Digital Archives & Preservation: Theoretical Perspectives

The following is from Mattie Burkert, who wrote up her notes from our session on Digital Archives & Preservation: Theoretical Perspectives. We’ll follow up with two more sessions on archives & preservation:

11/18    Digital Archives and Preservation II: Institutional and National Preservation Efforts, led by Peter Gorman, Head of UW’s Digital Collections

12/4     Digital Archives and Preservation III: Data Management Best Practices, led by Brianna Marshall, Digital Curation Coordinator for UW-Madison Libraries


We began by trying to disambiguate terms from the readings and figure out which ones were most useful, which ones meant different things in different disciplines, etc.: archive (classical, digitized, born-digital, dynarchives / archives in motion); formal vs forensic materiality; storage vs memory; digital object; medium vs format; media archaeology; digital forensics; curation; preservation; sustainability.

We talked about how broadly speaking, librarians may have more of a focus on access while archivists may have more of a focus on survival, but went on to challenge that binary (without the possibility of access, does an object really survive?)

We talked about some of the specific digital objects some members of the group are working with (webcomics, Twitter data, film, radio) and the challenges those present for access from the research side. Bert from the Library of Congress and Amy from the Digital Public Library of America offered their perspective from the archival side — in particular, how the nature of archiving is changing as new media are being collected, andhow  it’s becoming a more fluid, responsive, participatory activity. For example, if users request for Twitter to take down a Tweet from a year ago, the LoC Twitter archive also has to be updated to reflect that.

This discussion of archiving social data led us to a discussion about the shifting power dynamics and the economic structures of social data archiving. We agreed that archives have always been shaped by political and economic forces, but that perhaps the archiving of social media data accelerates or exaggerates that process, or makes it more visible. This then led to a broader discussion of how digitized and born-digital archives are similar/different to more traditional archives, and to what extent existing structures/practices are portable vs. to what extent the fundamental nature of archives is changing.

We discussed some of the ethical issues of archiving new kinds of data, like disc images of writers’ computers, or social media content. These questions raise some privacy concerns. Also, the definitions of how things enter the public record are based on an older model of political discourse — if you sent an angry email to a politician, it was archived, but today, when it enters a digital archive, it may eventually be picked up by search engines and attached to your name in a much more public way. Caitlin, a researcher from African history, took the opposite position: she advocated for the highest possible level of access to as much info as possible, pointing out that much of what is invisible in the archives she studies is invisible because it has been erased.

We talked about how there are private groups accessing public records and making them much easier to find than was the case in the past, which raised all sorts of questions about the changing role of digital archives in relation to other groups, corporations, and forces working to preserve and make accessible various materials. The possibility was raised that maybe an entity like the LoC shouldn’t be introducing redundancy by creating its own Twitter archive, but rather, working with Twitter on a plan to act as repository if and when the company disappears. Jesse pointed out that there is a kind of loss of meaning or beauty when you archive something like Flickr — it creates a temporary set of relations among images, and when you preserve those images and/or their relations, you actually lose something about the experience of ephemerality that is part of the point.

This got us into a discussion of scale and sustainability. Some of the archivists in the room pointed out the impossibility of saving everything, and Molly pointed out that sustainability from the data perspective can be very unsustainable, environmentally. We talked about the architecture and logistics of data centers, their energy costs, the expense of redundancy and backup, etc. We also talked about how our behaviors are changing and we’re saving more just because we can — so even as capacity for storage is growing, so is our need for it.

A related thread during this part of the conversation was about format vs medium; we discussed how the experience of an object changes with the format (e.g. watching a movie on 35mm film vs digital video file), and asked whether it’s realistic for archives to preserve not only multiple formats, but also the technology to access those formats. Challenging if not impossible from a resources perspective. Laima, an independent artist/researcher, pointed to the relationship between archival desire and nostalgia and asked to what extent the function of saving, e.g. old video game consoles, phonographs, and the like is best left to the public/collectors. Someone recommended Lucas Hildebrand’s Inherent Vice as a good source for thinking about the relationship between meaning and format.

At the end, we previewed the next two meetings and asked the group to identify open questions or loose threads they would like to see picked up:


  1. how do UW digital collections deal with questions of authenticity?
  2. how are digital cataloging and finding aids helping to enable connections between analog collections?
  3. what are some specific digital archiving practices you use?
  4. for people creating small digital collections (not part of larger archives), do you have advice about how much emphasis to put on getting rights and permissions for materials? do you have advice about collecting metadata for those kinds of collections? what about the politics of sharing potentially sensitive materials (e.g. Nigerian popular fiction that is not widely available)
  5. how is the university thinking about research data vs archive data? are there any overlaps?
  6. when objects exist in multiple formats, what digital formats is UW prioritizing for preservation?

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