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 Documents. In 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 Materials. The 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.