Getting Beyond Digital Hyperbole & Tools for Looking Forward

The book is now whole! I’m going to be spending this weekend working through revisions to the last section based on all of the great comments I’ve been getting, but I’m also now excited to share both the introduction and the conclusion.

If you have any comments or suggestions on these please do go ahead and chime in on them in comments on the docs. In the intro I try to lay out a whole set of axioms for digital preservation, which I’ve gone ahead and reposted below.

Fifteen Guiding Digital Preservation Axioms

As a point of entry to the book I have distilled a set of fifteen guiding axioms. I realize that sounds a little pretentious, but it’s the right word for what these are. These axioms are points that I think should serve as the basis for digital preservation work. They are also a useful way to work out some initial points for defining what exactly digital preservation is and isn’t. Some of them are unstated assumptions that undergird orthodox digital preservation perspectives; some are at odds with that orthodoxy. These axioms are things to take forward as assumptions going into the book. Many of these are also points that I will argue for and demonstrate throughout the book.

  1. A repository is not a piece of software. Software cannot preserve anything. Software cannot be a repository in itself. A repository is the sum of financial resources, hardware, staff time, and ongoing implementation of policies and planning to ensure long-term access to content. Any software system you use to enable you preserving and providing access to digital content is by necessity temporary. You need to be able to get your stuff out of it because it likely will not last forever. Similarly, there is no software that “does” digital preservation.
  2. Institutions make preservation possible. Each of us will die. Without care and management, the things that mattered to us will persist for some period of time related to the durability of their mediums. With that noted, the primary enablers of preservation for the long term are our institutions (libraries, archives, museums, families, religious organizations, governments, etc.) As such, the possibility of preservation is enabled through the design and function of those institutions. Their org charts, hiring practices, funding, credibility, etc. are all key parts of the cultural machinery that makes preservation possible.
  3. Tools can get in the way just as much as they can help. Specialized digital preservation tools and software are just as likely to get in the way of solving your digital preservation problems as they are to help. In many cases, it’s much more straightforward to start small and implement simple and discrete tools and practices to keep track of your digital information using nothing more than the file system you happen to be working in. It’s better to start simple and then introduce tools that help you improve your process then to simply buy into some complex system without having gotten your house in order first.
  4. Nothing has been preserved, there are only things being preserved. Preservation is the result of ongoing work of people and commitments of resources. The work is never finished. This is true of all forms of preservation; it’s just that the timescales for digital preservation actions are significantly shorter than they tend to be with the conservation of things like books or oil paintings. Try to avoid talking about what has been preserved; there is only what we are preserving. This has significant ramifications for how we think about staffing and resourcing preservation work. Preservation is ongoing work. It is not something that can be thought of as a one time cost.
  5. Hoarding is not preservation. It is very easy to start grabbing lots of digital objects and making copies of them. This is not preservation. To really be preserving something you need to be able to make it discoverable and accessible and that is going to require that you have a clear and coherent approach to collection development, arrangement, description and methods and approaches to provide access.
  6. Backing up data is not digital preservation. If you start talking about digital preservation and someone tells you “oh, don’t worry about it, we back everything up nightly” you need to be prepared to explain how and why that does not count as digital preservation. This book can help you to develop your explanation. Many of the aspects that go into backing up data for current use are similar to aspects of digital preservation work but the near term concerns of being able to restore data are significantly different from the long term issues related to ensuring access to content in the future.
  7. The boundaries of digital objects are fuzzy. Individual objects reference, incorporate and use aspects of other objects as part of their everyday function. You might think you have a copy of a piece of software by keeping a copy of its installer, but that installer might call a web service to start downloading files in which case you can’t install and run that software unless you have the files it depends on. You may need a set of fonts, or a particular video codec, or any number of other things to be able to use something in the future and it is challenging to articulate what is actually inside your object and what is external to it.
  8. One person’s digital collection is another’s digital object is another’s dataset.  In some cases the contents of a hard drive can be managed as a single item, in others they are a collection of items. In the analog world, the boundaries of objects were a little bit more straightforward or at least taken for granted. The fuzziness of boundaries of digital objects means that the concept of “item” and “collection” is less clear than with analog items. For example, a website might be an item in a web archive, but it is also functionally a serial publication which changes over time. A collection of web pages are themselves a collections of files.
  9. Digital preservation is about making the best use of your resources to mitigate the most pressing preservation threats and risks. You are never done with digital preservation. It is not something that can be accomplished or finished. Digital preservation is a continual process of understanding the risks you face for losing content or losing the ability to render and interact with it and making use of whatever resources you have to mitigate those risks.
  10. The answer to nearly all-digital preservation question is “it depends.” In almost every case, the details matter. Deciding what matters about an object or a set of objects is largely contingent on what their future use might be. Similarly, developing a preservation approach to a massive and rapidly growing collection of high-resolution video will end up being fundamentally different to the approach an organization would take to ensuring long-term access to a collection of digitized texts.
  11. It’s long past time start taking actions. You can read and ponder complicated data models, schemas for tracking and logging preservation actions, and a range of other complex and interesting topics for years but it’s not going to help “get the boxes off the floor.” There are practical and pragmatic things everyone can and should do now to mitigate many of the most pressing risks of loss. I tried to highlight those “get the boxes off the floor” points throughout the second half of the book. So be sure to prioritize doing those things first before delving into many of the more open ended areas of digital preservation work and research.
  12. Highly technical definitions of digital preservation are complicit in silencing the past. Much of the language and specifications of digital preservation have developed into complex sets of requirements that obfuscate many of the practical things anyone and any organization can do to increase the likelihood of access to content in the future. As such, a highly technical framing of digital preservation has resulted in many smaller and less resource rich institutions feeling like they just can’t do digital preservation, or that they need to hire consultants to tell them about complex preservation metadata standards when what they need to do first is make a copy of their files.  Along with this, digital media affords significant new opportunities for engaging communities with the development of digital collections. When digital preservationists take for granted that their job is to preserve what they are given, they fail to help an organization rethink what it is possible to collect. Digital preservation policy should be directly connected to and involved in collection development policy. That is, the affordances of what can be easily preserved should inform decisions about what an organization wants to go out and collect and preserve.
  13. Accept and embrace the archival sliver. We’ve never saved everything. We’ve never saved most things. When we start from the understanding that most things are temporary and likely to be lost to history, we can shift to focus our energy on making sure we line up the resources necessary to protect the things that matter the most. Along with that, we need to realize that there are varying levels of effort that should be put toward future proofing different kinds of material.
  14. The scale and inherent structures of digital information suggest working more with a shovel than with a tweezers.  While we need to embrace the fact that we can’t collect and preserve everything, we also need to realize that in many cases the time and resources it takes to make decisions about individual things could be better used elsewhere. It’s often best to focus digital preservation decision making at scale. This is particularly true in cases where you are dealing with content that isn’t particularly large. Similarly, in many cases it makes sense to normalize content or to process any number of kinds of derivative files from it and keep the originals. In all of these cases, the computability of digital information and the realities of digital files containing significant amounts of contextual metadata means that we can run these actions in batch and not one at a time.
  15. Doing digital preservation requires thinking like a futurist. We don’t know the tools and systems that people will have and use in the future to access digital content. So if we want to ensure long term access to digital information we need to, at least on some level, be thinking about and aware of trends in the development of digital technologies. This is a key consideration for risk mitigation. Our preservation risks and threats are based on the technology stack we currently have and the stack we will have in the future so we need to look to the future in a way that we didn’t need to with previous media and formats. 

Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation: Part Two Posted for Comment

Some class notes from Alice Rogers in my digital preservation seminar.

It took me longer than I anticipated, but I am now both excited and rather anxious to share drafts of the rest of my forthcoming book. A while back, I posted drafts of the first section of the book. The comments and responses I received on that have been fantastic. I’m now going to turn to reviewing and revising that section based on the generous wealth of feedback I’ve received.

The Craft Half of the Book

The first half of the book was the theory part, the second is the craft part. In the five chapters in this section I try to offer up a set of interrelated frames for working through the ongoing issues and challenges that make up digital preservation as a craft.

Chapter four is largely an explanation and justification for why and how I’ve set up the following four chapters. So I won’t delve too much into giving any context here as it’s better to just read the context in the chapter. With that noted, I’ve included the diagram I use in that chapter to explain how I see each of the subsequent chapters connecting with each other.

 

 

 

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. http://archimedespalimpsest.org/about/.
  • Association for Documentary Editing. “About Documentary Editing.” The Association for Documentary Editing. http://www.documentaryediting.org/wordpress/?page_id=482.
  • 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. http://cmsimpact.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/ARSC-Audio-Preservation.pdf.
  • 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. http://digitalpreservation.gov/meetings/documents/ndiipp12/DigitalCulture_fino-radin_DP12.pdf.
  • 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. http://www.icom-cc.org/47/history-of-icom-cc/definition-of-profession-1984.
  • Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “Software, It’s a Thing.” Medium, July 25, 2014. https://medium.com/@mkirschenbaum/software-its-a-thing-a550448d0ed3.
  • 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. http://vv.arts.ucla.edu/AI_Society/manovich.html.
  • ———. 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. http://nickm.com/writing/essays/continuous_paper_mla.html.
  • 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. https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-10-161/analysis-reveals-changes-in-declaration-of-independence/2010-07-02/.
  • Owens, Trevor. “Pixelated Commemorations: 4 In Game Monuments and Memorials.” Play the Past, June 18, 2014. http://www.playthepast.org/?p=4811.
  • Reside, Doug. “‘No Day But Today’: A Look at Jonathan Larson’s Word Files.” New York Public Library Blog, April 22, 2011. http://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/04/22/no-day-today-look-jonathan-larsons-word-files.
  • 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. https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2014/01/computing-culture-in-the-afc-archive/.
  • 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. http://www.danceheritage.org/DocumentingDance.pdf.
  • 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. https://www.tlg.uci.edu/about/history.php.
  • 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. http://www.loc.gov/catdir/toc/ecip058/2005003459.html.
  • Werner, Sarah. “Where Material Book Culture Meets Digital Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 3 (2012). http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-3/where-material-book-culture-meets-digital-humanities-by-sarah-werner/.

Theory & Craft of Digital Preservation: My Next Book

Some class notes from Alice Rogers in my digital preservation seminar.
Some class notes from Alice Rogers in my digital preservation seminar.

This has been brewing for a while, but it’s now enough of a thing that I can share about it. I am excited to announce that I’m on the hook with Johns Hopkins University Press to produce a short book (30-40k words) called The Theory & Craft of Digital Preservation: An Introduction.

I have about half of the book together in a really rough draft form. Much of my nights and weekends for about the next six months will be spent working up the rest of it and getting the whole thing together.

The genesis of the book came when I was designing my digital preservation seminar and realized that I feel like much of the beaten path for talking about digital preservation has more to do with how we got to what we do now than how it would make sense to explain the issues and topics to folks from scratch. So the course has given me a chance to try out the road-map for the book.

I’ve gotten the OK to share drafts of the chapters as they start to come together. I’ve found that I benefit dramatically from doing my writing in the open where folks can help me refine and sharpen my ideas before they end up fixed in any particular medium.

To that end, I figured I would share most of the book proposal I worked up. In working on drafting, some of this has started to shake out a bit differently, but I thought folks might be interested in a preview. I’m thinking I will start posting a chapter or two a month early-ish in the new year.

Overview of the Book

The historical record is increasingly digital. Over the last half century, under headings of “electronic records management” and “digital preservation,” librarians, archivists, and curators have established practices to ensure that our digital scientific, social and cultural record will be available to scholars and researchers into the future. This book is intended as a point of entry into that theory and practice.

