Impermanence, Selection and Digital Stewardship

Selection–what to keep, how to keep it, and how long to keep it–quickly comes up in connection with stewardship of digital content.

Consider two prevalent concepts at opposite extremes.  One holds that we are failing to save enough digital content, a position taken in a recent article in the Economist, History flushed: The digital age promised vast libraries, but they remain incomplete. The other concept, perhaps in reaction to the first, is that organizations need to save every scrap of data because it’s impossible to predict what will have value down the road.  David Rosenthal explores this idea in Lets Just Keep Everything Forever In The Cloud.

eternal impermanence, by Squant, on Flickr

eternal impermanence, by Squant, on Flickr

If we attempt to look past whether we are saving too little or too much content, there is yet another selection issue that comes into play: the degree to which preserved content changes through migration, or even is lost as a result of system failure.  Henry Newman notes that librarians and archivists discuss preservation in terms of data loss or no data loss in spite of the fact that “100% data reliability is impossible given the cost for large archives” (link here, PDF).

These are knotty issues that will take some time settle.  Yet I found myself thinking about them while reading something completely removed from the subject of digital stewardship.  The Unbearable Impermanence of Things: Reflections on Buddhism, Cultural Memory and Heritage Conservation, a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Heritage in Asia, has some fascinating observations on conservation and the impermanence of cultural heritage. Impermanence in this case is framed as both how physical objects transform over time and how cultures modify their interpretation of those objects.

The basic point is that heritage materials inevitably change and that heritage conservation involves dealing with that change.  Objects change in all kinds of ways, from acquiring a fine patina to outright loss or destruction.  The author notes that iconoclasm–the smashing of of cultural objects–is a “selective process through which memory achieves social and cultural definition.”  In the case of the two giant Buddha statues dynamited in 2001 by the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, the act of erasure is clearly evident–it’s even “indefinitely replicated as a memorial image” via YouTube.

The author declares that all heritage remnants are fragments that can at best refer to an absent totality.  Alterations, breakages and mistakes associated with a heritage object demonstrate it’s historicity and “existence in time within the society that created it.”  Historical objects also have a tendency to accumulate layers of additional meaning, some of which can be radically different than what an original steward had in mind.

I know the comparison of physical objects to digital collections can only be taken so far.  There are fundamental differences, including the fact that former is rooted in material manifestation and the later is literally disembodied.  Nevertheless, I take some comfort in imagining that all the many challenges and complexities associated with digital preservation are subsumed in the same impermanence as the rest of the world.


  1. Euan Cochrane
    May 16, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    I think it is important to differentiate between preventable and non-preventable change. I believe that the vast majority of change in the digital world is preventable (e.g. by using emulation strategies instead of migration strategies).

    The problem is the cost of preventing change. Some changes are presumed to be more expensive than others to prevent. The trouble is that at the moment we don’t have good economic models to predict the cost of employing different strategies to prevent change (while also enabling access) and therefore we cannot compare the different strategies either.

    Great post, but it also worries me as I’m perceiving a tendency in the digital preservation community to assume more change is unpreventable than is actually the case. I believe we ought to be being open about the cost of preventing change rather than just saying it is inevitable.

  2. Kevin Driedger
    May 17, 2012 at 10:12 am

    Thanks for the post. As one who has spent a bit of time pondering the tensions between preservation and impermanence, I’m always happy to hear another person offer their impressions. I wanted to tweet the final sentence of your post – but was unable to appropriately cut it down to 140 characters. It is a keeper.

    I wonder how approaching preservation – whether of digital or physical objects – would look different if we approached it as the Unbearable Impermanence author suggests with acknowledgement that change is inevitable, and our work is about managing that change.

  3. Bill LeFurgy
    May 17, 2012 at 10:29 am

    Kevin, thanks. The idea of managing change is needs to be further explored for digital preservation. Bits are so easy to replicate exactly and big data storage is (mostly) extremely reliable that we can be lulled into thinking that we can keep content in a permanent, unchanged state forever (at least the original bitstream).

  4. Euan Cochrane
    May 17, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    Bill, I think your comment from the other post

    was intended for this one.

    Bill LeFurgy
    May 17, 2012 at 10:16 am
    Euan, thanks for your comment. You are right to draw a distinction between degrees of change and also right about the absence of reliable cost models for preservation. The digital preservation community has multiple stressors, including “how much loss can we deal with for the material we care about”? It can be hard to admit that any loss is acceptable. The conservators of physical cultural heritage have faced a similar issue over the last 100 years and their views have evolved quite a bit.

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