Blog Post 6: The No-Nonsense Guide to Born-Digital Content, chapters 2 and 3
One thing that I noticed immediately from chapter 3 of The No-Nonsense Guide to Born-Digital Content was how the goals of archiving are heavily focused on preservation. As our group may choose an Indigenous culture to explore as a possible source of artifacts for our archive, it is worth noting that acquisition of digital materials seeks to preserve “the material’s original order as it came to the library or archives, along with traces of the user’s activity, potential remnants of past data, and system files and features not revealed to the regular user” (Ryan and Sampson 54). The similarity of goals between those who archive digital materials and those who restructure existing archives to make them more inclusive and respectful of Indigenous cultural artifacts are strikingly similar.
Sandra Hirsh, editor of Information Services Today, remarked that any “information organization” should seek “to adopt a passion and commitment to equity of access … [and] inclusion” (4).Thus, it is interesting to note that archiving born-digital artifacts presents some of the same challenges that archiving traditional knowledge (TK) sources and artifacts do. “Therefore, simple copying of data from these devices is equivalent to disregarding the contextual information” (Ryan and Sampson 55). Context is of enormous significance to TK sources as well. For instance, knowing the occasion and purpose for wearing particular articles of clothing helps interested parties obtain a more complete picture of the garment and the person who may have worn it, thereby conferring a measure of respect for the archived material while also being inclusive in ways that may have been missing from archives of the past.
One way that digital media protects itself is known as “write blocking,” which prevents changes to a file stored on media (Ryan and Sampson 56). The purpose behind a write block is to keep the file—and all of the information that is attached to the file—intact (59). While this was not possible for Indigenous materials, it is constructive to draw an analogy between dealing with digital artifacts and TK artifacts. If only all traditional knowledge sources had been write-protected, today’s culturally aware archivist would be in a better position to present TK in a respectful and inclusive manner. Write blocking prevents changes to files, acting as a sort of “forensic bridge” to prevent the disk data from alteration (57). As Indigenous artifacts were separated from their contexts, meaning and significance was often altered or destroyed. It seems as if the terminology and the goals of digital and TK archiving are the same but the tools each use may be different.
But technology is helping to restore contextual information to Indigenous archives. The similarities between archiving digital materials and a collection of TK artifacts are also found in the ease of identifying connections between digital items. For example, creating links in an archive between a Nobel-winning scientist’s profile, emails he/she/they sent, or her/his/their Spotify playlist can give interested parties a fuller picture of the mindset the scientist was in and the thought processes that were happening in the environment in which her/his/their work was being done (Ryan and Sampson 35). Such connections enrich a researcher’s understanding, and the same is true for indigenous artifacts as well. Contextual information for, say, a Native American dress could help information seekers identify the occasion the garment was created for. But the value of other pertinent information would be diminished, if no connections were made between such information and the original garment. Therefore, if the context is separated from the artifact, it diminishes the value of the information as a whole, i.e., the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is true for digital and traditional Indigenous knowledge alike: “Without the metadata that describes them, much of the value of our collections is diminished or even completely destroyed” (34).
I was surprised to learn that born digital content requires “a greater commitment of time and resources to preserve and provide access to over time” (31). I believe that the key phrase in this quote is “over time.” This makes sense when one considers that most books, if kept clean, dry, and in good repair, can last decades or even centuries. This is obviously less true of digital artifacts. No matter how reliable a storage device is, it is still a complicated piece of machinery subject to degradation over time or the simple flukes and fluctuations of the power grid such a device is connected to. Maintaining such devices requires specialized skills that may lie outside the realm of the average archivist’s sphere of professional knowledge.
Perhaps archives will someday resemble the library in Star Wars Attack of the Clones, but I hope that no future librarian would conclude that if an object is not to be found within the archives then the object does not exist. Although archives that can display artifacts holographically may be some time away, 3D artifacts are currently being produced. Thus, there is a growing need for competent archiving of such born digital information (32).
As our group undertakes the task of creating an archive, remembering that our own biases will creep into our collections is an important thought to keep in mind. Even the decision on what type of items we will be archiving is a biased one: we will choose what we are interested in. If the archive were to be created for others to use, however, we would need to consider the needs of all stakeholders. In any case, we should seek to make our archive culturally responsive and respectful, as well as inclusive.