Through years of leading collaborative national digital strategy efforts to ensure long-term access to digital content, I have observed that many experts in digital media and libraries, archives and museums often end up talking past each other as they work toward their mutual goals. All too often, discussions of digital preservation fail to fully state and engage with the nature digital objects and media, thereby undermining our ability to fully engage do this work in a common and coherent fashion.

This failure of understanding is rooted in two key fundamental issues: First, that preservation itself is not a single area of activity, but has always been historically intertwined with distinct disciplines that have grappled with the affordances of various historically “new” mediums. Second, that there are distinct affordances of digital media that require rethinking those diverse perspectives on preservation and conservation. The central contribution of this book is to put the lineages of preservation in dialog with the affordances of digital media as basis to articulate a theory and craft of digital preservation.

As a guidebook and an introduction, this text is a synthesis of extensive reading, research, writing, and speaking on the subject of digital preservation. It is grounded in my work on digital preservation at the Library of Congress and before that, working on digital humanities projects at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.  The first section of the book synthesizes work on the history of preservation in a range of areas (archives, manuscripts, recorded sound, etc.) and sets that history in dialog with work in new media studies, platform studies, and media archeology. The later chapters build from this theoretical framework as a basis for an iterative process for the practice of doing digital preservation.

This book serves as both a basic introduction to the issues and practices of digital preservation and a theoretical framework for deliberately and intentionally approaching digital preservation as a field with multiple lineages.  The intended audience is current and emerging library, archive, and museum professionals as well as the scholars and researchers who interface with these fields. As such, the book will be useful as assigned reading for graduate courses in digital preservation and digital curation in library science, museum studies, and public history programs. This book is also highly relevant to digital humanities programs and courses as the work of digital humanists increasingly results in the development of digital platforms, tools and resources which face significant sustainability challenges and thus require an understanding of digital preservation planning to succeed.

There are a handful of books on digital preservation, but this book is significantly different in two key ways. First, it is intentionally brief. Because of this, it is more accessible and usable by a wide range of stakeholders in digital preservation. This is not to an exhaustive work on the subject, but a clear and focused perspective and approach. Second, it treats digital preservation as a craft and anchors it in work in humanities scholarship on media and mediums. Much of the extent work on digital preservation approaches the subject as one that is highly technical, which continues to obfuscate many key issues and assumptions, particularly for humanities scholars interested in understanding digital preservation. While the book has a practical bent, it is not a how-to book that would quickly become outdated. It establishes and offers stages and processes for doing digital preservation, but it is not tied to particular tools, methods, or techniques. Instead, it is anchored in an understanding of the traditions of preservation and the nature of digital objects and media.

Sections of the Book 

Introduction: Getting Beyond Digital Hyperbole

At a summit on digital preservation at the U.S. Library of Congress in the early 2000s, a participant from a technology company proposed, “Why don’t we just hoover it all up and shoot it into space.” The “it” in this case being any and all historically significant digital content. Many participants laughed, but it wasn’t intended as a joke. Many have, and continue to seek similar “moon-shots,” singular technical solutions to the problem of enduring access to digital information.

More than a decade later, we find ourselves amid the same set of stories we have heard for at least thirty years. Among the public, there is a persistent belief that if something is on the Internet, it will be around forever.  At the same time, warnings of a potential impending “digital dark age,” where records of the recent past become completely lost or inaccessible appear with regular frequency in the popular press as well.

To many, it seems like the world needs someone to design a system that can “solve” the problem of digital preservation. The wisdom of the cohort of digital preservation practitioners in libraries, archives, and museums who have been doing this work for half a century suggests this is an illusory dream not worth chasing. Working to ensure long-term access to digital information is not a problem for a tool to solve. It is a complex field with a significant ethical dimension. It is a vocation.

The purpose of this book is to offer a path for getting beyond the hyperbole and the anxiety of the digital and establish a baseline for practice in this field. To do this, one needs to first unpack what we mean by preservation. It is then critical to establish a basic knowledge of the nature of digital media and digital information. With these in hand, anyone can make significant and practical advances toward mitigating the most pressing risks of digital loss. For more than half a century, librarians, archivists, and curators have been establishing practices and approaches to ensure long-term access to digital information. Building from this work, this book provides both a sound theoretical basis for digital preservation and a well-grounded approach to its practices and craft.

Section One: Historicizing Preservation and Digital Media

Chapter One: 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.

Chapter Two: 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.

Chapter Three: Challenges  & Opportunities of 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.

Section Two: Doing Digital Preservation

Chapter Four: Articulating preservation intent

What is it about the thing you want to preserve that matters and what do you need to do to make sure it is there in the future? To many, this seems like a simple question. It is not. Too often we take for granted that there is a de facto answer to this question. However, as a result of the nested platform nature of digital information and the fact that most of what we care about is the meaning that can be made from collections of objects, it is critical to be deliberate about how we answer this question in any given situation. This is why digital preservation must be continually grounded in the articulation of preservation intent.

In some cases, someone can clearly articulate this intent at the start of a project. But  for most preservation projects it is often best to be purposeful and strategic around the preservation intention. This is particularly critical given that deciding what matters most about some set of material can lead to radically different approaches to preserving and describing it.

Through examples of the diverse types of content that different kinds of cultural heritage organizations are preserving and their intent for doing so, this chapter establishes how to articulate preservation intent and how well-articulated preservation intent makes the resulting collections easier to evaluate and more transparent for future users.

Chapter Five: From Bit Preservation to Digital Preservation

Taking into account the challenges and opportunities of digital preservation, it is important to bracket the work into two different challenges: bit preservation and digital preservation. Bit preservation, ensuring authentic copies of digital objects, is the most pressing problem. Thankfully, it is a relatively straightforward problem for which there are a range of simple solutions. With that said, ensuring those authentic copies are interpretable, comprehensible and usable is far more challenging. Thankfully, this work of digital preservation is a much less time sensitive activity.

