Preserving Digital Art, from Photography Blogs to Memes

As I’ve mentioned in class, I work in digitization, which means that much of my context for digital libraries comes from transforming physical objects into digital images. I have thought very little about approaching digital preservation and digital libraries from a born-digital perspective. For some reason the YouTube video we watched in this last portion of class on preserving digital art really struck me in a way that other conversations about preserving born-digital materials haven’t (Google, 2017).

What got me started was the fact that this video was published by Google–I began wondering how their Google doodles commemorating famous people and holidays are being preserved. This led me to the Doodles Archive; it stretches back almost ten years now, since the Doodles started in 2009, and is a lovely website to explore this new form of digital art.

But Google is a massive company with the resources to undertake a project like this. What about independent musicians, writers, and artists who rely on much smaller funds and time to keep their work accessible online? Blogging sites are still going strong as writing platforms, despite constant predictions of their demise. Blogs give voices and communities to people who are otherwise left out of “official” conversations, and their perspectives–from cooking to travel to parenting to art to reporting from war zones–are valuable as historical and cultural context. What happens when bloggers take their sites down, as most eventually do? There’s the Wayback Machine, of course, but unless a blog gets huge amounts of traffic, we’re lucky to get more than a few snapshots of it preserved. (Fun fact: my old Tumblr blog has four snapshots on the Wayback Machine.)

I discovered a project sponsored by the EU called BlogForever that ran from 2011-2013 and was attempting to harvest and preserve blog content from around the internet, but it has since shut down and I was unable to find any post-project analysis or publications (“About BlogForever”, n.d.). My curiosity is piqued–I would love to know if the project developers felt it was a success and a project worth pursuing. (I’m guessing, since there appears to be nothing published about it since 2013, that the answer is no–or at least that the project funders thought so.) Are there other projects working to preserve blog content for future generations? How are they doing it?

I kept looking for other projects documenting born-digital art and, finding inspiration in the comments section on the digital art YouTube video (I know, I know), decided to see if there were any digital preservation projects focusing on memes. I quickly discovered the Library of Congress launched the Web Cultures and Webcomics Web Archives in 2017 (Blakemore, 2017; Library of Congress, 2017). The Web Cultures collection is part of the American Folklife Center and aims to document digital cultures and vernaculars, archiving websites like Urban Dictionary, the Internet Meme Database, and the Giphy gif database. The Webcomics collection focuses on–well–webcomics from all over the internet, highlighting popular, long-running comics like XKCD and Hyperbole and a Half, as well as works by artists and about subjects not well-represented in traditional print comics.

Both of these digital archives give some useful metadata on the history and content of the websites, and they appear to use the same technology as the Wayback Machine to archive each website. Exploring each collection, however, I wondered how much value they were offering beyond a place to store snapshots of each website permanently. Are they adding any context? What other tools could these archives, and similar projects, use to analyze and explore the content they are preserving? Each collection currently only has thirty to forty websites archived, but the internet is infinitely bigger than that–what about the rest of it?

These are tough questions to grapple with. But it’s easy to forget how new the internet is, and how much newer digital preservation is. We’re still in the early stages. As we continue to ask questions, make mistakes, and move forward, we will keep making progress toward better preservation of all forms of digital art.


References

About BlogForever. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://blogforever.eu/about-blogforever/

Blakemore, E. (2017, June 15). Why the Library of Congress thinks your favorite meme is worth preserving. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/library-of-congress-meme-preserve-180963705/

Google. (2017, May 30). Preserving digital art: How will it survive? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkSG7XaKoAs&feature=youtu.be

Library of Congress. (2017, June 13). Webcomics and Web Cultures Archives now on loc.gov [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-17-087/webcomics-and-web-cultures-archives-now-on-loc-gov/2017-06-13/

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The Benefits and Disadvantages of Open Access

Open access publishing is an interesting concept. Distributing books, research, and cultural materials for free, to anyone who wants to use them, has a lot of potential to democratize access to information. But open access comes with significant challenges as well. In this post, I’d like to explore the potential benefits and disadvantages of open access. I would like to discuss not only open access scholarly publishing, but also open access and public domain digital collections from libraries, archives, and museums.

The most obvious and oft-cited benefit of open access publishing and digital collections is making information accessible to people who otherwise couldn’t see or use it. This is particularly valuable for researchers who aren’t affiliated with a scholarly institution with a subscription to the journal they need–not infrequent, since there are so many journals in the world and a university simply can’t subscribe to every single one–and who can’t afford to purchase access on their own. Publishing in traditional journals limits how many people and institutions ever have access to research, let alone see or use it. But when information is published in open access forums, researchers are able to access and share relevant studies and publications more easily, then use that information in their own work. Ideally, this would allow researchers to maximize the impact of their work, making it more available to more people, more quickly (“Open access,” n.d.).

Open access publishing can also make it easier for some researchers to be published–getting published in a traditional journal can be expensive, and open access can diminish or remove that barrier. Additionally, open access publishing isn’t just valuable for researchers and academics. Anyone can see and use open access publications, and removing barriers to information encourages a better-educated, better-informed society. Similarly, providing open access to digital archival and museum collections gives more people the opportunity to benefit from those collections (American Library Association, 2007). Generally speaking, open access is almost always considered contributing to the public good.

However, open access also has its disadvantages. Open access publishing models currently aren’t financially viable, and those most likely to take the financial hit for publishing in open access forums are those who are already the most vulnerable: young researchers new to the field whose careers haven’t been solidified yet, and underrepresented groups in research who already have barriers in their way making it difficult to get published. These are the authors most likely to view open access idealistically and want to support it (Eveleth, 2014).

Those who publish in open access forums also sometimes take hits to their reputations as researchers. While many open access journals are peer reviewed and of high quality, the general perception of them in academics remains that they are of low quality–that it’s easy to be published in open access forums, and you only send your research there if you can’t get it published in a “real” journal. This isn’t always or even often true, but the perception is still there.

Additionally, we have to consider whose purposes are being served when it comes to open access, who is the “public” in public good, and whose needs are being overlooked or ignored when materials are put into the public domain. This is especially true of institutions like archives and museums that make their collections digitally available. Bowrey and Anderson (2009) explain that indigenous communities’ needs in particular are frequently not considered when it comes to open access publications and collections. For example, recordings, written descriptions, or pictorial depictions of knowledge sacred to indigenous groups–and often not even accessible to every member within that group–are frequently included in digital, publicly accessible collections, with the reasoning that they are not under copyright or that their accessibility contributes to the public good. But, again, who is “the public” here? If institutions actually considered indigenous groups’ needs and wants when considering who in “the public” would benefit from publicly available information, they would be more hesitant to include such sacred or private material in their digital collections. Bowrey and Anderson argue that institutions are frequently so concerned with global sharing and access that they ignore or overlook the local political, historical, and cultural tensions that should guide their work, leading to further disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples.

Arguably, many of the disadvantages to open access publishing and collections haven’t been solved yet because it’s a comparatively new form of information access. With time, open access publishing will become more financially viable, more respected in scholarly circles, and more considerate of the needs of disadvantaged and ignored communities. However, this won’t just happen on its own–we must continue to have conversations about these issues and work proactively to solve them.


American Library Association. (2007, May 29). Libraries and the internet toolkit. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/iftoolkits/litoolkit/openaccess

Bowrey, K., & Anderson, J. (2009). The politics of global information sharing: Whose cultural agendas are being advanced. Social & Legal Studies, 18(4), 479-504.

Eveleth, R. (2014, December 22). Free access to science research doesn’t benefit everyone. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/12/free-access-to-science-research-doesnt-benefit-everyone/383875/

Open access. (n.d.). Retrieved November 2, 2018 from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_access

Transcribing Audiovisual Recordings

Last week, we read an article from the website for the Oral History in the Digital Age project about digitizing analog video (Pennington & Rehberger, 2012). Analog to digital migration is vital to preserving audiovisual records, but it can be complicated and expensive, especially for libraries and archives with limited resources. It got me thinking: what is the role of transcription in the digital preservation of audiovisual material? Can transcription of audiovisual recordings be a viable alternative or supplement to digital migration? I decided to find out.

I have some experience with transcribing audio recorded interviews. During my senior year of my undergraduate program, I took an introductory family history class. My final project for the semester was conducting an oral history interview with my grandma, after which I transcribed most of the interview and used it to write a short narrative history. I also transcribed a dozen or more interviews I conducted as part of an ethnographic research project for my anthropology degree. I learned quickly that transcription was difficult and time consuming, even when using specialized transcription software. I didn’t have time to transcribe the entire interview I conducted with my grandma and haven’t gone back to finish it since then, despite my good intentions. I’m glad I have as much of that interview transcribed as I do–I continue to fear for the long-term status of the audio recordings and haven’t actively sought out a way to preserve them yet.

So, what do the oral history experts think of transcription as a practice? Were my hours of transcribing those interviews all in vain?

And the answer is–it’s complicated.

Digging around the Oral History in the Digital Age project website, I discovered the article “Transcribing Oral History in the Digital Age” by Linda Shopes (2012), who conducts a fascinating deep dive into the intricacies of oral history transcription.

According to Shopes, transcriptions can be great for some things. Certainly it’s easier to preserve a few paper copies of an interview over several decades than it is to seek out obsolete technology to play old recordings or to constantly transfer audio files to the newest, most up-to-date formats. Transcripts can also make interviews more accessible to more people–not everyone has the time or resources to watch or listen to a recording, and written transcriptions are usually easier to browse for one piece of information than AV recordings, making transcripts particularly valuable for research.

On the other hand, Shopes explains, transcription is time-consuming, expensive, and difficult to do well, or even correctly. Tone of voice, crosstalk, speaker rapport, and personality are difficult if not impossible to fully convey through transcriptions. In other words, they take the “oral” out of “oral history.” Listening to or watching an oral history recording is really the only way to get the full picture. Transcriptions can create the illusion of greater accessibility, but they don’t solve the problems of preserving AV material long term. Additionally, transcribing oral history interviews brings up legal and ethical questions, including issues of copyright, privacy, and consent.

Essentially, the consensus seems to be that while transcription has its place and can be useful for some purposes, it cannot replace actual audiovisual recordings. Ultimately, whether and how much to rely on transcriptions as part of an audiovisual preservation methodology depends on a person’s or institution’s needs and capabilities (like almost every other digital preservation decision, I find). Transcription can be useful–I never would have been able to complete my ethnographic research without it. Additionally, I can share the transcript of my interview with my grandma with family much more easily than I can share the audio file with them. With enough funding, training, and time, transcripts can be useful supplements to audiovisual collections–but the priority should almost always be on the recordings themselves.

Hopefully someday I’ll finish the transcript of the interview with my grandma, but I think for now I’ll focus on backing up the audio file in twenty different places. Hearing her voice is much more satisfying than reading it.

Pennington, S., and Rehberger D. (2012). The preservation of analog video through digitization. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/preservation-of-analog-video-through-digitization/.

Shopes, L. (2012). Transcribing oral history in the digital age. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/transcribing-oral-history-in-the-digital-age/.