“But That’s Not Preservation!” Notes on Preservation’s Divergent Lineages

I’ve found that interdisciplinary dialog about digital preservation often breaks down when someone protests “but that’s not preservation.”

Preservation means a lot of different things in different contexts. Each of those contexts has it’s own history. Those histories are tied up in the changing nature of the mediums and objects for which each conception of preservation and conservation was developed. All to often, discussions of digital preservation start by contrasting digital media to analog media.  This contrast forces a series of false dichotomies. I’m feeling like better understanding a bit about the divergent lineages of preservation could help to establish the range of competing notions at play in defining what is and isn’t preservation.

I’m curious to start building out some of my understanding of the lineages of different kinds of preservation. So I would love if folks could share any examples of writing in this area that might be helpful. I think a lot of this context looks to be in something like Preserving our Heritage: Perspectives from Antiquity to the Digital Age (which I am still digging into.) However, I also think the story is even broader here, and that there is a media archaeology aspect that is missing. That is, my sense is that a series of old new media; like photography, film and recorded sound technologies have been interacting with ideas about what preservation is or should be for more than a century. 

What follows is not so much a coherent final product as it is me openly sharing some of my notes on different strands I see at play in this space.

  • The manuscript tradition: A situation where the allographic nature of a work is primary what matters, that something is the work if it has the same spelling and where copying is the basis of preservation. In this case, something like the Evolution of Manuscript Traditions could be useful.
  • The history of archival traditions: In this case, something like What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas Since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift is useful. Also, publishing records in documentary editions vs. arranging and describing records and ideally a bit on the interventions that came with microfilming. That is, while we generally think of archives as holding unique and original records in this space there is a lengthy tradition of documentary edition work focused on publishing records and a history of photographic reproduction of records for both access and preservation purposes.
  • The history of art conservation and restoration: For example, Changing Approaches in Art Conservation: 1925 to the Present. I’ve seen a lot on the history of conservation of things like paintings. However, the history of the development of variable media art works, art installations, and works made of materials that rapidly deteriorate has resulted in very smart thinking about what it is about art works one wants to conserve. In this space, Re-collection Art, New Media, and Social Memory,
  • Preservation of dance and live performance:  There are, at this point, long standing traditions in how to preserve and document works of art that produce lived experience. In this space, the Dance Heritage Coalition‘s Documenting Dance: A Practical Guide nicely illustrates the continuity that exists between a variety of modes of documentation technologies, from textual notation, to moving image technologies to new digital methods like motion capture.
  • The history of conservation of living creatures: Everything from taxidermy and insect collecting to living collections like butterfly gardens and zoos as well as things the Svalbad Global Seed Vault. I don’t really have good resources on the history and theory here. Thinking about digging into some history of science journals. In any event, I think there is an interesting story about which techniques are intended for what purposes and what is significant about a living thing that must be preserved toward that particular purpose. That is, when and why do you pin and preserve butterflies as a collection and when and why would you choose to run a butterfly garden. So looking for any ideas folks might have for work in this space.
  • The development of historic preservation of the built environment: I know some good stuff here, like Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States. In this case, it’s interesting to me that some newer technologies like photogrammetry  or 3D point cloud technologies are being explored as ways to “digitize” or create recordings to preserve and document physical spaces. I find historic preservation particularly interesting in that it often focuses on turning back the clock on a particular building to make it appear as it was at a particular moment in time. In this vein, it can involve recreation and fabrication. Similarly, historic preservation connects in interesting ways to reenactment and living history. In this space, I am a huge fan of Abraham Lincoln as Authentic Reproduction: A Critique of Postmodernism which explores fascinating sets of issues around authenticity in the New Salem Historic reconstructed village and outdoor museum in Illinois.
  • The advent of recorded sound technology and the development of oral history: There is some good stuff on recorded sound technology in Gramaphone, Typewriter, Film and MP3 the Meaning of a Format but they aren’t really explicitly about oral history. In contrast, The History of Oral History isn’t so much focused on the role that recorded sound media have played in the history of oral history. The Media Archaeology work points to how our conceptions of “memory” have themselves been shaped by the advent of these new technologies. That was said of Edison’s phonograph “Speech has become, as it were, immortal” or as an article on Memory and the Phonograph from 1880 would “define the brain as an infinitely perfected phonograph”.
  • The development of photography and microfilming and preservation reformatting: There is some good stuff on this in Lisa Gitelman’s  Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of DocumentsIn particular, discussion on the work of the “Joint Committee on Enlargement, Improvement and Preservation of Data” a joint effort of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council. Which ended up publishing Robert Binkley’s 1931 Manual on Methods of Reproducing Research MaterialsThe book is, to some extent particularly interesting in that it is a cover-page over a photo-offset printing of a type-written manuscript. To this end, the book itself illustrates how changes in the technologies for photo-duplication of documents was effecting access to documents.
  • The history of newspaper conservation: Closely related to the last point, the push to microfilm newsprint based on some of it’s inherent vices. While Double Fold is over the top, it did prompt some really great reactions, like Don’t Fold Up: Responding to Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold 
  • Scientific data and records of observations: Astronomers draw on records of observations of the motion of celestial objects dating back to the ancient world. Lorraine Daston’s “Sciences of the Archives” research group has produced some facilitating work in this vein. I like how this quote from Datson’s research group captures the continuity that exists in these traditions which bridges analog and digital practices and incorporates other new media like photography. “Since ancient times, cultures dispersed across the globe have launched monumental data-centered projects: the massive collections of astronomical observations in ancient China and Mesopotamia, the great libraries from Alexandria to Google Book Search, the vast networks of scientific surveillance of the world’s oceans and atmosphere, the mapping of every nook and cranny of heaven and earth.” They have a great 2012 paper in Osiris that works through this in more depth.

