Digital Preservation 2014: It’s a Thing

“Digital preservation makes headlines now, seemingly routinely. And the work performed by the community gathered here is the bedrock underlying such high profile endeavors.” – Matt Kirschenbaum

The registration table at Digital Preservation 2014. Photo credit: Erin Engle.

The registration table at Digital Preservation 2014. Photo credit: Erin Engle.

The annual Digital Preservation meeting, held each summer in Washington, DC, brings together experts in academia, government and the private and non-profit sectors to celebrate key work and share the latest developments, guidelines, best practices and standards in digital preservation.

Digital Preservation 2014, held July 22-24,  marked the 13th major meeting hosted by NDIIPP in support of the broad community of digital preservation practitioners (NDIIPP held two meetings a year from 2005-2007), and it was certainly the largest, if not the best. Starting with the first combined NDIIPP/National Digital Stewardship Alliance meeting in 2011, the annual meeting has rapidly evolved to welcome an ever-expanding group of practitioners, ranging from students to policy-makers to computer scientists to academic researchers. Over 300 people attended this year’s meeting.

“People don’t need drills; they need holes,” stated NDSA Coordinating Committee chairman Micah Altman, the Director of Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries,  in an analogy to digital preservation in his opening talk. As he went on to explain, no one needs digital preservation for its own sake, but it’s essential to support the rule of law, a cumulative evidence base, national heritage, a strategic information reserve, and to communicate to future generations. It’s these challenges that face the current generation of digital stewardship practitioners, many of which are addressed in the 2015 National Agenda for Digital Stewardship, which Altman previewed during his talk (and which will appear later this fall).

A breakout session at Digital Preservation 2014. Photo credit: Erin Engle.

A breakout session at Digital Preservation 2014. Photo credit: Erin Engle.

One of those challenges is the preservation of the software record, which was eloquently illuminated by Matt Kirschenbaum, the Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, during his stellar talk, “Software, It’s a Thing.” Kirschenbaum ranged widely across computer history, art, archeology and pop culture with a number of essential insights. One of the more piquant was his sorting of software into different categories of “things” (software as asset, package, shrinkwrap, notation/score, object, craft, epigraphy, clickwrap, hardware, social media, background, paper trail, service, big data), each of which with its own characteristics. As Kirschenbaum eloquently noted, software is many different “things,” and we’ll need to adjust our future approaches to preservation accordingly.

Associate Professor at the New School Shannon Mattern took yet another refreshing approach, discussing the aesthetics of creative destruction and the challenges of preserving ephemeral digital art. As she noted, “by pushing certain protocols to their extreme, or highlighting snafus and ‘limit cases’ these artists’ work often brings into stark relief the conventions of preservation practice, and poses potential creative new directions for that work.”

Stephen Abrams, Martin Klein, Jimmy Lin and Michael Nelson during the "Web Archiving" panel. Photo credit: Erin Engle.

Stephen Abrams, Martin Klein, Jimmy Lin and Michael Nelson during the “Web Archiving” panel. Photo credit: Erin Engle.

These three presentations on the morning of the first day provided a thoughtful intellectual substrate upon which a huge variety of digital preservation tools, services, practices and approaches were elaborated over the following days. As befits a meeting that convenes disparate organizations and interests, collaboration and community were big topics of discussion.

A Tuesday afternoon panel on “Community Approaches to Digital Stewardship” brought together a quartet of practitioners who are working collaboratively to advance digital preservation practice across a range of organizations and structures, including small institutions (the POWRR project); data stewards (the Research Data Alliance); academia (the Academic Preservation Trust); and institutional consortiums (the Five College Consortium).

Later, on the second day, a well-received panel on the “Future of Web Archiving” displayed a number of clever collaborative approaches to capturing the digital materials from the web, including updates on the Memento project and Warcbase, an open-source platform for managing web archives.

CurateCamp: Digital Culture. Photo credit: Erin Engle.

CurateCamp: Digital Culture. Photo credit: Erin Engle.

In between there were plenary sessions on stewarding space and research data, and over three dozen lightning talks, posters and breakout sessions covering everything from digital repositories for museum collections to a Brazilian digital preservation network to the debut of a new digital preservation questions and answers tool. Additionally, a CurateCamp unconference on the topic of “Digital Culture” was held on a third day at Catholic University, thanks to the support of the CUA Department of Library and Information Science.

The main meeting closed with a thought-provoking presentation from artist and digital conservator Dragan Espenschied. Espenschied utilized emulation and other novel tools to demonstrate some of the challenges related to presenting works authentically, in particular works from the early web and those dependent on a range of web services. Espenschied, also the Digital Conservator at Rhizome, has an ongoing project, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age, that explores the material captured in the Geocities special collection. Associated with that project is a Tumblr he created that automatically generates a new screenshot from the Geocities archive collection every 20 minutes.

Web history, data stewardship, digital repositories; for digital preservation practitioners it was nerd heaven. Digital preservation 2014, it’s a thing. Now on to 2015!

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