Lee Pretlove

Lee Pretlove

Last updated on 10 October 2017

I had initially conceived this blog as a meditation on the science (or art) of appraisal. Since July I’ve had the opportunity to attend conference and events (DPASSH, DPC events, PASIG to name a few). Throughout these events, through conversation and reflection, my thoughts on archival appraisal continued to be, well, reappraised. However, William Kilbride’s blog on ‘The Data Vanishes’ has really, really got me thinking about what it is we are preserving and who should be involved. Therefore, I decided to write about the development of my shifting thoughts about ‘digital stuff’ and precisely what it is that we are trying to preserve. Between the project plans, meetings and implementations, there’s been a bit of reflective thinking here.

Before taking a post in digital preservation, my background was in records management and information rights, having qualified through the University of Dundee’s CAIS and practiced at a commercial engineering company for the best part of a decade. Through managing records through physical files and through information technology systems, I also began taking an interest in the information that the engineers wanted to retain and what value they placed on certain types of information, gaining insights into their personal information management behaviours. Their hybrid world of paper files and 3D numerical modelling files showed that those 3D files could not be easily reconciled into the same theoretical models of managing records. For me, the 3D files had changed the game.

At the risk of stating the blindly obvious: digital is different (there’s a whole book which questions this notion - Is Digital Different?). What I don’t think is as obvious is that the approaches to digital do not necessarily translate directly from current recordkeeping practice. And that’s where I’m having my conflict with the whole ‘digital thing’ at the moment.

I’m afraid that asking the question of ‘when do we appraise in a digital world’ does not sit comfortably with me any more, nor do I find much comfort when those in other professions are asking the questions like ‘what do we keep…we’ll just keep everything because it is digital and doesn’t take up space?’ Just because we could keep everything, it doesn’t mean we have to. Recordkeepers have always evolved in tune with the technology society has used to record things (Luciana Duranti and Richard J Cox have written great pieces on recordkeeping evolution). Put crudely, technology (of whatever form) has always wagged the dog but the recordkeeping professional has a proven track record in reactively getting to the nub of the issue. Until, that is the later Twentieth Century, when, funnily enough, computing first starting making an appearance.

To help us work with computers, the computing world used skeuomorphic design (folders, files, recycle bin) when that’s not what is actually going on in the bitstream through layers and layers of representation. I am glad that William shared his concern over the term ‘data’ in ‘The Data Vanishes (http://www.dpconline.org/blog/the-data-vanishes) – it is something that has been troubling me as the DPOC project (www.dpoc.ac.uk) has progressed and perhaps now is the time to reveal my developing thoughts into the digital preservationists’ confessional.  In particular, William’s observed that “data has no physical form and no physical content.” This needed to be told. Furthermore, “data implies all sorts of internal dependencies and applications that confound naivety.” OK, I get this, we are no longer managing materials which exist as discrete, physical objects. “The file is no longer – and indeed has never been – the atomic unit of preservation”. Wow.

The reactive nature of recordkeeping does need to change, though now we need to be active with the record creators and have greater interaction with those developing new technology and new platforms.

The construct of the file as an object is such that in its raw form, the ‘file’ is made up of binary units. I wanted to find out more and I consulted Aden Evan’s The Logic of the Digital. He explains that binary units in the physical world are just “invisible magnetic and electronic properties, producing meaning by generating a detectable magnetic field or by allowing a particular amount of electric current to pass through. The semiotic relation, with its human component, emerges only after a decoding process that once again produces the letter in one of its singular material incarnations.” (Aden Evans, 2015, p11).

So what is this digital, intangible thing that we are trying to preserve? What we are trying to preserve are the representations of things that a computer outputs into an interface that a human decodes as they have done with its interaction with printed and manuscript media. We need to stop thinking about digital objects as actual objects as befitting print culture mentality. You could argue that I am being extreme in that this could be compared to decomposing a handwritten letter on paper to the fibres of the paper, the type of ink, the type of pen used to convey the ink to the paper and the symbols used to convey meaning. However, all these things you can see and are tangible. To draw upon Evans again, “…bits do not, except in unusual cases, offer themselves to human sensation and so do not operate by sensible operation.” So, how are we ever going to preserve something that does not operate sensibly?

As William Kilbride points out, we need to look at the entire environment in which bits operate and render themselves to interpretation to human beings. “Although I may wish for simpler times, data and software have always been mutually dependent.   We’ve spent a lot of time persuading people to preserve data: it’s about time we persuaded them that the software matters too.” (Kilbride, 2017). We should be looking further back than that. For those that have the luxury to do so, digital preservation research needs to be going back to basics, even further back from the atomic unit of preservation. We need to fundamentally question what in ‘the digital’ it is we are striving to preserve and why we are doing it (and even why we are creating it). We need to ask what legacy we want to leave for future generations, ask what and why we need to keep it (and thus preserve it) and come up with the best solution for future accessibility.

This change will take an enormous amount of time and it starts in the classroom with educators, students and practitioners in this field to come to a consensus of what it is we do and how we can shape the future. A step in the right direction would be to get leading practitioners seconded to universities to influence digital curricula, who in turn will teach the next generation, who will then go on to practice and hopefully give back to the community by sharing their wisdom through research. We need to have more collaborative research programmes into reasons for and methods in why we create and look to preserve those binary units into the future.

On this theme, you may wish to read my colleague Dave Gerrard’s recent post on some Digital Preservation Futurology [http://www.dpoc.ac.uk/2017/09/08/digital-preservation-futurology].


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