So in all these contexts, I think a few preliminary points start to emerge that I keep thinking about.

  1. Preservation’s meaning is contextual and tradition dependent: As a concept, preservation  has situated meanings in particular traditions and contexts so it’s important to really articulate what one means by the term and what traditions one is drawing on. In this vein, the different traditions have emerged in dialog with the development of media and have their own ideas of what is significant about objects for their use.
  2. Digital vs. Analog Preservation is a false dichotomy: There were already a lot of divergent ideas of what preservation meant in play before digital technology came in to play. In this vein, the intervention of digital technology is just one of a series of technological interventions which has disrupted preservation practices and traditions.
  3. New media is older than digital media: Related to the last point, various media/ technologies of reproduction (and their affordances) have had significant impacts on the traces of the past that can be created and our ability to preserve them. In this vein, scholarship in Media Archaeology focused on reinterpreting and understanding these old new media is likely of considerable value for unpacking those impacts.

So those are some working thoughts and rough notes. Curious and interested for 1) other resources you think are relevant in some of these areas 2) other ways of slicing and characterizing these points 3) other ideas about what the take aways are.


11 Replies to ““But That’s Not Preservation!” Notes on Preservation’s Divergent Lineages”

  1. A great start on an interesting and useful topic! Two other points you might consider adding to your preliminary conclusions:

    4. Preservation expectations vary by institution and even by job within an institution. In an example of variation among institutions, one of van Gogh’s letters to his brother might be a collection highlight and hence preservation priority for an archive, but in a museum that letter would never be as important as a painting by the artist. In an example of variation within an institution, in my experience many museum curators and registrars naively think conservation means protecting the original from change, whereas working conservators recognize that change is inevitable and must choose which aspect to change so that others can remain constant.

    5. The digital era has increasingly forced connections between the disparate preservation traditions you cite. For example, recent research on DNA storage achieves the goals of the allographic manuscript tradition using techniques from studying how living creatures persist. 3D digitization and rendering, meanwhile, have become a preservation technique being explored rather independently in fields such as performance, gaming, sculpture, and architecture.

    I’m not sure if it qualifies as a different tradition, but the context in which I am most likely to hear “That’s not preservation!” is when discussing remix culture. Personally I think we can’t ignore this powerful engine for preservation, from filmmaker Ken Jacobs’ re-use of 1905 paper prints from the copyright depository to social media’s recycling and recirculation of memes from the 1980s for a new generation. I believe this dynamic of promiscuous preservation echos indigenous modes of cultural transmission, which I would also recommend adding to your list of preservation traditions.


