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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Accessibility, UX, and Digital Libraries

We discussed accessibility as part of our UX week in Digital Libraries, which is a topic that has interested me for a while. As I generally say about libraries and information resources, they are fairly useless if they remain inaccessible; this goes doubly for digital libraries, especially because digital technology has the power to make information more accessible for users with disabilities. Font resizing, captioning, alt text for images, formatting toggles to increase contrast–those are all things we can build into our digital libraries to ensure the information is accessible for all sorts of people. Many e-library resources house an “accessibility statement,” such as this one from the University of Louisville, which outlines how the pages are set up, various access keys patrons can use to browse the page, and information on how pages can be used without certain kinds of software. I wanted to get an idea as to what the current conversation is surrounding accessibility within digital libraries, and what sorts of studies are currently being done.

I found one recent case study by Michael Fernandez (2018) at American University. He decided to conduct a review of AU’s e-resources to see what sorts of commitments the vendors of these resources had to accessibility, how uniform these statements were, and if there was any room for improvement. Fernandez found that of the 528 e-resources subscribed to by AU, about 71% of all resources (376 total) had at least one accessibility indicator by means of a formal accessibility statement, Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT), or language within the license (Fernandez, 2018, p. 83). These findings left me somewhat surprised, mostly because I know that laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act are meant to provide legal protections for people with disabilities to ensure that resources remain open and accessible for them. I figured that by 2018, this would be language that would be used by every e-resource vendor. Then again, I know that truly ensuring that resources remain accessible for those with disabilities is perhaps an easier job said than done; while bigger vendors may use accessibility language more consistently (perhaps, one thinks pessimistically, to keep themselves from being sued), there may not be the same level of oversight for smaller e-resource vendors.

Fernandez (2018) also points out that larger e-resource vendors, such as ProQuest and EBSCO, are more likely to have designated manpower to examine issues of accessibility; a smaller vendor may have one customer service agent who may manage everything from sales issues to technological bugs (p. 84). It’s worth reminding ourselves that features that would make a website more accessible do not automatically pop up by themselves; they require separate coding and testing to ensure they work properly, which means time and money on the side of the vendor. It’s definitely money that is well worth spending, in my book, but some smaller vendors unfortunately may not have the budget to create accessible designs from the get-go.

Perhaps one of the more interesting features of Fernandez’s study for me was his suggestion that libraries should more actively advocate for vendors to confirm that they are committed to providing accessible resources by adding this wording into licenses and contracts. The author notes that vendors may end up using qualifying language to avoid fully committing to accessibility language so as avoid ending up in legal hot water, which is disappointing, but nonetheless the move remains one towards opening up a larger conversation between librarians and vendors on the subject (Fernandez, 2018, p. 86). I do hope that libraries take note of this suggestion and do not doubt their power in requesting these changes to be made. If more libraries begin using this verbiage and requesting (or even requiring) vendors to commit more fully to accessibility practices, sooner or later the industry will be pressured into changing more rapidly. Libraries owe it to their patrons to ensure that the materials they provide will be as accessible as possible so all parties can find the information they need. E-resource vendors may not be beholden to the public quite as directly as libraries are, but it’s definitely something I’d like to see them focus on overall. It’s not just smart for business; it’s the right move to make as library resources become increasingly digital. Ensuring equity of access to information is hugely important, and I hope that e-resource vendors, both big and small, keep this in mind moving forward.

References:

Fernandez, M. (2018). How accessible is our collection? Performing an e-resources accessibility review. The Serials Librarian, 74(1), 81-86. doi:10.1080/0361526X.2018.1430424

Organizing a Digital Music Library

Since I was 12, I’ve maintained a fairly impressive iTunes collection. What began as a place for me to digitize my CDs has grown into a fifty-plus gigabyte collection that is, frankly, a bit unwieldy to browse through. I’ve been thinking about the differences between having a digital musical library versus having a physical music library–one where you can browse through CDs or other methods of music storage, such as vinyl or cassette tapes–and I’ve considered a few differences overall.