Bit preservation is accomplished by managing multiple copies of the digital objects you want to preserve, regularly comparing digital fingerprints for those files to ensure that they are all identical, repairing or replacing copies when they fail those checks, and migrating the copies to newer media and continuing to ensure that the digital fingerprints still match. With more resources, there are better ways to systematize and automate these processes, but with relatively small collections it is still possible to do this and be confident you have authentic copies as long as someone continues to mind and tend to them.

Digital preservation is much less straightforward.  The central challenge of digital preservation is that software runs. The active and performative nature of that running is only possible through a regression of dependencies on different pieces of software that are typically tightly coupled with specific pieces of hardware. Along with this, it is important to think through if there is enough context for the digital objects for someone in the future to be able to make sense of them. Two primary strategies exist for approaching these issues: emulation and format migration. Both are discussed and a case is made for why in many cases organizations are hedging their bets and pursuing both strategies.

Chapter Six: Arranging and Describing Digital Objects

The story goes that shortly after the Library of Congress signed an agreement with Twitter to begin archiving all of the tweets, a cataloger asked “But who will catalog all those tweets?” The idea of describing billions of objects was dauntingly incompressible to those who lacked experience with the nature of digital media. Like most digital objects, tweets come with a massive amount of transactional metadata: timestamps, usernames, unique identifiers, links out to URLs on the web. Like most digital objects, the tweets can largely describe themselves.

The usability of digital information will be largely dependent on how we organize, arrange, and describe it.  Arranging and describing digital objects needs to conceptually shift to embrace the nature of digital media and to recognize a distinct transition which has occurred in terms of computability. Digital media continually generates massive amounts of metadata and because it is computable, it is also increasingly possible to process digital data to derive descriptive information and metadata. As a result, arranging and describing digital content should increasingly be focused on limited amounts of expert intervention in chunking and describing content in aggregate and leaving lower levels of description to the objects themselves.

In terms of arranging digital objects, their database nature means that unlike folders in a box or books on a shelf, by their very nature digital media come with a multiplicity of orders. This complicates core archival principles around original order. It also, requires thinking through how to chunk content into reasonable and coherent sets of information that are easier to manipulate and work with as all kinds of current and future users.

In this context, it is critical to revisit the levels of description at which librarians, archivists, and curators work to evaluate in what cases something should be treated as an “item” or a “collection” and what levels of descriptive work should be employed. Given how much objects are self- describing, it makes much more sense to take up archival practices of describing content at the collection level and explaining the scope of a collection, the context of it’s acquisition, and how and why that collection was collected and preserved and to let the lower levels of description be left to the content itself.

Similarly, many digital objects actually index, describe, and annotate other digital objects. For instance, if you take all of the links that appear in articles published in the Drudge Report, the fact that the Drudge Report linked out to those sites tells you something about them. This affords the possibility of starting to think of nearly all-digital objects as both data in their own right and metadata that describes other objects. To this end, we must increasingly think of “description” and “the described” as a fuzzy boundary.

Chapter Seven: Divergent and Multimodal Access and Use

When a user in a research library asks to see a book in an obscure language a librarian will generally bring it out and let them look at it. That librarian may have no idea how to make sense of the text, but they know how to provide access to it and it is assumed that the researcher needs to come with the skills to make sense of it. At the most basic level, we can provide this kind of access to any digital objects we are preserving.

The affordances of digital media open up significant potential for access and use of digital content. At the same time, our experience with commercial software can get in the way of letting others access digital content until one can provide a simple way for any user to double click on a digital object and have it “just work.” It is critical for us to get over the assumptions that are embedded in this mentality and embrace the divergent and multimodal nature of access that digital media present us with.

This means digital preservation practitioners need to be OK with just saying, “Here it is, have at it” and also with consistently exploring the potential for new tools and methods for providing access to digital content. Even if you don’t know how to open a given file, there are a range of emerging techniques and approaches that researchers today and in the future will be able to use in working with digital content. In addition, it is important to think through the types of access restrictions or redaction of information may be necessary.

This means we should be continually exploring ways to make digital content as broadly accessible and usable as individual files, bulk aggregates and a range of other modes. Researchers are increasingly interested in approaching all kinds of digital content as data sets for computational analysis and this requires adopting new ways of thinking about access.

Conclusions: The Theory & Craft of Digital Preservation

Digital preservation is not an exact science. It is a craft in which experts must reflexively deploy and refine their judgment to appraise digital content and implement strategies that make the most sense for minimizing the most pressing risks of loss while working to make it as widely usable and useful as it can be to its’ respective audiences. At least, that is the case I have sought to make in this book. As Stacy Eardman, digital archivist at Beloit College has noted, digital preservation is much like a lyric from the song The Have Nots, “This is the game that moves as you play.”

The craft of digital preservation is anchored in the past. It builds off of the records, files, and works of those who came before us and those who designed and set up the systems that enable the creation, transmission and rendering of their work. At the same time, the craft of digital preservation is also the work of a futurist. We must look to the past trends in the ebb and flow of the development of digital media and hedge our bets on how digital technologies of the future will play out.

My former supervisor, Martha Anderson, who worked as the Managing Director of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program at the Library of Congress, liked to describe digital preservation as a relay race. Digital preservation is not about a particular system, or a series of preservation actions. It is about preparing content and collections for hand offs. We cannot predict what future digital mediums and interfaces will be, or how they will work, but we can select materials from today, articulate aspects of them that matter for particular use cases, make perfect copies of them, and then work to hedge our bets on digital technology trends to try and make the next hand off as smoothly as possible.

 

 

“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.

 

25 Curatememes: A Curation

A few years back, Curatememe set out on a mission to create a space “Where Curators Curate Memes about Curation. Where will the absurdity of our use of the term Curation go next? This Tumblr speculates wildly.” I think it’s now time to declare curation accomplished. Now that curation means whatever, I thought I would curate the best of the best from the tumblr here in a listicle. It seemed appropriate. It will also make it easier for me to find one’s I want to use sometimes.

