In a previous post, I wrote about a trip to the National Archives in Ireland and about some of the data I’d photographed there. And I certainly have had a lot to say about Digital preservation. One thing that the trip to the Archives has left me thinking a lot about, however, is what the Digital Humanities means for physical archives. Now, that may seem a bit backward: isn’t the field of Digital Humanities concerned with websites, scans, multimedia, and computers? Yes, of course it is. But the fact remains that there are plenty of physical archives in existence, and that Digital Humanities has significant implications for those analogue objects, as well.
There’s something about the concept of Digital Humanities that I’m sure a lot of people find scary. Putting aside the issues of Big Data and new analysis techniques and the application of scientific and computational practices to the humanities, there is another aspect of what we do that simply changes how we look at preservation. I’ve already written a fair amount about digital data and the challenges that come with keeping it relevant and accessible. Therein, perhaps, lies some of the paranoia: the humanities are starting to move into a realm where text and images are captured in computer files rather than in print—in other words, coming into a format where some sort of hardware or interface needs to serve as an intermediary between us and the ones and zeroes of data in order for us to be able to consume them. If a whole library goes up into the cloud, these people may ask, how will it ever come down?
Now, of course that is a tongue-in-cheek exaggeration. The effect may not be as dramatic as what I went through in having my personal library digitised before moving to Ireland (the process used by the scanning service I employed necessitated destroying the originals in order to create their digital equivalents), but the fact remains that the process of creating a digital archive does in fact affect its analogue equivalent.
One aspect where the digital affects the analogue is that the process of digitisation (other than that taken by the service I employed) does not replace the original artefact, but rather duplicates it, albeit in a different form. This duplication suddenly means that the information in the analogue artefact can be accessed easily by a wide variety of users. For some institutions, however, this duplication can cause a problem when the copyright holder of the original item isn’t happy to have an item replicated, as was the case in 2010 when the British Library came into conflict with James Murdoch after the latter revealed plans to digitise its newspaper collection (Wray, n.p.).
Copyright is a big issue, but the effects that digitisation have on physical archives can be much more far-reaching. In fact, digitization can play an important role in preserving analogue objects. That last sentence may beg some explanation: I myself hadn’t thought much of digital saving the analogue until it was pointed out to me during my first trip to Ireland’s National Archives, when one of the archivists mentioned during her presentation on preservation that digitization protects the archive. The rationale is a simple one: if people can easily access a digital approximation of an artefact, they will be less likely to need access to the original. The Archives’ own website even explicitly states this as a reason for digitising, stating that the institution is undertaking “long-term projects intended to improve the preservation of the original documents by protecting them from handling by creating surrogates in hardcopy, digital or microfilm formats” (National Archives of Ireland, n.p.).
The recognition of the potential of the digital in protecting the analogue that it represents is not limited to the personnel at the National Archives of Ireland. Krystyna Matusiak and Tamara Johnston presented a paper to UNESCO on just this point. While the paper itself is not dated, Matusiak’s homepage states that the presentation happened in 2012 (Matusiak, Krystyna Matusiak n.p.). In their paper, Matusiak and Johnston put forth the assertion that “[h]andling of rare items is less of an issue if there are multiple digital copies available for access” (Matusiak and Johnston, 4). They go on to discuss how digitisation has been helpful in the preservation of film-based photographs, pointing out that “[d]igitization contributes to making ‘visible’ a large body of historical visual evidence, as many of the images become available for public viewing for the first time” (5). Their discussion goes beyond simple access, however, since nitrate-based film is actually quite hazardous to preserve: the film is an unstable compound that steadily and slowly decays, and at advanced stages of decay, has a tendency to spontaneously combust—and worse yet, “Cellulose nitrate if ignited, cannot be extinguished. The film burns in the absence of oxygen producing its own supply” (6). For the medium that Matusiak and Johnston are concerned with, digitisation is not simply a matter of preservation, it is a matter of safety. That said, the preservationist value of digitisation cannot be overstated for nitrate-based film: the original material steadily decays even in highly controlled environments, meaning that all archived nitrate-based film will eventually decay to the point of being unusable, and digitised versions will be the only remaining record of those materials.
So, where does that leave us? Analogue objects are subject to decay (with some media being more at risk than others). Additionally, more and more artefacts are ‘born digital’, meaning that they came into existence in the form of computer data, and will potentially always exist as such. Printing out such data was once a common form of preservation, but now that technology has become so ubiquitous, that form of preservation—going from the digital to the analogue—seems almost archaic.
