Digital Preservation and Hypertext: What’s Next?

When I was teaching English Composition to anxious college freshmen four years ago, I tried to let my students know that they were “reading” all the time, even if they were not reading books specifically. No matter what, they were still interacting with texts in a multitude of forms–internet articles, YouTube videos, audio files, podcasts, and the like. A text does not have to be purely words on a page, nor does it have to be stuck in one single format. As we make our way through the twenty-first century, we’re faced with new forms of media and different ways of telling stories. In digital spaces, where you have a multitude of file formats at your tips, a story does not have to be told just through text. It can be conveyed through video, audio, social media postings–a trans-platform approach.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is perhaps one of the best examples of this trend. TLBD was a modernized Pride & Prejudice webseries that ran from 2012 to 2013, telling the story of graduate student Lizzie Bennet as she and her sisters struggle to find careers and love. Over the course of a hundred vlogs, viewers got to know Lizzie and the characters around her quite intimately. But the series was not limited to Lizzie’s vlogs: her sister Lydia had her own vlog series entitled “The Lydia Bennet”; Mr. Collins’s digital production company had its own “Better Living” video series; and Mr. Darcy and his sister appeared in a “Pemberly Digital” webseries that helped to further the plot. TLBD wasn’t all just vlogs, though; there were social media accounts for several of the characters, and tie-in websites that users could actually visit.

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Lizzie Bennet (Ashley Clements) in her first vlog, complaining about her mother.
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Tweets from Lizzie Bennet, tagging the accounts for William Darcy and Georgiana “Gigi” Darcy.

Overall, TLBD was a creative multiplatform endeavour that told an old story in a new, interactive way. The series won an Emmy for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media and several Streamy Awards. Each episode racked up hundreds of thousands of views, each Tweet several hundred interactions, and the story itself won a dedicated fanbase. All of which sounds fairly simple.

But… how do you digitally preserve and archive a project like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries?

At first blush, it seems simple: simply take the videos (born-digital items) and put them into an archive. But how to order the videos? Do the videos get organized by their individual series, or should they be organized by date? What do you do with the social media accounts–do you archive all the Twitter feeds created by the show’s producers and keep them separate? Do you include the show’s official Instagram account, which is organized very clearly as an account about the series rather than an inside perspective from the series? How do you deal with so many competing file formats?

The answers to these questions, I suspect, would vary depending on how you wished to preserve the project. If you as an archivist only decide to archive the videos, that’s certainly a decision you could make. But to archive the videos only seems to lose out on the trans-platform approach that the show’s creators wanted viewers to have. Can you preserve collaborative media only by preserving one aspect of it? In addition, how searchable do you make a digital library such as this–would every piece of media be tagged with the characters directly involved, or would mentions of a character (such as an @wmdarcy, whether or not he has replied to the tweet) also be included?

I have a feeling questions like these will become more of an issue as multi-platform projects become the norm. In the digital age, projects are likely to become more collaborative and traverse more platforms. I don’t just mean entertainment, although I have a feeling that more shows will embrace storytelling methods like TLBD‘s over the coming years. This is something that can happen with scholarly work, too. Heiko Zimmermann (2014) delves into two different hypertextual works, She… and A Million Penguins, both of which depended on the contributions of multiple authors with several different file formats (video, written text, audio) involved. Zimmermann posits that these texts are dependent on real-time interaction with the original texts; in the case of A Million Penguins, which was a collaboratively written “novel,” users could see edits being made in real time, which is an aspect that is lost whenever the project is archived. Zimmermann posits that if archivists make all aspects of a project available, users will have to engage in “texual archaelology” to browse through snapshots of the project and try to put it together retroactively (p. 8). However, this textual detective work does nothing to capture the original experience of real-time, multimodal texts. Digital libraries have the ability to congregate all this information and preserve it for future generations; the organization of such projects, however, will be a trickier project for archivists to come.

I don’t have any concrete answers for the questions I’ve raised here; neither does Zimmermann. Digital preservation is still a fairly new practice, and working with born-digital texts that require multiple platforms is even newer. I think this will be an area that opens up as archivists work on preserving more elaborate projects, and I look forward to seeing how these libraries are organized in the future.

References:

Zimmermann, H. (2014). New challenges for the archiving of digital writing. CLCWeb: Comparative Literature & Culture, 16(5), 1-10. Retrieved from https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol16/iss5/

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