shouldn’t translate  I ended up learning about both how WordLens sees and found serendipitous reinterpretations of texts and environments. So Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism from translated from Spanish (a language it is not in) became Reading Machetes. Personally, I think reading machetes is a perfectly serviceable alternate title for the book.  The image capture of that moment sort of captures part of the meaning of the book. We are now reading a text with a machine that is about reading and deforming texts with machines.

What is particularly fun about Word Lens is that it can even read non-text. For example, here is Word Lens attempting to read the mirrors above the mantel in my living room. What exactly is it that describes the grape? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that when you flip Word Lens on, turn it to the “wrong” setting and walk around the world you start to see how it sees. You start to see that you can get rows of square things to be read as text, and you start to be able to guess how it might read.

The Authenticity of Performing Music on the Gameboy

There is also something here about the recursive loop wherein particular computing devices, like game boys, become imbued with an authenticity. A really strange kind of authenticity. For example, when people compose chiptunes on Little Sound DJ on gameboys they are using the actual physical device to create the sound, but at the same time using a program that is not something from the era of the gameboy. While you can emulate the device, we end up wanting to see the video of the performance on the gameboy to really know that it was actually played on the gameboy.

I’m just excited to see these kinds of things being herded together, and optimistic that it is part of a broader move toward thinking about and playing with the thingy-ness of things.