    1. These are great! I completely agree re:Remix culture too as one of the biggest points someone would say “That’s not preservation.” That is one of the things I like most about Re-Collection. That you guys push rather hard for thinking about the re-implementation and re-staging concepts as part of preservation. Which makes me realize that there is a whole other tradition of preservation that I left out: Folklore and folkways. In those cases, repetition and variation are expected to be part of the fabric of what constitutes folklore. This is itself not totally unlike the manuscript tradition, in which a lot of scholarship is focused on exploring where variance enters the tradition and tracing back through those variances to get a sense of what might have been original. Jason Eppink brought up some great points in this regard when I talked with him about his animated GIFs exhibit. That, while someone could be interested in finding the first instance of when a particular animated GIF was created (which sites like Know Your Meme do) but that from a vernacular perspective, something reaching the level of being a gesture is far more interesting and in that vein understanding and preserving how an idea circulates and varies is far more important.

      1. That’s an interesting conversation about reaction GIFs. I can see that it can be difficult to ascertain the pedigree of a particular GIF, but it doesn’t have to be that way. A student of mine built a museum in Second Life devoted to tracking how quotidian objects like a guitar evolved–made easier by the fact that (as I am told) SL users can fork objects and improve them, leaving a trail back to the original. My understanding is that some artists have been endeavoring to do the same with blockchains for digital art remixes.

        To support such a family history, the Open Art license explicitly requires “registration” of a remix back in the community where you found the original. The goal is to re-attach a social context for remixes, since despite their other virtues Creative Commons licenses permit a completely detached social dynamic.

  2. Great piece, Trevor.

    Needless to say, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t weigh in with my favorite example, Gibson, et. al’s Agrippa. Among much else, Agrippa teaches us that lots of copies really *do* keep stuff safe. Sometimes the best thing to do *is* to upload and let the network take care of the rest (cf. also Wikileaks, etc.)

    Moreover, Kari Kraus and Rachel Donahue make the superb point that it was the circulation of a very lo-fi (if you will) version of artifact in the form of its plain ASCII text that sustained a community of interest that–eventually–allowed for the recovery and reconstruction of a much more complete and capacious record of the artifact:


    So preservation is not *just* about staving off the inevitable degradation of the original signal: sometimes the signal loops back and can be boosted in unexpected ways.

  3. Thanks for this, Trevor! I echo Sarah Werner’s recommendation (via Twitter) of Diana Taylor’s The Archive & the Repertoire; it’s great for thinking about the preservation of embodied and performance-based culture. And I’d like to supplement Jon’s #4, above, with an acknowledgment that preservation agendas are also often driven by nationalist agendas — e.g., making land claims or strategically constructing particular cultural lineages. There’s a lot of material about this in archaeology and historic preservation. But those politics play out an ontological level, too: determining what gets preserved, and how, means creating all kinds of nested infrastructures that shape cultural policy and inform *ongoing* cultural production. Conversely, I think it’s also really instructive to think about what *defies* preservation — or what *shouldn’t* be preserved, and what ethical or political-economic considerations drive those decisions. A lot can be learned from ephemeral art practices, or various political or cultural (particularly religious) restrictions on recording-making and -keeping.

    And in regard to your point about media archaeology: our recording media do a lot of that ontological work I referenced above. By looking at media as “signal-recording” and -preserving devices, for instance, Ernst reminds us that the media and tools we use to preserve inform what it is that we think we’re preserving.

    And speaking of the tools of preservation, I’ve read a couple recent articles that pose some really interesting articles about what, exactly, we think we’er preserving:

    On the restoration of Harvard’s Rothko murals [paywall]: https://artforum.com/inprint/issue=201506&id=52269

    On digital archaeology + recreation of the Palmyra arch (I focus on this in the conclusion to my new book!): http://hyperallergic.com/292006/whats-the-value-of-recreating-the-palmyra-arch-with-digital-technology/

    On Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film [also paywalled!]: https://artforum.com/inprint/issue=201603&id=58105

    1. Great points! The ideological and nationalist points are something in particular that I should keep chewing on. It reminds me of two pieces I’ve really enjoyed.

      In Roma Sparita: Local Identity, Memory and Modernity in Fascist Rome Joshua Arthers makes a compelling case that, preservation can be part of making something historical, and thus moving it out of the present. -> “We are accustomed to the notion that museums evoke or reanimate the past, that their presentation of material culture offers the opportunity to experience history in a tangible, immediate fashion.However, they are also capable of performing the converse function, of consigning the present to history and establishing distance – physical, temporal, emotional –between persons and objects.” Those points come through in a lot of the more place based discussions of preservation (ex, essays in Myth, Memory and the Making of the American Landscape ) but I think you’re right in underscoring that at least at the ontological level they are very much a part of all of these traditions around preservation.

