data management

Digital preservations, aesthetics and approaches

sony half 1 inch video tape

Digital Preservation 2014, the annual meeting of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program and the National Digital Stewardship Alliance is currently taking place in Washington, DC in the US.

The Library of Congress’s digital preservation blog The Signal is a regular reading stop for us, largely because it contains articles and interviews that impressively meld theory and practice, even if it does not exclusively cover issues relating to magnetic tape.

What is particularly interesting, and indeed is a feature of the keynotes for the Digital Preservation 2014 conference, is how the relationship between academic theory—especially relating to aesthetics and art—is an integral part of the conversation of how best to meet the challenge of digital preservation in the US. Keynote addresses from academics like Matthew Kirschenbaum (author of Mechanisms) and Shannon Mattern, sit alongside presentations from large memory institutions and those seeking ways to devise community approaches to digital stewardship.

The relationship between digital preservation and aesthetics is also a key concern of Richard Rhinehart and Jon Ippolito’s new book Re-Collection: Art, New Media and Social Memory, which has just been published by MIT Press.

This book, if at times deploying rather melodramatic language about the ‘extinction!’ and ‘death!’ of digital culture, gently introduces the reader to the wider field of digital preservation and its many challenges. Re-Collection deals mainly with born-digital archives, but many of the ideas are pertinent for thinking about how to manage digitised collections as well.Stop Rewind

In particular, the recommendation by the authors that the digital archival object remains variable was particularly striking: ‘the variable media approach encourages creators to define a work in medium- independent terms so that it can be translated into a new medium once its original format is obsolete’ (11). Emphasising the variability of the digital media object as a preservation strategy challenges the established wisdom of museums and other memory institutions, Rhinehart and Ippolito argue. The default position to preserve the art work in its ‘original’ form effectively freezes a once dynamic entity in time and space, potentially rendering the object inoperable because it denies works of art the potential to change when re-performed or re-interpreted. Their message is clear: be variable, adapt or die!

As migrators of tape-based collections, media variability is integral to what we do. Here we tacitly accept the inauthenticity of the digitised archival object, an artefact which has been allowed to change in order to ensure accessibility and cultural survival.

US/ European differences ?

While aesthetic and theoretical thinking is influencing how digital information management is practiced in the US, it seems as if the European approach is almost exclusively framed in economic and computational terms

Consider, for example, the recent EU press release about the vision to develop Europe’s ‘knowledge economy‘. The plans to map and implement data standards, create cross-border coordination and an open data incubator are, it would seem, far more likely to ensure interoperable and standardised data sharing systems than any of the directives to preserve cultural heritage in the past fifteen years, a time period characterised by markedly unstable approaches, disruptive innovations and a conspicuous lack of standards (see also the E-Ark project).

It may be tempting these days to see the world as one gigantic, increasingly automated archival market, underpinned by the legal imperative to collect all kinds of personal data (see the recent ‘drip’ laws that were recently rushed through the UK parliament). Yet it is also important to remember the varied professional, social and cultural contexts in which data is produced and managed.

One session at DigiPres, for example, will explore the different archival needs of the cultural heritage sector:

‘Digital cultural heritage is dependent on some of the same systems, standards and tools used by the entire digital preservation community. Practitioners in the humanities, arts, and information and social sciences, however, are increasingly beginning to question common assumptions, wondering how the development of cultural heritage-specific standards and best practices would differ from those used in conjunction with other disciplines […] Most would agree that preserving the bits alone is not enough, and that a concerted, continual effort is necessary to steward these materials over the long term.’

Of course approaches to digital preservation and data management in the US are largely overdetermined by economic directives, and European policies do still speak to the needs of cultural heritage institutions and other public organisations.

What is interesting, however, is the minimal transnational cross pollination at events such as DigiPres, despite the globally networked condition we all share. This suggests there are subtle divergences between approaches to digital information management now, and how it will be managed in coming years across these (very large) geopolitical locations. Aesthetics or no aesthetics, the market remains imperative. Despite the turn toward open archives and re-usable data, competition is at the heart of the system and is likely to win out above all else.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, 0 comments

Curating Digital Information or What Do You With Your Archive?

Today is the first day of iPres 2013, the 10th international conference on the preservation of digital objects held in Lisbon, Portugal. To mark the occasion we want to reflect on an issue that is increasingly important for the long term management of digital data: curation.

Anyone who has lived through the digital transition in the 21st century surely cannot ignore the information revolution they have been part of. In the past ten years, vast archives of analogue media have been migrated to digital formats and everyday we create new digital information that is archived and distributed through networks. Arcomen, who are running a workshop at iPres on ‘Archiving Community Memories’, describe how

‘in addition to the “common” challenges of digital preservation, such as media decay, technological obsolescence, authenticity and integrity issues, web preservation has to deal with the sheer size and ever-increasing growth and change rate of Web data. Hence, selection of content sources becomes a crucial and challenging task for archival organizations.’

As well as the necessary and sometimes difficult choices archival organisations have to make in the process of collecting an archive, there is then the issue of what to do with your data once it has been created. This is where the issue of digital curation comes in.

SONY_website_1996

Screenshot of the SONY website from 1996

Traditionally, the role of the curator is to ‘take care’ and interpret collections in an art gallery or a museum. In contemporary society, however, there is an increasing need for people to curate collections that are exclusively digital, and can only be accessed through the web. Part of any long term digitisation strategy, particularly if an archive is to be used for education or research purposes, should therefore factor in plans and time for curation.

Curation transforms a digital collection from being the equivalent of a library, which may be searchable, organised and catalogued, into something more akin to an exhibition. Curation helps to select aspects of an archive in order to tell deliberate stories, or simply help the user navigate content in a particular way. Curating material is particularly important if an archive deals with a specialist subject that no one knows about because visitors often need help to manoeuvre large amounts of complex information. Being overwhelmed by content on the internet is an often cited expression, but ensuring digital content is curated carefully means it is more likely that people visiting your site will be able to cope with what they find there, and delve deeper into your digitsed archival treasures.

Like all things digital, there is no one steadfast or established guidelines for how to ensure your collection is curated well. The rapid speed that technology changes, from preferred archival formats, software to interface design, mean that digital curation can never be a static procedure. New multiple web authoring tools such as zeega, klynt and 3WDOC will soon become integrated into web design in a similar fashion to the current Web 2.0 tools we use now, therefore creating further possibilities for the visual, immersive and interactive presentation of digital archive material.

fostex_Dec 1998

Screenshot of the Fostex website from Dec 1998

Curation is an important aspect of digital preservation in general because it can facilitate long term use and engagement with your collection. What may be lost when archive sites become pruned and more self-consciously arranged is the spontaneous and sometimes chaotic experience of exploring information on the web.

Ultimately though, digital curation will enable more people to navigate archival collections in ways that can foster meaningful, transformative and informative encounters with digitised material.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, Video Tape, 0 comments