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Historicizing the Digital for Digital Preservation Education: An Interview with Alison Langmead and Brian Beaton

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In this installment of the NDSA innovation working group’s ongoing series of innovation interviews I talk with Alison Langmead and Brian Beaton about the approach they are taking to teaching Digital Preservation at the University of Pittsburgh. Alison holds a joint appointment in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture and the School of Information Sciences. Brian holds an appointment in the School of Information Sciences. In this interview we explore how they approach teaching digital preservation. You can read the syllabus for the course here.

[One man looks on as another man prepares Univac computer to predict a winning horse] / World Telegram & Sun photo by Herman Hiller. 1959

Trevor: Could you give us a quick overview of your digital preservation graduate course?

Alison: Sure. Brian and I were interested reframing the contemporary practice of digital preservation as an imperfect and ongoing response to the history of digital culture. For example, decisions made in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s about computing architecture still affect our work today, and we thought it was crucial for our students to not only understand today’s tools, but also to engage critically with the complex, layered legacy of information technologies.

Brian: We were also interested in teaching people to tack between past and present while making decisions about the objects in their stewardship. Building on Alison’s point, we wanted to situate digital preservation problems as outcomes and effects of choices, activities, and interactions over time that involved a tremendous range of human and non-human actors (although, I should add, we focused on the U.S. due to the typical career trajectory of our students at the University of Pittsburgh).

Alison: Indeed. To this end, we organized the 15-week course into two parts. In the first part, we focused our attention on primary source documents that captured the messy and contingent nature of emergent digital culture and its preservation. We began with texts from the 1940s and 1950s, working towards the present by decades, but as we approached the 1990s, we began examining ever-smaller increments of time. Each week, we would read documents produced only during the time period in question, concentrating on the ways in which human actors in the past understood digital technologies. The second part of the course was devoted to lab work and student presentations.

Brian: I would describe our approach as Media Archaeology meets Historical Epistemology. We tracked ideas, knowledge, machines, platforms, practices, and actors as they mutated over time— eventually congealing into something now commonly called digital culture, which presents a host of unique complications and challenges when it comes to its preservation.

School computer lab, Taken in the late 1980s, Photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Trevor: What do you see as the advantages of taking this approach to teaching digital preservation?

Brian: One key effect of this course design was that students were introduced to the computerization of American life as a continually unfolding interplay between technological obduracy and obsolescence. In the labs, we then encouraged students to apply that knowledge to contemporary information management problems. We also tried to model an outlook and sensibility that we believe is necessary for anyone interested in the preservation of digital culture; we instructed our students to conceptualize themselves as existing and operating in a moment that will likewise be rendered obsolete, perhaps soon. As information professionals interested in digital culture, they will have to constantly toggle between now-time, then-time, and future-time. To work in this area requires not just an understanding of data and files, but a whole set of physical and cognitive routines, aptitudes, and maneuvers. Our approach, I hope, captured some of the complexities around digital preservation and the tricky positioning of anyone working in this area.

Trevor: Alison, you have a background in Art History and Brian has a background in Science and Technology Studies. To what extent do you see each of those backgrounds structuring or changing how you approach digital preservation?

Alison: Brian and I both hold a firm belief in the importance of the historical contextualization of current-day information practices. We tried to present the history of digital culture in the United States as a critical piece of knowledge that preservationists can bring to bear on the effective stewardship of digital objects over the long-term. In terms of my own background, my training in the concrete and abstract issues surrounding material culture often leads me to emphasize visual knowledge and the impact that materiality can bring to a problem. Discussions about digital preservation concern the material manifestations of decades worth of decision-making.

Brian: My background often leads me to emphasize the social production of knowledge and the cross-traffic between “experts” and society. In terms of structuring my approach to digital preservation, I wanted students to leave the course as emergent experts in digital preservation and stewardship but also as deeply aware of the gaps and limitations in their own knowledge, and aware of the need for continuous re-training and re-tooling as they come to manage digital things in their everyday work lives. We also presented the professional conversations around digital preservation and stewardship as far from singular, unified, or coherent. Presenting the field as perpetually unsettled seemed more faithful to reality and more likely to position our students as critical, self-aware practitioners.

Computer data storage in a modern office building, taken during the 1980s, Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Trevor: How did you decide on how to periodize the history of computing in your course design?

Brian: In some ways the choice was arbitrary, structured by the limits of an academic term. We wanted the last few classes before the labs to focus on the most current research in this area, and then we worked back from there.

