The Challenges of Preservation in the Prospects for the Digital Humanities and the Arts

admin 17/04/2015

This post was originally published as part of the Council on Library and Information Resource’s (CLIR) blog Re:Thinking

Photo of a decaying and torn letter

Photo from Flick user InstaDerek, used under Creative Commons Licensing.

⌘+ S. We save almost without thinking about it. With the widespread adoption of word processing software, we’ve become thoroughly conditioned to save as we create. Not so with digital projects. There’s no easy equivalent to the ubiquitous “⌘ + S” that would automagically provide long-term preservation of digital objects and projects. As such, the urgent problems of preservation continue to require thoughtful conversations and deep planning.

On April 10 & 11th, scholars, librarians, archivists, and artists from 11 institutions spread across the northeast gathered at The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts to weigh in on “Prospects for the Digital Humanities and the Arts.”

During the CLIR-sponsored colloquium, participants considered a wide range of challenges and opportunities facing higher education and cultural institutions committed to supporting digital research, scholarship, and pedagogy. The presentations and discussions collectively explored the life cycles of digital work—from the initial creation of digital objects, to the research and discovery process, to the production of scholarship, to the dissemination of that scholarship (both through publication and through pedagogy), to the preservation of that research.

While each of these stages is deserving of more than a single blog post, my notes from the colloquium return again and again to the challenges of preservation. The questions raised and explored by the group will sound familiar to many of us working in and with digital scholarship: What should be preserved? Where should it live? When should it be preserved? For how long? For whom? By whom? And in what form? Behind these questions lies an implicit belief in the intrinsic value of objects and in the ability of preservation processes to maintain an acceptable portion of that value.

Any deep discussion of preservation must also confront the anxiety about loss that often motivates and shapes preservation programs. Many of the projects and curricular activities showcased in the colloquium engaged both with fragile materials objects (including textiles, rare books, and film reels) and with digitized versions of those objects. Through discussion it became clear that we sometimes focus our attention on the fragility of material objects and forget that digital objects are also material and fragile, often prone to loss at a far higher rate than, for instance, paper, which has proved remarkably resilient. And it isn’t just the objects of our research that are deteriorating and becoming inaccessible, as Gerald Zahavi (University of Albany) reminded us, but also the hardware through which we once experienced those objects.

While conversations about preservation can be overwhelmed by a sense of loss, there was also a clear consensus in the group that some things must be protected from preservation. Many classroom activities and art objects are created to be ephemeral. To escape or even resist preservation. There’s a lot of room here, I think, for further dialogue and for thinking strategically about the dangers as well as necessities of preservation. (The history of the controversial practice of preserving natural habitats, for instance, might provide some provocative parallels and lessons.)

So who is responsible for preservation? Faculty members? Librarians? Archivists? All of the above? While the practice of digital scholarship can introduce students and scholars to preservation issues, the immediate challenges of creating new digital work can deflect attention away from preservation. And existing institutional structures and pressures can make planning for preservation incredibly difficult. While the pressures to produce digital scholarship increase, the timelines for production (especially the promotion and tenure processes) have not yet adjusted—or, as in the case of graduate education, have actually been shortened. With few exceptions, it takes more time to produce digital scholarship and digital projects than our institutions are accustomed to support. It takes more collaboration. It takes more expertise. All of these challenges often push preservation off the proverbial table.

And this is where I think libraries can and do play a critical role in facilitating the production and preservation of new digital scholarship. Libraries are increasingly housing centers for teaching and research, digital humanities programs, special collections and archives, and open access presses—as we heard from numerous participants at the colloquium. In many ways, libraries are at the center of the preservation challenge. So, what do libraries need in order to meet this challenge?

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