Research and Development for Digital Cultural Heritage Preservation: A (Virtual and In-Person) Open Forum

The following is a guest post from Joshua Sternfeld, National Endowment for the Humanities and Gail Truman, Truman Technologies. The statements and ideas expressed here are attributed solely to the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of any federal agency or institution.

The collection on the wall from user patentboy on <a href="">Flickr</a>.

The collection on the wall from user patentboy on Flickr.

As the National Digital Stewardship Alliance prepares to add new categories of content to its 2015 National Agenda for Digital Stewardship, including digital art and software, now is the ideal opportunity to assess the state of research and development for the preservation of digital cultural heritage.  In many respects, digital cultural heritage is dependent on some of the same systems, standards and tools used by the entire digital preservation community.  Practitioners in the humanities, arts, and information and social sciences, however, are increasingly beginning to question common assumptions, wondering how the development of cultural heritage-specific standards and best practices would differ from those used in conjunction with other disciplines.  As many in the humanities and arts point out, digital cultural heritage materials encompass a dizzying array of formats, genres, disciplines, and institution repository types, which bring with them unique intellectual and technical challenges for their preservation.  Most would agree that preserving the bits alone is not enough, and that a concerted, continual effort is necessary to steward these materials over the long term.

We might think of the development of digital cultural heritage standards and practices as a two-way street.  On the one hand, a humanistic or artistic perspective may challenge digital preservation norms that often originate from industry leaders in the private sector or disciplines that seem distant, or even antithetical, to the needs of the humanities and arts user communities.  On the other hand, by elevating the needs of this user community – from artists and scholars, to educators, curators, media makers and students – we may be able to influence a combination of public and private interests to support more targeted user-centric development.  For example, we are just now beginning to consider how adjustments to conventional storage architectures, such as use of abstraction and distributed, cloud-based services, may result in radically different means of organizing, sharing and visualizing cultural heritage data.

The humanities and arts can also bring heightened clarity or awareness of practices and concepts — including selection of content, appraisal, and authenticity — inherent to all digital preservation.  As pressure mounts to ingest exponentially increasing amounts of data, repository stewards are facing difficult decisions to streamline the acquisition and preservation of their collections.  By their nature, the humanities encourages critical interrogation of selection practices, even as they move toward automation.  Similarly the appraisal of digital data by preservationists and users alike has exceeded the capacity of human intervention alone, which has necessitated creative solutions to generating metadata, mining and visualizing “big data,” and accessing complex audiovisual and interactive media.

For the 2014 Digital Preservation Conference hosted by NDSA, the two of us, on behalf of the NDSA Arts and Humanities Content Working Group, will lead an open discussion to identify pervasive issues found in digital cultural heritage that in time may lead to standards and practices adopted widely by those working in museums, archives, libraries, arts organizations, universities and beyond.

In many ways, the session will serve as a follow-up to the 2012 Digital Preservation plenary session “Preserving Digital Culture.” During that session, Megan Winget, then at the University of Texas at Austin, characterized the preservation of digital cultural heritage as a series of “wicked problems,” each of which is “novel and unique” and for which no single solution is “right or wrong, but [only] better and worse.”  If there was one message from the session, it was that work in digital cultural heritage requires a creative balance of intellectual, theoretical, technical, social, and aesthetic matters.  Building upon a spate of initiatives, conferences and studies in recent years, this year’s session will pose whether and how we can both embrace the novel properties intrinsic to each work or collection, while investigating the possibility of developing shared practices and standards.

At the heart of the discussion we’ll pose this question:  What elements contribute to a successful research and development project in digital cultural heritage that results in the adoption of standards and practices?  While it may seem obvious that an interdisciplinary project team comprised of members with diverse backgrounds ought to be a given, finding just the right balance – not to mention resolving differences in methodologies, vocabulary, and theories — may seem more elusive.  Expanded adoption of a new standard or practice requires significant buy-in from the community by tapping into an ever-evolving scaffolding of knowledge, data, case studies, education and tools in order to sustain continued growth and investment.  In short, a more organized and concerted effort is needed, which historically has proven difficult in the arts and humanities-related preservation fields.

The second half of the discussion will move toward areas of current or possible future interest.  The recent work underway by a team assembled by the Smithsonian in the area of time-based media and digital art can serve as a model in building a collaborative, on-the-ground framework for research and development.  Similarly, a series of conferences investigating the preservation of software, including Preserving.exe, has revealed the importance of integrating diverse voices from the cultural heritage community.  Other areas open for discussion that may benefit (or have already benefited) from enhanced attention from the humanities and arts communities may include digital forensics, web archiving, mass digitization, sustainability or metadata schema development, to name just a few.

In true humanistic fashion, the forum will likely raise more questions than provide answers.  Nonetheless, as session chairs we hope that a framework for future discussion and action will emerge.  This blog posting, therefore, is intended to serve as an open invitation to the NDSA community and beyond to offer ideas, discussion points, challenges, areas of research and examples that may be submitted in the comments section below, and which will help inform the in-person session in July.  For those unable to attend the conference, the chairs will make any session materials accessible afterwards.