Alison: Also, in some ways the choice was tactical and meant to disrupt common periodizations of computing history. We wanted our students to think of this history as contested and open to re-periodization. For example, we investigated how the computerization of occupational and personal realms occurred at different rates and times, and spawned equally uneven conversations about digital preservation that continue into the present day.

Brian: In fact, the issue of uneven technology diffusion and uneven response on the part of the information professions became a major theme of the course.

Trevor: It strikes me that there are two related but different values in historicizing digital preservation education. On the one hand, the artifacts now making their ways into libraries, archives and museums come from different historical periods and as such an internalist understanding of different digital technologies and their features and affordances is valuable. With that said, more broadly, there is a value in understanding that computing has a social and cultural history. That is, a significant part of understanding (or for that matter, preserving, describing, and interpreting) a digital object involves entering into the past as a foreign country and coming to see it as someone in a different historical circumstance saw it. I am curious to know if you see a similar tension between these two values for historicizing and if in designing your syllabus there was any tension between focusing on the internalist story of devices and technologies changing over time and the externalist story of what those devices and technologies mean to different people in different historical contexts?

Alison: This tension is critical to our course design. In many ways, our entire course was predicated on this same observation. It is important to know both an insider’s history of computing as well as the social and subject effects of IT infrastructure.

Brian: This tension, I would add, is what makes digital preservation really interesting as an area of research, teaching, and practice. There are so many possible entry points into these uneven and overlapping conversations about the preservation of digital culture that emerged in the wake of computerization. There are also so many different zones of comfort and discomfort in any classroom. Some students might want to talk about data remanence or reconstructing hard drives or building the perfect emulator. Other students might want to talk about the work itself: project management, blurrings between consumption and production, or staffing and labor issues. Many students also arrive at the topic with a broad interest in the social and cultural history of technology. To address the second part of your question about coverage within the course itself, our effort to navigate between the internal and external, I think one of the more interesting and generative moves that we made involved reading outside the usual digital preservation literature. In preparing the course, we searched through field-specific journals in areas like nursing, banking, schooling, government, urban planning, and social science. Almost every nameable field has some version of a “Computers! What are they for?” article from the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s. Reading these types of articles allowed us, as a class, to excavate the story of how specific machines and devices entered specific occupational realms. As instructors, we tried to call attention to subtle differences across domains that are often left un-named and lumped together.

Play stations at a children’s computer center in Rockville, Maryland, Taken between 1980 and 2006. Photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Trevor: I’m curious about the extent to which some related notions like Media Archaeology can play into this historical approach to thinking about digital preservation. I interviewed Lori Emerson about her work on the Media Archeology Lab and I would be curious to hear what you see as the similarities and differences between the approach to your lab and the Media Archeology perspective Lori describes as informing her lab.

Brian: Your interview with Lori Emerson provides a wonderful distillation of Media Archaeology’s scattered intellectual origins and impulses. Our approach to teaching digital preservation shares a close affinity with Lori’s work at Boulder. Although we organized our course in “real time,” moving students experientially from the 1940s to the present, the only reason we moved chronologically was to capture and reveal subtle shifts in self-understanding and knowledge by the various human actors who were thinking, making, and doing with digital technologies. As I mentioned above, I would describe our approach as Media Archaeology meets Historical Epistemology. Thinkers like Ian Hacking and Lorraine Daston were just as influential on our course design as the various writers and thinkers named by Lori (e.g. Foucault, Kittler, et al.)

Alison: Perhaps one difference between our respective approaches, if I had to name one, is that our course focuses equally on historical components as well as on present-day electronic record-generating activities and the practice of digital preservation. Part of my own training is in the field of active information management, and I bring this training to the classroom with examples of current-day practices, policies and decisions. Digital preservation professionals continue their “training” every day by participating in their own digital cultural context. Policy decisions, the selection of particular hardware and software for the workplace and the home—all of these things are a part of the larger context shaping the ongoing conversations around digital preservation. Some key questions I raised as part of our class: How does the way we use information technology now impact how we treat historical objects? How does what we know about the past impact the way we, say, file our emails for future use? Does it make us think differently about using a site like Tumblr for our own personal purposes? How might the digital preservation profession play a part in actively and consciously constructing digital culture now and into the future? After all, this profession can (and has) made a profound impact on the ways in which people visualize their relationship to technology—an awesome responsibility.

