CIRCA:Digital Humanities Concerns: Digital Preservation

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Contents

Introduction

The digital humanities field consists of collections of complex digital objects including web pages, digital archives, digital collections, etc. Comprehensively digitally preserving such objects is challenging because there are many moving parts and no two projects are the same. After intensive research, hard work, and fundraising digital humanists launch projects into the world. Researchers anywhere have access to produced web pages, software, digital archive, dataset or project website. But we have to consider following questions:

  • What will happen to your scholarship output in five years?
  • In twenty-five?
  • What happens if you change institutions or institutional priorities/ fields change over years?
  • Will the digital project be updated or forced to seize its activities and relevant digital representations in a form of digital archive/ web page?
  • Who should ensure that your project remains available to researchers?
  • Which department or institution should guide and maintain long-term sustainability of digital research?

Preservation of digital humanities research outputs is vital for their future use. Failure to consider the project's sustainability will consequently result in gaps in cultural heritage and potentially eliminate years of scholarship and financial investments.


What is digital preservation?

Floppy Disc. From: The Electrical Engineering Handbook, 2005 (https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/floppy-disk)

Definitions of digital preservation

Hedstrom (1998) defines digital preservation as “the planning, resource allocation, and application of preservation methods and technologies necessary to ensure that digital information of continuing value remains accessible and usable”. Digital preservation is a complex process requiring administrative support, funding, personnel, and often specialized software and technology expertise. Kretzschmar and Potter (2010) outline three seemingly simple questions about preserving digital projects:

  • How will we deal with changing media and operating environments?
  • Who will pay for it?
  • Who will do the work?

Smith (2004) notes that “there are … nagging issues about persistence that scholars and researchers need to resolve, such as … deciding which iteration of a dynamic and changing resource should be captured and curated for preservation”. In 2009, Digital Humanities Quarterly published a number of articles dedicated to the question of “doneness” in digital humanities projects. Kirschenbaum (2009) notes that “digital humanities … is used to derive considerable rhetorical mileage and the occasional moral high-ground by contrasting its radical flexibility and mutability with the glacial nature of scholarly communication in the fixed and frozen world of print-based publication”. Digital humanities projects are often in a state of flux and indeed may never truly be finished. This feature of digital humanities projects makes their preservation even more challenging, ‘a moving target’ (Hedstrom 1998).

When DH projects lead to traditional outputs such as academic journal articles, preservation may be relatively straightforward, relying on depositing materials in institutional repositories to preserve project data, metadata, and the resulting scholarship. Once DH projects include an interactive component or if they make use of web applications, we have to ask whether preservation means maintaining functionality of the project or if alternative strategies, such as combination of screencasts, screenshots, descriptions, interviews, and other documentation would suffice.


Main criteria for digital preservation

Selection: What is collected and preserved?

Pitfall! Photo from Wikipedia

The question of selection is significant. It is largely dependent on the current practices. The very essence of what a digital object is itself controversial and dependent on the kinds of questions the project author is interested in. Far more problematic, is the fact that the very essence of what a digital object is itself contiguous on questions digital humanists are interested in (Owens 2014).

For instance, what is Pitfall!? Is it the binary source code? Is it an assembly code written on the wafer inside the cartridge? Is it the cartridge and the packaging? Is it what the game looks like on the screen? Any screen? Or is it what the game looked like on a cathode ray tube screen? What about an arcade cabinet that plays the game? These are all pitfalls. However, for different people including individual scholars, patrons, users what Pitfall is, is different. Pitfall was designed by David Crane for the Atari 2600 and released by Activision in 1982. It is a single-player, side-scrolling platform game with an attempt to recover 32 treasures in a 20-minute time period. Activision went bankrupt in 1991. The modern company has little connection to the old one. Pitfall enjoyed a brief revival of the 90s (see Adaptation and Re-adaptation: The story of Pitfall II).


Definition: What features of digital objects are significant to preserve?

Significance of DH projects: Is it chimeric [hope for but impossible to achieve]? Too often swept away in technical discussions of preservation instead of focusing on what is to be preserved?

The September 11 Digital Archive is a collection of electronic media on the history of September 11, 2001 and its aftermath. The Archive contains more than 150,000 digital items with more than 40,000 emails and other electronic communications including first-hand stories and digital images. The project was funded by a major grant from Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and organized by the American Social History Project at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) at George Mason University (The September 11 Digital Archive). The goal of the project is outlined as ‘to create a permanent record of the events of September 11, 2001’ (et al.). In 2003 the Archive was acquisited by the Library of Congress to ensure long term preservation. The Library of Congress is the United States’s oldest federal cultural institution that serves as the research arm of Congress. Having institutional support and a system for preserving digital projects as the September 11 Digital Archive contributes a lot to the field of digital humanities.

