First 3 Chapters of Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation for Comment

As I mentioned in December, I’m working on a book called The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation for Johns Hopkins University Press. For an overview of the book go read that post.

At this point I have a full working rough draft of the book together and I’m getting to a point where it could really benefit from readers input and insights. To that end, I’m posting drafts of the first three chapters up as Google Docs which you should be able to comment on and suggest edits to. When I’ve posted drafts of essays like this in the past I’ve received fantastic comments that has helped me refine both my writing and my thinking. So now we will see if the same kind of thing works for a book.

I’m interested in any and all feedback and input, however, I’m particularly interested in any suggestions for work that I should be citing from women, people of color, and people from the majority world.  Much of the digital preservation and digital media studies literature I’m drawing from is (like many fields) very white, very male and U.S/Eurocentric and I’d like to be working against that not reinforcing it.

So with that context, I’ve provided links to each chapter below and a bit of context for each chapter from the book proposal. My plan is to work through all the comments I get in early March.

Ch 1: Artifact, Information, or Folklore: Preservation’s Divergent Lineages

Interdisciplinary dialog about digital preservation often breaks down when an individual begins to protest “but that’s not preservation.” Preservation means a lot of different things in different contexts. Each of those contexts has a 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. Understanding a bit about the divergent lineages of preservation helps to establish the range of competing notions at play in defining what is and isn’t preservation.

Building on work in media archeology, this chapter establishes that digital media and digital information should not be understood as a rupture with an analog past, Instead, digital media should be understood as part of a continual process of remediation embedded in the development of a range of new mediums which afford distinct communication and preservation potential. Understanding these contexts and meanings of preservation establishes a vocabulary to articulate what aspects of an object must persist into the future for a given preservation intent.

To this end, this chapter provides an overview of many of these lineages. This includes; the culture of scribes and the manuscript tradition; the bureaucracy and the development of archival theory for arranging archives and publishing records; the differences between taxidermy and insect collecting in natural history collections and living collections like butterfly gardens and zoos; the development of historic preservation of the built environment; the advent of recorded sound technology and the development of oral history; and the development of photography, microfilming and preservation reformatting. Each episode and tradition offers a mental model to consider deploy for different contexts in digital preservation.

The purpose here is not a detailed history of lineages of preservation and the development of media, but instead to illustrate the many different conceptions of preservation exist and how those conceptions are anchored in different objectives. This overview provides readers with a focus on the distinct conceptions of what matters about an object and the innate material properties and affordances of different kinds of media as they relate to preservation.

Ch 2: Understanding Digital Objects

Doing digital preservation requires a foundational understanding of the structure and nature of digital information and media. This chapter works to provide such a background through three related strands of new media studies scholarship. First, all digital information is material. Second, digital information is best understood as existing in and through a nested set of platforms. Third, that the database is an essential media form and metaphor for understanding the logic of digital media.

Given that digital information is always physically encoded on digital media, it is critical to recognize that the raw bit stream (the sequence of ones and zeros encoded on the original medium) have a tangible and objective ability to be recorded and copied. This provides an essential first level basis for digital preservation. It is possible to establish what the entire sequence of bits is on a given medium, or in a given file, and use techniques to create a kind of digital fingerprint for it that can then be used to verify and authenticate perfect copies.

With that noted, those bit streams are animated, rendered, and made usable through nested layers of platforms. In interacting with a digital object, computing devices interact with the structures of file systems, file formats and various additional layers of software, protocols and drivers. Drawing on examples from net art, video games, and born digital drafts of literary works, I explore multiple ways to approach them anchored in different layers of their digital platforms. The experience of the performance of an object on a particular screen, like playing a video game or reading a document, can itself obfuscate many of the important aspects of digital objects that are interesting and important but much less readily visible, like how the rules of a video game actually function or deleted text in a document which still exists but isn’t rendered on the screen.

As a result of this nested platform nature, the boundaries of digital objects are often completely dependent on what layer one considers to be the most significant for a given purpose. In this context, digital form and format must be understood as existing as a kind of content. Across these platform layers digital objects are always a multiplicity of things. For example, an Atari video game is a tangible object you can hold, a binary sequence of information encoded on that medium identical to all the other copies of that game, source code authored as a creative work, a packaged commodity sold and marketed to an audience, and a signifier of a particular historical moment. Each of these objects can coexist in the platform layers of a tangible object, but depending on which is significant for a particular purpose one should develop a different preservation approach.

Lastly, where the index or the codex can provide a valuable metaphor for the order and structure of a book, new media studies scholarship has suggested that the database is and should be approached as the foundational metaphor for digital media. From this perspective, there is no “first row” in a database, but instead the presentation and sorting of digital information is based on the query posed to the data. Given that libraries and archives have long based their conceptions of order on properties of books and paper, embracing this database logic will have significant implications for making digital material available for the long term.

Ch 3: Challenges and Opportunities for Digital Preservation 

With an understanding of digital media and some context on various lineages of preservation, it is now possible to break down what the inherent challenges, opportunities and assumptions of digital preservation are.

We can’t count on long-lived media, interfaces, or formats. Popular digital media of all kinds Disc, Disk, and NAND Flash Wafers all degrade rather quickly — in terms of years, not decades or centuries. Many of these media are relatively complex to read, so the interfaces required to interpret them are likely to not be particularly long lived. The costs of trying to either repair these media or to fix and repair interfaces to read them rapidly becomes prohibitive. As a result, traditional notions of conservation science are, outside of some niche cases, going to be effectively useless for the long-term preservation of digital objects.

