The Artifactual Elements of Born-Digital Records, Part 1

The following is a guest post by Jefferson Bailey, Fellow at the Library of Congress’s Office of Strategic Initiatives.

In Carl Fleischhauer’s recent four-part blog series, he discussed the challenges of, and different approaches to, capturing both the informational and the artifactual aspects of physical books and photographic negatives when reproducing these records in digital form. Continuing in this theme, a similar issue in digital preservation is the way librarians, archivists, and cultural heritage stewards are attempting to preserve the informational and artifactual traits of born-digital records – those texts, images, and data that were created in digital form.

Computer History Museum, by David Glover, on Flickr

While preserving the informational content of born-digital material requires its own distinct processes (including activities such as validation, fixity and migration), preserving the artifactual elements of a digital record introduces a unique set of intellectual and technical challenges. But first, what do we mean by the artifactual nature of a born-digital object? The idea may seem counterintuitive – after all, an artifact implies something physical and how can you preserve the tactile characteristics of something intangible like digital information?

There are two ways to think of the artifactual characteristics of digital files. The first is to consider the materiality of the hardware on which this data is created, stored, and processed — the physicality of their “carriers”. We all have fond (or often not-so-fond) memories of the beige CPU towers, silver laptops, and boxy external drives we have used over the years. As with any transformative technology, its material evolution can evoke an endearing nostalgia. The inclusion of these objects in museums speaks to their aesthetic appeal as historical artifacts, but antiquated carriers can also serve distinct roles in digital preservation activities. For instance, maintenance of yesterday’s hardware and software systems can allow preservationists to use those machines to access, recover, or analyze data on obsolete storage devices, one aspect of the increasing role of digital forensics in cultural heritage institutions.

But there is another artifactual element to born-digital records, and that is the “digital environment” in which records are created, altered, and accessed. To what extent does our computer “desktop” impact the way we create or organize our records? How do the functions of, say, a word-processing program, with its auto-styling abilities and editing features like “track changes,” influence how we write? This artifactuality of the digital environment contains precious contextual information about records and their creators.

Screenshot, by Michael Heilemann, on Flickr

If we consider the manner in which serial publication influenced the writing habits (plotting, characterization, and even formal composition) of Victorian authors like Dickens, we can also imagine the ways word processing software, image editing programs, or even operating systems can impact how contemporary records creators produce creative works. As cultural heritage institutions transition from accessioning physical records to accessioning old laptops and hard-drives, they will need to decide the extent to which they will preserve a collection’s digital artifactuality, as well as how best to provide access to the obsolescent operating environments and programming they contain. In “Part 2” (to be posted sometime in the future), we’ll look at some of the ways institutions are attempting to preserve these artifactual aspects of born-digital records.

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