The questions related to the significance of DH projects:

  • Why should researchers preserve certain projects and neglect the preservation for other projects?
  • Who is responsible for making decisions about preservation of projects?
  • When the researcher has to make the decision about preservation?
The September 11 Digital Archive Home Page


Challenges of digital preservation

  • Technological obsolescence: as technology changes it is more difficult to access content made on or for older computing platforms
  • Proactive lifestyle management: preservation actions/ strategy to be taken much earlier in the life span management
  • Scale: DH deals with a huge amount of content. For instance, there being over 1 petabyte of digital content including the UK Web Archive, the National Digital Sound Collection. The content has to be available for the long term regardless of its form of format.
  • But what about other countries and institutions that do not have this sort of nationwide support?
  • What about preservation of digital objects and digital heritage in countries where digital preservation is the last issue to think of in a long pile of vital questions related to more important?
  • Will digital preservation or digital humanities’ project preservation in South Asia or China have the same priority as in Europe and North America?
  • Will the support of digital preservation largely depend on political priorities and dynamics of the world?
  • Why do some projects get supported and receive fundings from large institutions while the rest have to survive on their own?

These are all the questions that come with only one given example-project of the September 11 Digital Archive. The field of digital humanities is filled with a large number of projects that represent their vitality and importance on their own. Thus the question of digital preservation has many features and is dependent on many factors including political/ social importance of the project; institution’s priority and interest in the project; contribution of the project to the field; and its overarching goal that has to align with the supporting organization’s activities and missions.

Considering complex questions and aspects related to the digital preservation of DH projects, let’s outline some of the strategies researchers are advised to take into account.


How to preserve digital objects?

Practical outcomes

Consider maintenance and preservation early in the project planning process, and involve experts who can help you along the way. Thinking ahead may help you develop a more organized project by outlining transparent file organization, backup processes and hand-off plans.

Communication among a range of stakeholders and support staff would ensure researchers receive consistent and informed guidance. Establishing best practices and workflows for common project types and developing a checklist to prepare projects to be “archive ready”. In the long term, continuing to build staff expertise in ‘born digital’ archiving should be part of the equation.

Preserving digital materials is not simply a technical challenge. It requires an ongoing series of actionable steps and interventions throughout the lifecycle of the project. This will ensure continued and reliable access to authentic digital materials. Digital collections content is at risk from the moment it’s created. With ever changing technology, it is more difficult to access digital content stored on or for older computing platforms.

  • Where to start?
  • How to preserve the Digital Objects considering current technology and overwhelming volume of digital content?
  • Identify where your digital resources are located
  • Decide which resources are worth preserving
  • Organize your resources
  • Make copies backing up your data in as many modes and storage media as possible helps ensure that it will be recoverable (The Library of Congress).


Two fundamental digital preservation strategies

  • Refreshment

Periodically moving a file from one physical location to another to avoid the obsolescence or degradation of storage medium. Due to decay of physical storage devices and technological changes an ongoing form of refreshing is required for all digital projects.

Refreshment is an expensive reservation strategy as it involves hiring relevant experts, consulting and implementing refreshment strategy along with support for updated technology to keep its maintenance. In other words, the amount spent on refreshment might equal the creation of a digital humanities project anew.

  • Migration

Periodically converting data from one hardware/ software to another, or from one generation of computer technology to a subsequent generation preserving the essential characteristics of data. Migration will bring files into an outlined variety of standard file formats. Each migration of data assists to develop standards, clearer workflows and improves practices.

Both strategies are advised to be included into DH project’s development outline. As refreshment and migration requires input as technical knowledge/ expertise, financial support and may affect the authenticity and integrity of the project. The preservation of new formats of digital publications need to be considered including interactive narratives and mobile eBook apps. The digital humanities is a developing field and requires consideration of requirements needed to ensure preservation and accessibility.


Conclusion

We need collaboration of digital humanists, archivists, historians and computer scientists with extensive technical expertise who understand how contingent and complex deciding what to keep and how to go about keeping them is. Thus the question of “To preserve or not to preserve” encompasses myriad features and plays a vital role for researchers and digital humanities field as a whole.


References

  1. Digital preservation. The challenges of digital preservation. https://www.bl.uk/digital-preservation/challenges#
  2. Express N. (2021). Adaptation and Re-adaptation: The story of Pitfall. https://nicole.express/2021/fallin-in-a-pitfall.html
  3. Hedstrom M. (1997). Digital preservation: a time bomb for digital libraries. Computers and Humanities, 31 (3), 189-202.
  4. LUCIDEA. Three Fundamental Digital Preservation Strategies. Margot Note. 4.30.2018. https://lucidea.com/blog/three-fundamental-digital-preservation-strategies/
  5. Owens, T. (2014). Digital Preservation’s Place in the Future of the Digital Humanities.
  6. The Library of Congress. Personal Archiving: Preserving Your Digital Memories. https://www.digitalpreservation.gov/personalarchiving/
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