The unease and uncertainty of this moment was palpable at the IIPC Web Archiving Conference in Wellington earlier this month. Web archiving is consumed with capturing content that is ever-changing, served on a platform that is also unstable. Which websites deserve space in the archives before dissolving into dead links, unsupported file types, and 404 errors? The scale of the effort to grab all of this content is such that there is no time to review the intellectual property restrictions, so often what is captured ends up in a dark archive, which is to say it cannot be properly recorded or easily discovered. The Stanford University Press and Stanford Libraries together face the challenge not only of preserving works that resist capture, but also shaping the definition of the work in a moment when the technology upon which they are built seems to be in a constant churn.
Daston identified two significant archival moments driven by technology in the past that can help us understand the one we are living in now. First was the shift from manuscript to print books. The second was the photograph. With the photograph she reminded us how the changes in format from the daguerreotype to the silver gelatin print to the Polaroid, etc. each generated sub crises; each new form making the previous one obsolete. We do not generally speak of archiving works before we have published them. But just as our understanding of the difference between professional and amateur publishing in the digital age has become ambiguous, at best, we are now considering the ‘web archived’ version of a digital project to be, effectively, the published work. The practice of web archiving is much like taking a snapshot of a website or work at a moment in time to fix it. The fixity fits our needs for publication. It’s also appealing for archiving because it reduces dependencies.
The predicament we face when archiving digital projects (or interactive scholarly works) is exponential when compared to changing format in photography. Each authored work is an amalgamation of multiple technologies, multiple dependencies, all outside of the author’s control. And the technological solutions we have for archiving these works compound the problem by relying on technology-based archival solutions. Web archiving, emulation, and virtual machines are all solutions we are pursuing, each of which adds another software dependency to these complex projects.
What I spoke about in my talk at the conference is how the assumptions, expectations, and perspectives on processes we have taken for granted in the print world are being up-ended. It’s not just that what it means to ‘publish’ has changed so dramatically when there are not always filters (as Abby Rumsey puts it in her book, When We Are No More), but authoring has also changed. The authors of the digital projects are often unaware of the implications of their technology choices. Often they are working in collaboration with artists and engineers who are not attuned to the challenges of archiving and preservation. And yet, authors naturally expect their published works to be maintained and accessible at least through stages of hiring, promotion, and tenure. Even the staff of a digital library have very different measures of success for archiving than that of our archivists and collection development staff. Web archiving does not necessarily mean making scholarship available to research and discovery in the way a print volume can be accessed in the catalog or on the shelf.
I fall back on a strategy that I recommended to Nick Bauch before I became involved in the supDigital project. The strategy is to provide something akin to blueprints that explain the interaction as well as the intent of the work; offering instructions for those who might want to reproduce the work in the future, as the underlying technology continues to inevitably evolve or dissolve. I point to Sol Lewitt’s wall paintings as a provocation. LeWitt submitted a set of instructions for the production of a work with the implication that anyone could reproduce it and that there would always be difference in the interpretation and the execution. Interestingly, the Sol LeWitt foundation has sought to impose constraints to legitimize the works. Only certain people can reproduce them now. Even the materials are specified far more explicitly than in the original instructions.
I felt emboldened with my LeWitt provocation when Wendy Seltzer mentioned LeWitt’s wall paintings the next day in her keynote address. Seltzer suggested that authors of web content who provided a set of instructions in the spirit of LeWitt would be helping to address the challenge of recording intellectual property; the instructions, or blueprints, could be submitted for legal deposit. And she was intrigued by how his approach encouraged others to reproduce the work, to comment on it, and otherwise keep it alive online.
The non-technological solution may be unsatisfying, but might also be the most effective means of making digital projects persist with clear intention, kept alive by our shared memory in whatever form that takes.
Nicole Coleman is the Digital Research Architect for Stanford University Libraries. She works with both the Press and Digital Library Systems and Services to design the procedures and workflows that suit the needs of authoring, publishing, and preservation for this new genre of scholarly communication.