  4. Great piece. Just wanted to walk over my refs from Twitter. I think it might be helpful to introduce a category for philosophical/ethical dimensions of preservation.

    Some of the following might be a good fit in this vein:

    – Pretty much everything Witness does, particularly work with communities to capture and preserve content that maintains evidentiary qualities while protecting identity of capturer + captured

    – Mukurtu

    – Right to be forgotten https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/apr/14/european-parliament-approve-tougher-data-privacy-rules

    – Recent work by Luciano Floridi

    1. Thanks for walking the links from your tweets over 🙂 All good stuff. Familiar with some of this but not all. Will check um out!

  5. Trevor —

    Very nice approach to the diverse traditions of preservation, and I agree with John that oral traditions as longstanding technique for the preservation of knowledge and information must factor into this. I also cannot help but focus on the “what” of preservation – not just the “who” and the “why”. As John mentioned earlier, certainly the “who”, “what”, “when”, “why”, “with what”, and “for how long” of each preservation event most certainly affects the outcome and leads to a continual difference in practice. I don’t see how it can be any other way. In my work, when beginning a new preservation project with a partner, the first and most important question is always, “what are your goals for preservation?” Because one cannot assume that the goals will always be the same.

    Another thing that your thoughts provoked in me is the question of “time” — the temporal nature of preservation – the fact that a thing is never preserved, only in the process of being preserved. It is in that process that time plays a role. For example, in 2003, I was tasked with the digitization of some of Alan Lomax’s 1/4″ audio tapes as a “preservation” activity. (With magnetic audiovisual materials, most agree that the only true method of preservation includes digitization.) We digitized the tapes, 24/96 WAV, best practice then and now, and those files have been managed over the past 13 years and still exist today. And, the tapes themselves still exist today. In actuality, for each of those tapes, today there exists: 7 copies of the master WAV files, 6 copies of surrogate MP3s (one copy of which is available online to the public: http://research.culturalequity.org/home-audio.jsp), one 15 IPS 10″ preservation tape copy, and the original 7.5 IPS 7″ reel-to-reel tape. That’s a lot of copies. And for 13 years, each copy has had its own trajectory. There are probably more copies, but those are the ones I know of. So, my question is, when did/does preservation happen? Is it always happening? Is preservation inherently tied to human activity? Which, of the many copies and the original, is the most important instance? Which point in the last 13 years is the most “authentic” moment in the history of the content, in its preservation? What about the day the sounds were recorded onto the tape in 1959 by Lomax and the musicians he was recording? What about the 44 years between when the sounds were recorded and when I was tasked to digitize them? In all of this there is a lot of time. I find that to be important, but I have yet to articulate why and how it matters.

    Regarding ethical side of preservation, I also think about language and how the Summer Institute of Linguistics (http://www.sil.org/), especially in the 1960s/1970s, did a great deal of work recording and getting documentation of dying languages, and the Rosetta Project, in contemporary times, has worked hard to make language documentation available to the public.

    Thanks for the prompt, Trevor, and for keeping these kinds of conversations alive.


  6. Trevor, wonderful analysis of divergent lineages and languages of preservation.

    I wonder whether you should look at the formal standards as well (ISO 16363, ISO 15489, PD5454, PAS198, IETF RFCs etc.) particularly to understand, through normative references to external domains, how particular communities situate themselves within the broader landscape (even within the divergence of the various ISO TCs / WGs…)

    You could even derive a graph of interdependencies built from these references (including a time dimension, from revisions/updates) to show interdisciplinary communications and degrees of preservation focus (taking the PDF example and development of PDF/A – did the /A WG introduce new references to other standards, thereby linking new communities into the preservation conversation; did the availability of /A change how preservation standards reference their domain, etc.)

    Just being conscious that not all conversations about preservation will be branded as such, nor necessarily led by practice in a community which identifies its primary purpose as being about preservation…

    Thanks for writing this, as someone who has observed the divergence of narrative across fields, it is interesting to consider their alignment. Especially as institutional narratives, such as business cases for infrastructure, often cross these boundaries – e.g. preservation capacity for corporate records and research data as part of the same service offer.

    The SPRUCE project tried to synthesise some of this a few years ago in the form of a toolkit articulating digital preservation benefits to an organisation (rather than a scholarly/historical discourse): http://wiki.dpconline.org/index.php?title=Benefits

    More work understanding these psychological orientations towards preservation can only help investment and sustainability, and identify how research, practice, and open-source/market technologies are interdependent.

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