  1. In a digital music space, organization is more fluid and more customizable.
    David Weinberger notes in his article “The New Order of Order” that iTunes taught us “the natural unit of music is the track” (para. 5). When you input thousands of songs into a digital repository, you can easily organize them however you wish–by name, by artist, by album, even by genre. This runs counter to having a physical music collection, where everything must be taken as a unit. If you have a copy of Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, for example, you can’t just remove one song from the album and place it with others. Likewise, if you have a compilation album of various artists, such as the charity compilation Dark Is the Night, you can’t put songs by individual artists with other work by those artists; the album must be consumed as a unit. Both approaches have their advantages: digital organization helps users find individual similar items fairly easily, while physical collections allow users to see tracks as part of a whole, separate product.
    In addition, digital music libraries allow users to customize playlists–i.e. different groupings of songs based on how the user wishes to group them. I can have a “Workout” playlist that features songs I find good for running. What I think is good running music, however, might not be what someone else considers to be good running music. Playlists end up being hugely subjective and sometimes require guidance from the person who created them; a casual user who is not familiar with the library may need certain groupings explaining to them, as the logic may not be terrifically obvious to begin with, making the library difficult to navigate by themselves.

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    I know why I’ve grouped these songs together–for exercising–but a stranger would not be able to find a connection inherent between these songs.
  2. Audio quality can vary wildly.
    Like most young people who grew up in the 2000s, I did a good share of illegal downloading as a broke teenager with no money. (I don’t advise resorting to piracy the way I did.) If I couldn’t buy materials off of the iTunes store, I would end up resorting to Limewire, a filesharing service, with mixed results. Limewire was a true crapshoot in terms of what you could download, and as a result I have files that are .MP3, .WMA, .MP4, .AAC, and .WAV. To say they’re not consistent is definitely one way of looking at it. Some of these tracks are lossier than others; you can hear digital artefacts, like pixellated noise, or the audio gets tinny. In addition, some tracks that have been part of my music library for over ten years which were converted into Apple’s “”lossless” format (.AAC) have begun to glitch and erode over time. By contrast, the CDs that I have, for the most part, sound as good as they did the day I got them. I’ve run the risk of scratching them if I played them too many times in my stereo, but otherwise the audio quality has remained the same. It seems that digital music libraries may require constant upkeep and re-updating of files to ensure they do not become lossy over time in a way that physical forms of music may not require.
  3. Metadata becomes more customizable–and potentially nightmarish.
    When you digitize music, there’s usually a good deal of metadata that arrives with the music itself. If you buy from the iTunes store, for instance, the names of songs will already be filled out, as will the name of the artist, the album title, any relevant composers, and even genre. There is usually a space for album artwork and lyrics as well, should you choose to add those. But is there a good, coherent way to organize music digitally by genre in a way that will make sense for casual users?
    Musical genre can sometimes be a minefield. For music aficionados, it becomes a question of whether or not music should be classified broadly (i.e. “rock”) or by narrower subgenres (i.e. “alt-folk,” “acid jazz”). Genre distinctions can be difficult to narrow down, especially in a formal sense. Kulczak and Lennertz Jetton (2011), for instance, note that MaRC (a formal library cataloguing structure) is geared towards classifying classical music rather than pop music, and that LCSH subheadings for newer music genres, like EDM, may not exist yet (218). In addition, users may not agree as to what genre(s) a piece of music may belong to–there’s usually a general consensus among the broader category, but the level of detail is subjective to the user (230). This presents an additional challenge for users who may be navigating an iTunes library with little knowledge of genre, especially if the person who has organized the music library decides to use narrower terms for genres. The controlled vocabulary for a person’s individual music library is going to differ based on their preferences and how much of a music nerd they are; however, it can also make searching within the library difficult if a casual user has no idea what to look for.
    In contrast, a physical music collection only has the metadata that is presented on the CD/vinyl case–nothing more, nothing less. To some degree, that makes it standardized; a hard copy of an Adele album will always have the same tracks listed in the same order and will probably include the composition credits in a leaflet inside the CD without additional frills. Browsing through a physical music library may help someone who is fairly new to music and who does not want to be overwhelmed with information all at once, while browsing a digital music library may be better suited for those who are more familiar with the collection.

Although I know we will be building digital libraries that are different from an iTunes library, I cannot help but think about how I’ve organized my own digital music library over the past few years. Other people must also have music libraries that only make sense to them. It’s fine for personal use, obviously, but not an ideal way to organize a formal digital library for unfamiliar users to come in and browse. Clearly, I’ll need to take a different approach when I begin designing my digital library for this course.

References:

Kulczak, D. E. & Lennertz Jetton, L. (2011). “Lexicon of love”: Genre description of popular music is not as simple as ABC. Music Reference Services Quarterly, 14(4), 210-238.

Weinberger, D. (2007). The new order of order. In Everything is miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder. Retrieved from http://arola.kuurola.com/356/spring12/readings/unit1/weinberger_ch1.pdf