I’d say this is the topic that fascinates me the most about digital humanities; the major question of how we preserve information for posterity. The passing down of information is a practice as old as life itself, and, dare I say, /is/ life itself; genetics are essentially information, and thus the human drive to survive is a drive to preserve and minimize information loss. Death is, in a sense, the ultimate loss of information, if that information has not been preserved elsewhere. Horace, in the end of one of his books of odes, wrote “Exegi monumentum aere perennius”–“I have built a monument more lasting than bronze.”

But…has he?

Abby Smith - Preservation

This reading pointed out the (accurate) perception that digital creations are not permanent. This is a topic I’ve dealt with a lot–e.g., for a class I’m currently taking in physics, we have to write reports about nuclear energy, and the instructor has a very stringent policy about volatile references. He says: “Since webpages can be updated/disappear with the push of a button, they are inherently volatile and are in general unallowed”

Physical manifestations are by no means permanent either. Sure, under the right conditions, they last for a very long time, but they can very easily be damaged or lost. However, as the Rosenzweig article points out, they can be much more robust than digital versions, in which a single damaged bit can corrupt the whole file. Also, software obsolescence is a huge problem, and makes the issue of preservation absolutely Protean.
Smith’s article points out several ways that software obsolence may be tackled, each with pros and cons:

  • Migration: moving the data to a newer version of the software, constantly (my sibling refers to this process as making “frontups” (as opposed to backups))
  • Emulation: Trying to copy how the data would be presented on older hardware&software, but with newer tech
  • Persistent object preservation: Trying to eliminate the problem of hardware/software requirements by explicitly declaring their properties in a simple way
  • Technology preservation: Saving the old tech and just using that

Each has their own drawbacks and advantages, and there’s no one perfect solution (yet).

Saving the Bits: Digital Humanities Forever? (Kilbride)

Could we talk a little more in class about the different definitions of “data”? Kilbride says that the Electronic Beowulf “is data in the sense of being a systematic series of measures of the colour of a manuscript; but it is hardly data about the “Spear Danes in days gone by.”” What sense of data is being used here, and what other fields define the term differently?

(Also, again, more mentions of web pages going dead–This made me wonder, how are we planning on preserving the DLCL122 course blog?)

Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era (Rosenzweig)

This article emphasized that there’s a /lot/ of stuff out there, which is what makes preservation such a difficult problem. For an example of this in the modern age, I looked up some statistics on Youtube, that state that 1 hour of video is uploaded to Youtube every second. (Interesting note: if you go to the source of these statistics, you’ll find that they’ve since changed that.)

The digital world is constantly changing. This can be somewhat infuriating, as standards are established and replaced, and it makes preservation tricky, but it also allows for constant innovation and improvement. It’s our job as digital humanists to use these innovations to ensure that vast swaths of information are not lost to the ages.


01 May 2017