Computer training room, Photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Trevor: I know you are also working on a Digital Humanities Research network at the University of Pittsburgh. How do you see the relationship between your approach to digital preservation and your approach to digital humanities? Are these two parts of the same thing? Are they at odds with each other? Further, I saw some work from new media studies scholars, like Lev Manovich, on your syllabus. So, how do you see new media studies fitting together with digital humanities and digital preservation?

Alison: Yes, Brian and I are both involved with a group called the DHRX: Digital Humanities at Pitt. We are trying to create a strong but informal network of faculty who actively use digital technologies in their work, whether that be digital production or the use of digital methods to facilitate humanities-based research. Digital preservation strategies are always in the forefront of my mind when using technology in my research, and I am often in a place of being able to provide advice and collaborative support to my colleagues. If we do not consider how DH work will persist into the future (or even if we want our work to persist into the future), we are not, in my opinion, doing complete justice to our efforts.

Brian: I would describe new media studies, digital preservation, and digital humanities as organizational artifacts of our sociotechnical moment and as effects or symptoms of something larger happening at the intersection of people, information, and technology. In terms of our course design, we especially wanted to prepare our students to support new media and DH projects as they age, corrode, and ossify. I’ve written elsewhere about the “adaptive reuse” of “other people’s digital tools,” something I partly framed as a sustainability practice. In fact, because the principal contacts for the DHRX group at Pitt (Alison and myself) are also the people teaching digital preservation, the preservation side of DH is something I would really like to develop further as an area of research, teaching, and practice. If we take seriously past patterns and future predictions about obsolescence, then something like Preserving DH is already a long overdue anthology.

Alison: I agree very much with Brian that these academic fields seem like artifacts or affordances of something larger, not yet quite recognizable. Recent academic trends towards technology-oriented transdisciplinarity have demonstrated the benefits and the disadvantages of different scholarly communities coming together to work as groups. That might explain some of the simultaneity in terms of new media studies, digital preservation, and digital humanities. We have seen that some groups protect their identities so strongly that collaboration becomes impossible, while others have such a loosely-defined structure that they do not come to the table with any solidity, again making collaboration difficult. One possibility is to embrace co-existence and avoid worrying too much about academic fields, boundaries, and borders. Another possibility is to ask how we might bring these intellectual and methodological streams together productively without homogenizing the mixture and without just being strange bedfellows. In thinking about that very question, I am currently working with colleagues and graduate students on envisioning a course focused on digital materials and methods that will focus on this convergence and non-convergence of solid and ephemeral groups of actors grappling with digital culture in distinct but sometimes similar ways— some of whom study the digital, some of whom create in the digital, some of whom coopt the digital, some of whom reject the digital, and some of whom do all of these things and more, of course. We are playing around with the notion that to do this, we might best remove the human actors from the spotlight, and replace them with the technologies themselves. We often think of digital culture in terms of people and their material coagulations of mobile devices, desktop machines or pervasive sensor technologies, but what might the landscape of user interactivity as seen from the point of view of an embedded sensor teach us? What would a digital humanities/digital studies/digital preservation course look like from the point of view of the interface itself?

Woman uses computer to design fabric pattern, Forms part of a group of images documenting scenes at Kalkstein Silk Mills, Inc., 75 Wood Street, Paterson, New Jersey on the morning of August 15, 1994. Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Brian: It sounds to me like this new course that you’re developing is Media Archaeology meets Historical Epistemology meets Actor-Network Theory meets Thing Studies…and the goal of the course is to investigate, as a set of interlinked symptoms or effects, the work happening in New Media Studies, Digital Preservation, and Digital Humanities. That’s pretty thick, elegant, and interesting. In closing, perhaps one further observation that can be made regarding our attempts to historicize “the digital” in digital preservation is that it seems to require a whole lot of aggregation: the combining of methods, terms, ideas, techniques, and theoretical tools from a wide range of literatures—which is only possible due to recent advances in search engines, databases, journal digitization projects, et cetera. Our course on the preservation of digital culture was designed and implemented by leveraging a good deal of present-day digital culture to dream up the structure and aggregate the content. That means our course, like the tools and technologies that we used to build it, may soon become obsolete. To me, that’s the best part of teaching digital preservation. It demands constant innovation.

Comments (2)

  1. I think the caption of the first image in this post should say “1990s” not “1980s”.

  2. A fascinating interview, and it sounds like a fascinating course. The syllabus of professional-literature responses to computerization is a great resource.

    A minor nitpick, but one which it seems appropriate to raise in a discussion of periodizing digital history: the second photograph (“School Computer Lab”) can’t possibly be from the 1980s — that’s clearly a Windows 95 login screen!

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