The memes are arranged more or less reverse chronologically, which offers a sense of how they developed as a body of work over time and preserves the experience of reading back into a tumblr.

I Came. I Archived. I Curated

I came I archived I curated

Stop Worrying and Respect des Fonds

stop worrying and respect des fonds

Curation is as Curation Does

curation is as curation does

Be the Change you want to Curate in the World

be the change you want to curate in the world

Eat Pray Love Curate

Travel Trip Eat Pray Love

The Only Thing we have to Curate

the only thing we have to curate is curation itself

 

The Point is to Curate it

The point is to curate it 

There are no facts, only curations

no facts only curations

Say Curation One More Time

say curation one more time

I Can’t Believe I Curated the Whole Thing

I cant believe i curated the whole thing

 Who Curates the Curators

who curates the curators

The Things You Curate End Up Curating You

The things you curate end up curating you

 

Curate the Rainbow

Skittles, fruit flavour sweets

 

One Word… Curation 

one word curation

 

He Who Curates the Spice Curates the Universe

he who curates the spice

Curate Yourselves Winter is ComingCurate Yourselves Winter is Comming

 

 

Wait… That’s Curation

wait thats curation

I Curated this Xhibit

I curated this xhibit

I Curated You I can Deaccession You

I curated You I can deaccession you

 

Frankly my dear, I don’t curate a DAMS

KABEL 1

I love it when curation means whatever

I love it when Curation Means Whatever

This is not Curation

this is not curation

 

Did I Cu-rate That

did I cu-rate that

 

 

 

How Would You Teach A Digital Preservation Grad Seminar?

It is looking like I may end up teaching a graduate seminar on digital preservation for the University of Maryland’s iSchool. There is an existing syllabus, but I will have some flexibility in terms of how I shape and design the course and I am curious what thoughts different folks have for what would be the most effective way to teach a graduate seminar on the subject.

Below are a few of the big picture course design questions I am thinking through and some of my initial thoughts on them. I’m curious for any and all input folks might have.

Organizing PrinciplesHow best to organize a digital preservation course? 

  • To what extent should such a grad seminar like this be about frameworks and principles vs examples and cases? I’m thinking that I should cover those, but I’m also thinking that too many of those models fail to address the idea that digital preservation is fundamentally about risk mitigation from future loss. That is, it’s less about a process and more about how to make the best use of available resources and identifying the best opportunities to systematically work to further lessen the risk of loss. I also think that the frameworks often get in the way of first grasping a fundamental understanding of the nature and structure of digital information and digital media. So I’m entertaining the idea of getting to the frameworks at the end as a way to understand the issues but working through the core issues first.
  • How would you organize and structure such a course? If I don’t start with the frameworks, I’m thinking it makes sense to start by working through a core understanding of digital information and digital media and work from there into the various issues in the NDSA levels of digital preservation.

Particular Tools & Software: What role should they play in the course? 

  • What approach should I take toward particular tools? On the one hand, it is very pragmatic to leave a course like this understanding how to use particular tools, but at the same time, the tools are always going to be changing and everyone needs to be able to plan for how to swap in and out different tools to meet the underlying objective. In my digital history courses I have required students to each figure out how to use and then teach the class how to use particular tools and software. I like this approach as teaching yourself how to use new software and evaluating it is an important skill in it’s own right. With that said, some of the digital preservation tools out there are complex enough that I’m not entirely sure this method would do them justice.
  • How much should a course like this require/push students to develop some basic command line literacy? My sense is that many student’s will not have this, but it is challenging to think through how to do much work in this area without that. With that said, the course isn’t about developing that command line literacy, so I’m not sure how far to delve into this kind of thing.

Kinds of assignments: What would be the most useful for the students? 

  • I’m curious for what folks think would be the most useful kinds of assignments. I’m thinking that given the context of planning for risks and the need to make such plans inside the constraints of an institution that it might make the most sense to have students serve as consultants for small cultural heritage organizations and have them develop plans for options to improve their approaches to ensure long term access to their digital content. So I think many of the assignments might be fit around that. With that said, I am curious for any other ideas for how to either improve this idea of a course project or for other kinds of assignments.

Digital Cultural Heritage DC Meetup: 4 Years in & Going Strong

DCHDC 2012
Folks at one of the first DCHDC meetups, September 2012

Four years ago, some of my colleagues in the NDIIPP program thought it could be neat to try and start up a monthly meetup for digital cultural heritage professionals in DC. Butch Lazorchak found a bar in DC that would give us free space upstairs once a month and signed up for a meetup account and we were off.

I love that we ended up sparking something that has become an anchor monthly event for folks from libraries, archives, museums, universities and related non-profits to share ideas and perspectives. I know it’s been a key element in various people finding internships and jobs and for sharing ideas and approaches to working in this area. To that end, I decided it would be worth looking back and checking in with folks who have joined the group. So a few months ago I put together a survey.

4 Years, 40 Meetups, Almost 500 Members

DCHDC-German_historical
Jamie Mears talking about personal digital archiving at DCPL at a recent meetup.

Over the last four years the Digital Cultural Heritage Meetup group has hosted more than 40 meetups. It seemed like a good point to do some legwork to figure out how the meetup is working.

The meetup continues to draw anywhere between 20-30 some folks a month and I thought it would be useful to survey the 492 people who have signed up to follow the meetup. The loosely organized group of folks who organize the events are working to improve them based on the survey.

Along with that, I thought folks in other cities might be interested in the results too. For an event that makes use of free space and takes a bit of time each month from a handful of people to volunteer to organize I think it has been having a rather substantial impact on the scene in DC.

Info on the survey sample

68 people responded to a survey I put together. This is less than 10% of the total set of people who have signed up to the meetup, but given the way meetup works I would hazard to guess that something like 60 or 70% of the people who signup for the meetup don’t ever end up coming. This is to say, I think responses from 68 people likely give a good view into the whole of who participates.

In the interest of transparency, you can see survey results (PDF), download the tabular data an see what the survey form looked like. As an aside, I would love to see other people take a look at the responses and write up their own reactions and interpretations of the survey results. Along with that, I would love to get further discussion of the results of the survey in the comments on this post.

Who participates in DCHDC and to what extent? 

Survey respondents represented a range of different profiles of DCHDC participants both in how frequently they participate and in where they are at in their careers.

In terms of the frequency of participation, they represented a range of levels of engagement.

  • 19 had participated more than six times,
  • 12 had come at least 4 times,
  • 21 had come two or three times,
  • 14 had participated once
  • 1 respondent had never participated

In terms of their stage in their careers, the survey mostly drew in folks who were either established professionals or in the first five years of their careers.

  • 3 respondents were current students,
  • 25 were in the first five years of their career and
  • 38 were established professionals who had worked in their field for at least five years

There weren’t that many students, but I think that likely represents trends in who participates. What I would note here is that this underscores how well the meetup functions as a middle ground between established and emerging professionals. I would also underscore that the students who do come have clearly gotten a ton out of being able to network with established and early career professionals. So grad students, if you’re listening, I think there is a huge opportunity here for you.

How DCHDC Matters

Across the board, respondents to the survey were largely united on the positive aspects of participating in DCHDC. For those participating, it seems clear that there is consensus that it has become a community that plays an important role in their careers.

  • 97%  of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that through DCHDC they have learned about projects and issues that are relevant to their work.

  • 97% of respondents reported that DCHDC has become a community they value participating in.

  • 95%  of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that participating in DCHDC has expanded their professional network.

  • 80%  of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that Participating in DCHDC has made them more aware of career opportunities.

Examples quotes of how DCHDC has been Helpful:

The free text responses that respondents provided give some of the best specifics of what has been working about the meetup. I thought I would include some of those inline here.

  • Connecting with professionals at different stages in their careers: “As I am just now beginning a career as a librarian specializing in digital preservation, having the opportunity to hear presentations on related to this area in librarianship is really helpful, as it is still evolving (and will continue to do so). Furthermore, actually having the ability to speak with individuals about their workflows, the politics of advocacy, standards, etc. has enabled me to gain a better understand my work.”
  • Finding professional opportunities: “DCHDC helped me get an internship in my field and lead to a greater understanding of what kind of jobs were out there and what direction I’d like to head in. Beyond the networking and professional advancement aspects, DCHDC has given me the opportunity to learn more about technology and aspects of cultural heritage that weren’t touched on in my program. While I have been unable to attend DCHDC in recent months I speak highly of it and recommend it often.”
  • Getting perspectives from outside a particular field: “I’ve strengthened my digital humanities network outside of the museum sector, and I’ve been able to bring a digital humanities perspective to my museum work. (I also discovered that one of my DCHDC friends was living upstairs from me. :))”
  • Personal/emotional support in career pathways: “The breadth of my knowledge has been expanded. I’ve made friends that have helped me emotionally through some hard career-related stuff. DCHDC has also helped me maintain consistent relationships with key people in the community, and I truly believe this helped me get my last job.”

Common Requests for improving the Meetup:

Along with understanding what people were getting out of DCHDC, I was also interested to learn a bit about how to improve the event.

  • Shorter talks: Originally the idea was to do 5 minute lightning talks, but over time they have become longer. So we decided to shift back to short talks with a quick bit of time for Q&A.

  • Further planned out schedule: This is an entirely volunteer run and organized event series, so planning is a bit of a challenge. That said, if we can get better at lining up a schedule then folks can make sure they plan on coming to weeks that are of particular interest. I think it will also help to bring new folks into the fold who might be drawn in by a particular topic.

  • Recaps/notes/links from talks shared online: This was a request that came through from several people. I don’t have the bandwidth for it, but if anyone wanted to take on something like this it would be welcome and appreciated.

Example Suggestions from Survey: Below are some examples from the survey responses of particular individual requests.

  • “I think it’s great as-is! I’m happy with whatever meeting time/place. earlier was mentioned last time like 6:00 and that would be great too.”

  • “Back to the short talk format. An hour lecture that starts after 7:30 pushes the event FAR TOO LATE, and removes the opportunities for networking and socializing that the above questions address. 20 minutes socializing, 20 minutes max presentation (including Q&A), a few minutes for announcements, and 20 minutes to whenever for after-socializing and closer convo with presenters would make it much more valuable.”

  • “At the beginning dchdc had *very* short presentations bookended by plenty of time to meet people and have free-ranging discussions. It seems that over time the presentations have gotten longer and more dependent on power point. Since not every presentation is relevant to everyone in the community, some might be less likely to attend based on topic, whereas before they might come just for the excellent company.”

  • “Be clearer on the MeetUp about time to socialize vs. presentation time, so that people who want to chat know they either need to come a little early or stay later. When the only information is the time and who’s talking, it makes it seem like the talk is at that time or just shortly after.”

  • “Scheduling or at least soliciting ideas for presentations a bit further in advance could be a good step. A formal call for ideas/volunteers could help bring some new faces and organizations to the fore. That said, I really have no idea how scheduling works and don’t want to mess up a good thing.”

  • “Given the locations in which we’ve met over the past couple of years, a consistent audio-visual/computer setup is key. Ad hoc talks are valuable but are almost always enhanced with graphic examples.”

  • “A Facebook group or some other way to share information about jobs, events, etc in between meetings would be a good supplement.l, especially for when we can’t make it to meetings in person every time.”

Distributing Credit for DCHDC

I should note that while I’m one of the co-organizers for the group since the beginning,  I have not been one of the folks who have really carried the water on this. At various points I’ve missed big chunks of the meetups when I have had to teach classes that meet on the same night. On that front, Bill Lefurgy gets credit for scheduling and running the events for most of our run so far. This is a touch which has recently largely been passed to Atiba Pertilla.  There are also several other folks who have been involved almost all the time and stepped up to run events at various points, I’m thinking of Jennifer Serventi and Patrick Murray-John. There are probably about 5-7 more folks I could list out here, but this is just to say that I think the strongest part of the group comes from a core set of folks that are incredibly generous with their time and welcoming to anyone and everyone who we can encourage to participate.

Going forward

The survey largely confirmed the things I hear from lots of folks about what is valuable and useful about this group. I don’t think we had any clear expectations of what this would be when or how long it would run when we launched it. But here we are, four years out, having moved between three different venues and still going strong. I’m personally very excited to see how this keeps going into the future and always interested in talking more with folks about how it can be improved/enhanced. I’m also happy to talk with anyone who might want to set up similar meetups in other places.

The Insights Interviews: First Person Perspectives on Ensuring Long Term Access to Our Digital Heritage

Back when I was working for the Library of Congress I did, and helped coordinate, a ton of interviews with practitioners and thinkers working in digital preservation for the National Digital Stewardship Alliances innovation working group. At one point, there was discussion of making a book out of the then 33 interviews. As with many ideas, it stalled out at some point. In any event, I worked up an intro for that and a table of contents at one point. So I figured I would just post that here, as I think it makes the interviews a bit easier to navigate. Together they form a whole that is, I think, more useful than just looking at them as part of a serial publication. For context, I wrote the intro below in 2014 and the interviews range from 2011-2014.From the initial draft I also added a set of  9 additional fantastic interviews that Julia Fernandez did as a Junior Fellow focused on understanding, documenting and preserving digital culture. I also added in links to guest posts that Sharon Leon and Mackenzie Smith wrote about approaches to developing open source software that are slightly different in that they predate the focus on interviews as an approach.

I don’t claim the credit for this massive amount of work. A ton of people did a lot of work on running, planning and coordinating these. Off the top of my head Jane Mandelbaum, Martha Anderson, Abbey Potter, Erin Engle, Butch Lazorchak, Jefferson Bailey, Lori Emerson, Julia Fernandez, Ricky Padilla, Barbra Taranto, come to mind as people who either did significant work in running or coordinating interviews.  I know there are many others from the NDSA innovation working group who contributed to doing these as well. 

The Insights Interviews:First Person Perspectives on Ensuring Long Term Access to Our Digital Heritage

Innovation can be a terrible buzzword. It can be a stand in for flavors of the month, and trendy ideas on the upswing of this year’s hype scale. With that said, it remains a critical concept. Particularly in a field like digital preservation where the idea of even keeping up with the scale and deluge of digital media along with an ever changing series of new forms, formats, tools and platforms is often dizzying and overwhelming. In some of my first conversations with Jane Mandelbaum, the Library of Congress co-chair for the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Innovation working group we struck on the idea of focusing on how exactly people are making it work.

Across a range of disciplines and areas an amazing set of professionals have emerged to ensure long term access to digital information and were doing amazing things with that information. When we did our first interviews for the then new Signal digital preservation blog I had no idea how useful and valuable many of them would become as touchstones for our field. Some of these interviews were topical and primarily of interest in the moment, but many of them share important and profound insights (the term the then Director of NDIIPP Martha Anderson suggested for the series). When an NDIIPP colleague approached me about helping to shape a volume out of the best of these interviews I thought it was a great idea. In reflecting on them, I think there are four particular cross cutting reasons that these interviews organized as they are here, are particularly useful for emerging and established professionals in and around the work of digital stewardship.

First Person Perspectives from an Emerging Interdisciplinary Field

Everyone in this volume has launched or established a career in this new and interdisciplinary field of work. As digital technologies reshape work across every sector ensuring long term access to information now touches on nearly every sector. Our education and training systems are responding to these changes, but beyond that, it is invaluable to use these interviews as a point of entry into the work of individuals in this field. In this respect, every interview here is an opportunity to understand someone’s career trajectory and in many cases a chance to gain insight into the skills and knowledge required to take on the hybrid roles that many of these innovative individuals are engaged in. In this respect, the collection is of particular interest to young professionals and students looking to establish the course for their careers.

Practical Dispatches from the Front Lines of Digital Stewardship

A considerable amount of ink and pixels have been spilt over theory of digital stewardship. Models, frameworks and certification criteria abound. These are great resources, but given the rapid pace at which technologies and systems are evolving, understanding how individuals are working to ensure long term access to digital information provides insight into how people on the ground are actually making this work happen. In this respect, each interview in this volume is an illustration of how theory comes into practice. Each interview provides a firsthand frontline narrative of how the models and frameworks of the field are calibrated into the messy realities of resource constraints and practical limitations of the world.

A Cross Section of Work and Issues Involved in Digital Stewardship

Big picture strategy, perspectives of content specialists, exploration of issues in the design and maintenance of infrastructure and systems, needs and desires of researchers scholars and other end users. While the interviews were not done to create a comprehensive picture of the field, as they have accrued over time when we set about sorting out the best of them into different buckets I was thrilled to see how well they covered the waterfront of collecting, organizing, preserving and providing access to digital information.

Disaggregating Digital Stewardship and Preservation

It’s not as tidy as it would be if this all hung together from a single perspective, there is a lot of messiness in the different objectives, frameworks and perspectives which different participants come from. That is something which I think is a particular strength of the volume. The rhetoric of the digital often makes it seem like we should be moving into the clean lines and clear cut universe of a science of digital stewardship. But when we zoom in to the work at each layer of the infrastructure for digital stewardship we are building it becomes evident that the same professional values and approaches that made for idiosyncratic visions of preservation and access in the past are just as present in our digital future as they were in our analog past. Digital stewards engage in their work toward differing objectives through differing means. For instance, considerations about the authenticity of digital artworks are not the same as concerns about the authenticity of electronic records.

Table of Contents

Chapter One: Digital Strategy

  1. Digital Strategy Catches up With the Present: An Interview with Smithsonian’s Michael Edson August 9, 2012
  2. Open Source Software and Digital Preservation: An Interview with Bram van der Werf of the Open Planets Foundation, April 4, 2012
  3. Solving Problems and Saving Bits: An Interview with Jason Scott, August 20, 2013
  4. Digital Humanities Connections to Digital Preservation: Interview with Brett Bobley of the Office for Digital Humanities at the NEH, October 11, 2011

Chapter Two: Understanding Digital Objects

  1. BitCurator’s Open Source Approach: An Interview With Cal Lee, December 2, 2013
  2. What’s a Nice English Professor Like You Doing in a Place Like This: An Interview With Matthew Kirschenbaum August 12, 2013
  3. Media Archaeology and Digital Stewardship: An interview with Lori Emerson, October 11, 2012
  4. Archives, Materiality and the “Agency of the Machine”: An Interview with Wolfgang Ernst February 8, 2013
  5. Historicizing the Digital for Digital Preservation Education: An Interview with Alison Langmead and Brian Beaton, May 6, 2013

Chapter Three: The Curator’s View

  1. Web Archiving and Mainstreaming Special Collections: The Case of the Latin American Government Documents Archive, June 6, 2012
  2. Crossing the River: An Interview With W. Walker Sampson of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, December 9, 2013
  3. ArtBase and the Conservation and Exhibition of Born Digital Art: An Interview with Ben Fino-Radin May 1, 2012
  4. Exhibiting Video Games: An interview with Smithsonian’s Georgina Goodlander September 25, 2012
  5. The Digital Data Backbone for the Study of Historical Places”: An Interview with Matt Knutzen of the New York Public Library, February 27, 2013
  6. Challenges in the Curation of Time Based Media Art: An Interview with Michael Mansfield April 9, 2013
  7. Insights Interview with Beverly Emmons, Lighting Design Preservation Innovator February 10, 2012
  8. Born Digital Archival Materials at NYPLBorn Digital Archival Materials at NYPL: An Interview with Donald Mennerich, April 22, 2013
  9. Curating Extragalactic Distances: An interview with Karl Nilsen & Robin Dasler, August 18, 2014

Chapter Four: Designing Infrastructures

  1. Engineering Digital Preservation: Interview with David Rosenthal, June 15, 2011
  2. Lessons Learned for Sustainable Open Source Software for Libraries, Archives and Museums, September 15, 2011 (From Mackenzie Smith)
  3. Hydra’s Open Source Approach: An Interview with Tom Cramer, May 13, 2013
  4. Digital Stewardship and the Digital Public Library of America’s Approach: An Interview with Emily Gore, October 28, 2013
  5. The Foundations of Emulation as a Service: An Interview with Dirk von Suchodoletz, December 11, 2012
  6. WWI Linked Open Data: An Interview with Thea Lindquist, July 29, 2013
  7. Toward a Library of Virtual Machines: Insights interview with Vasanth Bala and Mahadev Satyanarayanan, September 21, 2011
  8. Imagine What We’ll Know This Time Next Week: An Interview with Bailey Smith and Anne Wootton of Pop Up Archive, December 6, 2012

Chapter Five: Working with the Public

  1. Crowdsourcing the Civil War: Insights Interview with Nicole Saylor, December 6, 2011
  2. Understanding User Generated Tags for Digital Collections: An Interview with Jennifer Golbeck, May 1, 2013
  3. Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums with Wikipedia (GLAM-Wiki): Insights Interview with Lori Phillips, April 20, 2012
  4. The Metadata Games Crowdsourcing Toolset for Libraries & Archives: An Interview with Mary Flanagan, April 3, 2013

Chapter Six: Scholar and Researcher Perspectives

  1. Quest for the Critical E-dition: An interview with Leonardo Flores, March 20, 2013
  2. Machine Scale Analysis of Digital Collections: An Interview with Lisa Green of Common Crawl, January 29, 2014
  3. Sharing, Theft, and Creativity: deviantART’s Share Wars and How an Online Arts Community Thinks About Their Work, September 17, 2012
  4. Astronomical Data & Astronomical Digital Stewardship: Interview with Elizabeth Griffin, October 8, 2014

Chapter Seven: The Digital Vernacular and Digital Folklore

  1. Born Digital Folklore and the Vernacular Web: An Interview with Robert Glenn Howard, February 22, 2013
  2. Understanding Folk Culture in the Digital Age: An interview with Folklorist Trevor J. Blank , June 30, 2014
  3. LOLCats and Libraries: A Conversation with Internet Librarian Amanda Brennan, July 14, 2014
  4. Understanding the Participatory Culture of the Web: An Interview with Henry Jenkins, July 24, 2014
  5. Computational Linguistics & Social Media Data: An Interview with Bryan Routledge, August 1, 2014
  6. Networked Youth Culture Beyond Digital Natives: An Interview With danah boyd, August 11, 2014
  7. Netnography and Digital Records: An Interview with Robert Kozinets, August 13, 2014
  8. Research is Magic: An Interview with Ethnographers Jason Nguyen & Kurt Baer, August 15, 2014
  9. Studying, Teaching and Publishing on YouTube: An Interview with Alexandra Juhasz, September 5, 2014
  10. Archiving from the Bottom Up: A Conversation with Howard Besser, October 10, 2014

 

 

Digital Art Curation Seminar

Huge thanks to everyone who shared ideas about what to include in my upcoming digital art curation grad seminar. I’ve decided to use the same course blog that I’ve been using for my digital history seminars, so if you haven’t already, you can tune in to what we will work on at dighist.org.

I’ve embedded a copy of the draft syllabus below and I think I have more or less all of the readings in this Zotero collection.

Curation and Conservation of Digital Art Syllabus