Going back to the discussions of preservation lineages, this means that digital preservation is an enterprise that can only focus on the allographic digital object. While all digital information is material, the conservation of that material over the long haul is not broadly practical. Where conservation science is concerned with the chemical and material properties of mediums and artifacts, the science of digital preservation is and will be computer science. With that said, because bitstreams are always originally encoded on tangible media and then created by, acted on and interpreted by all kinds of human made layers of software they end up presenting an extensive range of seemingly artifactual and not simply informational qualities. That is, the physical and material affordances of different digital mediums will continue to shape and structure digital content long after it has been transferred and migrated to new mediums.

First 3 Chapter’s Bibliography 

  • Archimedes Palimpsest Project. “About the Archimedes Palimpsest.” Accessed February 3, 2017.
  • Association for Documentary Editing. “About Documentary Editing.” The Association for Documentary Editing.
  • Bearman, David. Archival Methods. Archives and Museum Informatics Technical Report, vol. 3, no. 1. Pittsburgh, Pa: Archives & Museum Informatics, 1989.
  • Bird, Graeme D. Multitextuality in the Homeric Iliad: The Witness of the Ptolemaic Papyri. Hellenic Studies 43. Washington, D.C. : Cambridge, Mass: Center for Hellenic Studies ; Distributed by Harvard University Press, 2010.
  • Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, Or, What It’s like to Be a Thing. Posthumanities 20. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
  • Brylawski, Sam, Maya Lerman, Robin Pike, and Kathlin Smith. “ARSC Guide to Audio Preservation.” CLIR Publication. Washington, D.C, 2015.
  • Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics. The MIT Press, 2005.
  • Fino-Raidin, Ben. “Rhizome Artbase: Preserving Born Digital Works of Art.” Washington, D.C, July 24-26.
  • Galloway, Alexander R. Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization. The MIT Press, 2006.
  • Gitelman, Lisa. Always Already New: Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.
  • ———. Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham ; London: Duke University Press Books, 2014.
  • International Council of Museums, Committee for Conservation. “The Conservator-Restorer: A Definition of the Profession,” 1984.
  • Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “Software, It’s a Thing.” Medium, July 25, 2014.
  • Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2008.
  • Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Translated by Michael Wutz and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young. Stanford, Calif: Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
  • Krajewski, Markus. Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929. History and Foundations of Information Science. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011.
  • Lee, Christopher A. “Digital Curation as Communication Mediation.” In Handbook of Technical Communication, edited by Alexander Mehler and Laurent Romary, 507–530. Boston, MA: Walter de Gruyter, 2012.
  • Manovich, Lev. “Database as a Genre of New Media,” 1997.
  • ———. Software Takes Command: Extending the Language of New Media. International Texts in Critical Media Aesthetics. New York ; London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
  • ———. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2002.
  • McNeill, Lynne S. Folklore Rules: A Fun, Quick, and Useful Introduction to the Field of Academic Folklore Studies. University Press of Colorado, 2013.
  • Mir, Rebecca, and Trevor Owens. “Modeling Indigenous Peoples: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization.” In Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, 91–106, 2013.
  • Montfort, Nick. “Continuous Paper: MLA,” 2004.
  • Montfort, Nick, and Ian Bogost. Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. Platform Studies. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2009.
  • Nakamura, Lisa. Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. Electronic Mediations 23. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
  • Office of Communications, and Library of Congress Office of Communications. “Hyperspectral Imaging by Library of Congress Reveals Change Made by Thomas Jefferson in Original Declaration of Independence Draft.” Press Release. Washington, D.C, July 2, 2010.
  • Owens, Trevor. “Pixelated Commemorations: 4 In Game Monuments and Memorials.” Play the Past, June 18, 2014.
  • Reside, Doug. “‘No Day But Today’: A Look at Jonathan Larson’s Word Files.” New York Public Library Blog, April 22, 2011.
  • Rinehart, Richard, and Jon Ippolito, eds. Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory. Leonardo. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2014.
  • Saylor, Nicole. “Computing Culture in the AFC Archive.” Folklife Today, January 8, 2014.
  • Sharpless, Rebecca. “The History of Oral History.” In History of Oral History: Foundations and Methodology, edited by Lois E. Myers and Rebecca Sharpless, 9–32. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007.
  • Smigel, Libby, Martha Goldstein, and Elizabeth Aldrich. Documenting Dance: A Practical Guide. Dance Heritage Coalition, 2006.
  • Sterne, Jonathan. MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Sign, Storage, Transmission. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.
  • Thesaurus Linguae Graecae Project. “Thesaurus Linguae Graecae – History.” Accessed February 3, 2017.
  • Tomasello, Michael. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • Tyrrell, Ian R. Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
  • Werner, Sarah. “Where Material Book Culture Meets Digital Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 3 (2012).

One Reply to “First 3 Chapters of Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation for Comment”

  1. Chapter 1 seems like it is going to be a very relatable read as a physically disabled graduate student. I say this because I find it so frustrating having this argument when it comes to making anything accessible. Whether it be converting a book into a format that suits my needs or puréeing my food so that I am capable of eating it, I find that I am often arguing with someone that it is still the same thing even if it does not look identical to the original presentation.

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