Preserving Born-Digital Scholarship

Public domain via Max Pixel.

One of my first projects as digital production associate for the works being published under SUP’s Mellon-funded digital publishing initiative was to create a set of technical guidelines. It has proven to be a complex undertaking and one that is unearthing many philosophical questions and considerations. Over three months of work on these documents, which will be featured here in the coming weeks, has shown that just as a recommendation seems to be complete, something in the technological world changes, and the guidelines need to be updated. It’s the nature of the digital, and it’s something many of us know all too well.

Many authors that compose their work in and for digital environments feel the sting of loss when what they’ve created succumbs to the ruthless speed of technological innovation.

The life of a technophile seems to constantly oscillate between elation and grief. The excitement at the birth of a the latest mind-blowing API, elegant publishing platform, lifesaving open source plug-in, or game-changing JavaScript library is inevitably closely followed by the death of another favorite app, well-used software program, or familiar media interface. While the swing keeps us curious and creative, it can also become exhausting and frustrating.

Many authors that compose their work in and for digital environments feel the sting of loss on a personal level when what they’ve created succumbs to the seemingly ruthless speed of technological innovation. Many writers of electronic literature in the 80s and 90s, for instance, felt the pain of changing formats and found their work unreadable as floppy disks were replaced by CDs and operating systems updated to standards that could no longer display the content they had worked so hard to compose.

And for many authors and developers creating interactive scholarly works today, the ebb and flow of innovation and decay can be all the more disorienting within the context of the time that necessarily goes into drafting, proposing, developing, reviewing, revising, and publishing a typical scholarly project. It can easily be the case that just as one stage is nearing completion, an author needs to go back and update a script that has suddenly become buggy or adjust the style sheet because of a platform update.

The life of a technophile seems to constantly oscillate between elation and grief.

So it might seem a little strange that despite the rapid pace of technological change, an article written over a decade ago still captures many of the challenges of sustainable web authoring and that its recommendations for mitigating or responding to those challenges are still applicable. Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s 2004 “Acid-Free Bits” still addresses the fundamental challenges of producing digital projects that are preservable, if not sustainable, and offers clear recommendations on “creating long-lasting work.” Though focused on the genre of electronic literature, the information and arguments can easily apply to any web-based work. The authors establish the piece as “a plea for writers to work proactively in archiving their own creations, and to bear these issues in mind even in the act of composition.”

As I began putting together our own guidelines, I couldn’t help noticing that I was repeating many of the same points that Montfort and Waldrip-Fruin brought up so long ago. So as a prelude to the forthcoming release of SUP’s technical guidelines, I recommend revisiting “Acid-Free Bits.” Though, sadly, the larger project it was intended to preface seems to have met the same fate as many early web-focused initiatives, this piece on its own remains a valuable reference for authors of just about every kind of creative or scholarly digital project.


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *