Module 8: Digital Sustainability and Preservation

I have learned about preservation issues in the past, but this week opened my eyes to the vast expanse of what preservation truly entails. Most notably, I have come to recognize a distinction between the physical preservation of an artifact versus the intellectual preservation of the information it represents.

Preservation seems to be actions taken to extend the usefulness of an item, artifact, or information beyond it’s original lifespan. In terms of paper and books, this could include de-acidifying paper or storing them in a cool environment. In terms of architecture, this could mean rebuilding portions of a building with similar methods to imitate the integrity of the original. But in both of these cases, the preservation method is about perpetuating the integrity of the original, to remain as true as possible without changing or creating a copy.

In terms of information though, preservation seems to be less about the artifact and more about the content. In these cases, the common form of preservation is copying: whether it is copying the text of a book or updating a file format, information relies on creating an imitated copy rather than attempting to maintain the original. It seems like a subtle difference, but it is important. It becomes a question of what is important about the object: does it draw its significance from its original form, or does the information hold the inherent value?

As we discuss digital preservation, I feel like in many cases, the latter is true. The information that we create digitally is more important than the form that it is created in. I think music is a clear, simple example. Obviously musical hardware has changed vastly in the past century. We have gone through records, cassette tapes, cd’s, mp3 players, iPods, and most recently, simply streaming files. When preserving music, I do not think I would consider preserving the analog format of the music; the grooves on the record are not the part of the record that hold the value, it is the sound. By recreating the sound onto a new format, we are able to preserve the music even if we can’t preserve the physical record.

In a less theoretical sense, I was also intrigued by the variety of actions that we can take to actively sustain and preserve our digital content. Some of the actions included in the “Levels of Preservation” site and “The Socio-Technical Sustainability Roadmap” seem obvious, but are not things I had considered before, such as having multiple copies, in multiple formats, in multiple locations to avoid losing any information in a single incident. Other actions were things I had never considered. Specifically, the metadata section of the “Roadmap” blew my mind. We have talked about the Level 1 metadata, which is keywords and descriptions of the content for identification. Even Level 2 seems normal, documenting file sizes and formats. But Levels 3 and 4 intrigued me, they seem to be increasingly higher tiers of metadata about the metadata. Level 3 is documenting what technologies created the files and when, while Level 4 is metadata about how the files have changed over time. Logically, this makes sense; if at any point the files are corrupted or lost, each level of metadata is a logical step to diagnosing what could have gone wrong. I was just very intrigued to see all of these details laid out in a specific plan, and this was only a small portion of one of the steps.

Digital sustainability and preservation is another one of those topics (which, I suppose each topic in this class could be in reality) that could be the topic of an entire class in and of itself. The incredibly thorough guides that preservationists have created are incredible and impressive, especially in the sense that they are both specific and broad enough that they are still relevant after new technologies are introduced. Having lost and recovered (or not recovered) many files in my lifetime, I think I will have to take a step back and use some of these methods to try and reflect on my own files before I potentially lose them all in some way.

2 Replies to “Module 8: Digital Sustainability and Preservation”

  1. Hey Robert, I really liked your take on how to preserve music. It is such a big discussion in my field. I think the resurgence in listening to vinyl records is an interesting counter to your argument, as many music collectors and scholars find the sound of vinyl to be superior to digital files. I also think that the physical form of a recording is one that generates nostalgia for the researcher—mixtapes, signed CD or antique record covers are part of our material culture. But the audio component does provide a further problem if one does not have the requisite equipment to listen to, or the tape/record is warped. Perhaps this is tangential, but I wonder though, in this moment when musicians make so little off their digital recordings online (Spotify, Apple, etc), that the physical record is not only something which shows a purchased product, but it may also be a remnant of a dying non-digital industry. Definitely, something to think about.

  2. The question of replacing/repairing parts of a physical item reminds me of the Ship of Theseus, and I wonder if there’s a digital parallel to that!

    Considering your point that the concern with digital is maybe less about the artifact and more about the intellectual elements, I agree that this is probably generally the case, but I also expect there are some new media artists out there who are going to throw a wrench in things.

    We discussed this a little in Slack, but this might be where something like game preservation comes up; while one could technically emulate games in a new environment, you could probably also argue that the experience of a particular gaming platform was dependent on all its idiosyncratic parts (sticky buttons, square controller edges digging into your hand, the necessity to blow on a cartridge to get it to work properly…) It makes me wonder if there are some unique qualities to digital media or systems that we won’t be really aware of or miss until they’re gone.

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