Preservation at Stanford University Press Workshop

Title page for SUP’s slide deck at the recent preservation workshop.

When it comes to the format of interactive scholarly works, one size does not fit all. It’s been one of the greatest strengths and the greatest challenges of the kind of work we’re publishing under the Mellon-funded initiative. While other publishers, also in some cases with the help of the Mellon Foundation, are doing excellent work building platforms to contain and streamline their digital publications, what makes our program unique is that to a great extent we let the scholars determine the ways they’ll implement technological design in their arguments. This means each publication is different, and they each have unique needs throughout the publishing workflow.

We’ve put a lot of work over the past couple years into helping shape authors’ technological decisions, from talking one-on-one in early stages, to providing detailed written recommendations and guidelines. But part of the logic of our program is that digital scholars are pushing the boundaries in their fields and demanding that their progressive and creative methodologies and presentations are included in the scholarly record. We are advocating for that kind of progress by supporting our authors’ cutting-edge work through peer review and everything else that typically comes with the more traditional publication process.

One of the assumed though often not dwelled upon benefits of traditional publication is some level of assuredness that the publication will persist even after its immediate contemporary moment is past. Libraries are filled with artifacts to this end, and many of them go months or years sitting on a shelf, never seeing the light of a researcher’s curious eyes. But they persist. They will be there when a critical moment re-emerges, and they can be cited as the conversation continues. So shouldn’t their digital counterparts also share this potential?

It’s this question that has prompted our considerations of next-steps, and we began making greater strides last week when we hosted a diverse group of experts in digital delivery and preservation at Stanford University. The aim of the workshop was to gauge our own authors’ expectations about the longevity of their work and then to dive into current and emerging approaches to preserving web-based content. Together, we worked on brainstorming strategies for combining resources and perspectives toward pursuing a set of preservation options we would be able to apply to the individual needs of published projects.

See the workshop program here.

We started the first morning hearing from eight of our currently contracted or published authors. They each gave overviews on their projects, highlighting their content and underlying technology and positing their expectations for the work’s online lifespan. I then presented our current multi-pronged approach to preservation and the tools we’re currently working with and researching in our own library infrastructure and beyond. The slide deck is available here. After lunch, we heard from a variety of organizations working on projects or in fields focused on or including digital preservation. We heard from representatives of King’s College Digital Lab, Project Endings, Digits, Reclaim Hosting, Internet Archive, Webrecorder, Computer History Museum, Software Preservation Network, and Emulation as a Service.

While it took a little while to get through the presentation section of the meeting, the information was essential to establish everyone’s roles in the full arc of digital scholarly publishing. It was necessary for the technologists in attendance to understand the immense intellectual investment of the authors to their projects; it was important for authors and technologists to see what we at the Press were already doing to continue that investment and take responsibility for our role as publishers in preserving scholarly content; and it was crucial that the authors hear just how complex the question of preservation is and to see how committed we are to establishing relationships with projects and organizations that are also invested in keeping the digital going.

The aim of the workshop was to gauge our own authors’ expectations about the longevity of their work and then to dive into current and emerging approaches to preserving web-based content.

Once the presentations were over, the real dialog began. As a group, everyone posed questions in a shared document, which we used to narrow down some breakout topics. Session topics for the first afternoon included identifying what needed to be preserved, how long was long enough, and how to design with preservation in mind. After a communal dinner and some much-needed rest, the following morning saw more breakout sessions and some technical demos. We broke out to discuss the potentials and limitations of containerization as well as the logic and specifics of our program’s documentation guidelines. We then got a deeper look at Webrecorder and Emulation as a Service, both promising technologies for preserving the complex interactive features of the work we’re publishing. We wrapped up by posing some possible next steps, which included ways to outreach and collaborate.

Ultimately, the meeting was itself a significant outreach, and it was exciting to see so many perspectives engaging with each other in breakouts, breaks, and beyond. I’m eager to see how many of the connections will materialize into preservation tools and approaches we’ll be able to tap into as we continue to formalize this important aspect of forwarding digital scholarly communication. Again, we thank everyone for their energetic participation and for making the whole experience so invigorating and rewarding despite the topic itself being one so fraught with challenges. This is how progress happens.

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