16.622 preservation and absence

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Wed Apr 16 2003 - 04:25:51 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 622.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

       [1] From: Patricia Galloway <galloway@ischool.utexas.edu> (32)
             Subject: Re: 16.617 preservation by digitization

       [2] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk> (54)
             Subject: reliance on the born-digital

             Date: Wed, 16 Apr 2003 09:15:45 +0100
             From: Patricia Galloway <galloway@ischool.utexas.edu>
             Subject: Re: 16.617 preservation by digitization

    In response to Patrick Duruseau's thoughtful observations about the need
    for replication of manuscript material for preservation, I have a comment
    to add. In the history of archival efforts in the US, the earliest steps
    taken were the collection, editing, and publication of documents--the
    National Historical Publications and Records Commission, a granting arm of
    the National Archives that supports long-running Great White Men publishing
    projects (and was recently discouraged from dropping them) is the remaining
    trace of that sentiment. But with the creation in the US of the National
    Archives, a sigh of relief was breathed, and efforts turned to establishing
    safe places (archives) and microfilming only the very most valuable
    materials. As Durusau observes, archives are beginning to look like prime
    targets these days. In the world of born-digital records we are trying to
    find solutions to long-term preservation that will include decentralized
    custodianship (one model for the preservation of digital scholarly journals
    is a peer-to-peer system called LOCKSS: Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe).
    This same task must be undertaken with images of archival materials, whose
    preservation requires the same effort as that of born-digital materials.
    The bad news is that market-driven changing technologies makes this kind of
    preservation costly, and the problem is far from solved. But it's
    interesting that in this respect the model of book publication (lots of
    copies...) has still not been outrun. More darkly: in the dire funding
    situation that archives find themselves, where state archives like
    Florida's and New Jersey's are even being done away with, as a cost-saving
    measure for digital preservation it may make sense to make use of spare
    disk space on the PCs of volunteer "friends" groups to store some of those
    copies. Lest this seem far-fetched, I report that right now the burned
    Bosnian libraries are being pieced together from photocopies made by
    researchers. One is reminded of Fahrenheit 451. What book or document will
    you decide to preserve?
    Pat Galloway
    School of Information
    University of Texas-Austin

             Date: Wed, 16 Apr 2003 09:16:06 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: reliance on the born-digital

    This is in tangential response to Patrick Durusau's thoughtful remarks on
    preservation, which were provoked by the immediate circumstance of looting
    in the Iraqi National Museum. One might say that apart from everything else
    the tragedy of loss has intimately to do with how much and what kinds of
    knowledge were articulated in the lost and damaged artifacts. I take
    Patrick's point that digitization offers a degree of preservation for
    artifacts at risk. But there are problems, of course. Less immediately the
    problem with digitization is not merely that such artifactual knowledge can
    be but roughly preserved in digital form. More seriously for some areas of
    work, this form, in which so many recent artifacts have been created, is
    from the get-go demonstrably poor as a means of articulating certain kinds
    of knowledge, which as a result may be entirely lost. The case is made
    forcefully by Jed Z. Buchwald for the history of science in his forthcoming
    piece, "The scholar's seeing eye", in "Reworking the bench - research
    notebooks in the history of science", eds. F. L. Holmes, J. Renn,
    H-J Rheinberger, ARCHIMEDES, vol. 7, pgs. 311-25. He argues that,

    >When historians in the future look back to the analog world -- to the
    >world of paper -- it may be difficult for them to find the residue of
    >human thought and action, because they will be used to seeing only the
    >perfected digital record, which will rarely leave informative traces of
    >the road not taken. Paper retains its human stain; the digital record is
    >spotless. Digital images can be made of paper objects, thereby making the
    >human stain virtually available, as it were. Nearly perfect facsimiles of
    >books and notebooks can be and have been made -- the purpose of course
    >being to give the buyer a sense of direct contact with the object's
    >original producers. But records originally digital had no marks to copy,
    >and their authors cannot be made present in this way.

    Using Heinrich Hertz as example, Buchwald examines "three instances in
    which scraps of paper provide historical evidence that in the one case
    would not exist at all, and in the other would probably have been
    eliminated, had electronic methods been available at the time".

    This is a serious, well-considered argument from one of the leading
    historians of science. I dare say you could find much agreement from
    historians in other areas. Of course it is possible to argue that the Hertz
    of today uses other sorts of recording methods, and for the history of
    science in particular one can point to Peter Galison's study, How
    Experiments End, with some discussion of the kinds of evidence more
    recently available (from the perspective of the 1980s, mind you). But
    Buchwald's point remains. As we help our colleagues refurbish their
    research methods and materials, it does seem to me that we have a moral
    responsibility to ward off the triumphalist attitude and the promotional
    rhetoric which induces it, then to consider how to advance with minimal
    loss. Are we really without qualification the preservers of knowledge?

    It would seem to me that if humanities computing has any chance at being
    considered a serious field of the humanities, an unblinkingly critical
    attitude is one of the most important pre-requisites.



    Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
    Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
    7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk

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