Will analogue archives, then, eventually decay into obscurity like nitrate-based film, leaving only their digital brethren behind to carry on their legacies?
In his seminal 1936 work “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin writes that original objects all have “aura”, which is not transferred intact when an object is duplicated. A number of interpretations can be made of Benjamin’s somewhat vaguely defined concept of aura, but the interpretation I am making for the purposes of this blog is simply that a duplicated item in a different medium evokes a subjective experience that is different from that invoked by the original.
A sculpture of a human being can never perfectly or accurately capture that person. It may be a remarkable likeness, but is not a living, breathing person. It may be a beautiful work of art; it may even convey a sense of wonder or majesty that someone would not experience in seeing the actual person whom the sculpture represents, but the fact remains that the experience of viewing the sculpture is different from that of meeting the original person. Similarly, a photograph of the sculpture cannot perfectly represent the sculpture itself. The photograph may be breathtaking; it may be taken in the perfect lighting and from just the right angle, highlighting the sculpture’s best features while hiding its flaws, but it is nonetheless a two-dimensional print of a three-dimensional, textured object. Touching the film is not touching marble, nor is a B4-sized print able to capture the height of a three-metre-tall statue. The experience of seeing the photograph may be impressive, but it is different from that of seeing the sculpture—which is in turn different from that of meeting the person.
This point was brought home by a guest lecturer in my other class, Theory and Practice. The lecturer, Orla Murphy, who was visiting from University College Cork, spoke about her archaeology research and showed us some of the challenges and decisions faced in digitally representing a three-dimensional object. Many of the tools at her disposal allowed her to analyse the objects she was studying on levels that she would not have been able to with the physical object alone, but representing that physical object in the digital space nonetheless required compromises, since, by its very nature, a two-dimensional display cannot replicate the size, texture, weight, and depth of the actual three-dimensional stone objects she was studying (Murphy).
For me and my classmates in Digital Scholarly Editing, we will have similar decisions to make in the spring term, when we tackle digitally representing a man’s World War I diaries, which come complete with various newspaper clippings, photos, and sketches. How will we choose to render the physical object in digital form? The ramifications of our choices will be slightly different than those of an archivist, however, because we are curating only the digital form of the diaries; we will not be responsible for preserving (nor providing access to) the original physical object along with our digital creation.
A digital scholarly edition of a collection of analogue artefacts serves important preservationist purposes by providing scholars and the public with a durable, readily-available, and often flexible (especially for the purposes of analysis) representation of the original—and, if made well, the digital version can provide vast amounts of information that cannot be found in the analogue version alone. But it is just that: a representation. So, while the National Archives may seek digitisation in order to reduce demand for viewing the analogue original, with certain specialized audiences, it may have the opposite effect:much as tourism boards show people images of beautiful beaches in the hope of enticing people to come and experience the real thing for themselves, digital versions of artefacts may actually encourage some audiences to come and experience the originals themselves. Rather than devaluing the analogue artefacts they represent, then, digitally preserved versions may accentuate the value of their physical originals, while simultaneously serving an important role in preserving them for future generations.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” 1936. Trans. Harry Zohn. Schocken/Random House. 2005 Web. Accessed 13 October 2014. <http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm>
Matusiak, Krystyna K. and Tamara K. Johnston. “Digitization as a Preservation Strategy: Saving and Sharing the American Gographical Society Library’s Nitrate Negative Images.” UNESCO. No Date Given. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014. <http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/CI/pdf/mow/VC_Matusiak_Johnston_28_B_1400.pdf>
Matusiak, Krystyna. “Krystina Matusiak.” DU Portfolio. University of Denver. No Date Given. Web. Accessed 11 December 2014. <https://portfolio.du.edu/kmatusia>
Murphy, Orla. “Remediation: Reimagination.” Maynooth University. Iontas Building, Maynooth University, Maynooth, Ireland. 10 December 2014. Guest Lecture.
National Archives of Ireland, The. “Archives Storage and Preservation.” The National Archives of Ireland. No Date Given. Web. Accessed 11 December 2014. <http://www.nationalarchives.ie/about-us/functions/archives-storage-preservation-division/>
Wray, Richard. “James Murdoch Attacks British Library for Digitising Newspapers.” The Guardian. 21 May 2010. Web. Accessed 10 December 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/media/2010/may/21/james-murdoch-attacks-british-library>