Review of Preserving Complex Digital Objects

Janet Delve and David Anderson (eds), Preserving Complex Digital Objects, London, Facet, 2014.

In Neil Grindley’s introduction to Preserving Complex Digital Objects he explains that it aims to set out what is currently understood about dealing with complex digital objects and offer a broad framework for starting to manage and address relevant issues. The book is the product of a number of symposia held in the UK in 2011-2012 on different aspects of the preservation of complex objects, funded by JISC, a charitable organisation originally set up by the UK government as the Joint Information Systems Committee in the 1990s. JISC now champions and conducts research and development in the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in learning, teaching, research and administration. Formerly devoting much time to digital preservation research and information sharing, JISC is now more heavily focused on research data management and sharing for the universities and other higher education providers that make up the bulk of its members.

The Preservation of Complex Digital Objects Symposia were set up to investigate the preservation of three types of complex digital objects:

  • Simulations and visualisations
  • Software art
  • Gaming environments and virtual worlds

The speakers at these events – the authors in the resulting book – came from a diverse set of backgrounds and include computer scientists, research data specialists, visual artists, academics, curators, digital humanists, gaming experts and a digital archivist.

The book is divided into six sections, starting with the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of preservation and moving through a number of perspectives on the problem; the role of institutions, tools and techniques, managing metadata and documentation, legal issues and a number of case studies. The final section, ‘Pathfinder conclusions’ presents roadmaps for the three areas under investigation. It is also worth making particular mention of the Glossary. You know you’re in the world of digital preservation when you encounter an eight page glossary almost entirely composed of acronyms. This has long been an obsession in the world of digital preservation: a catchy name that has to simultaneously stand for something (ENSURE, EPOCH, LOCKSS, KEEP, the list goes on). In this alphabet soup a reference like this glossary is a helpful thing if you want to know your SIARD from your SPEQS, or simply have something on hand for translation purposes when having conversations with digital preservation specialists.

In Part 1 ‘Why and what to preserve: creativity versus preservation’, perspectives on the choices made in preserving artefacts from the creative arts, archaeology and games development are shared. It is interesting to compare these with the discussions on significant properties and ‘performance’ of digital records that have occurred in the records/archives world. Here, these considerations are extended to more anthropological ones, leading to proposals from Richard Bartle for the capture of video of people playing games, or interviews with game designers along with the games. Also familiar to archivists working with digital records, these experts struggle with issues of proprietary control over information and the loss of context when linked data sources are updated – as noted by Michael Takeo Magruder in a dense chapter of case studies on preserving digital art. Questions of what to keep, in a sense comparable with archival appraisal, are only really touched in by Simon Biggs, in an interesting reflection on intended ephemerality in digital art making, making the preservation process redundant.

Part 2, ‘The memory institution/data archival perspective’ includes chapters from a data archivist with the UK’s Archaeology Data Service (Jenny Mitchum), a team from the UK’s National Videogame Archive as well as an academic looking at museums and archives’ responses to the challenges of digital art preservation. Mitcham provides a useful set of criteria for assessing data prior to accepting it which is essentially a combination of appraisal and preservation planning. Here I liked her focus on ensuring re-usability and establishing clear migration paths up front. It was also good to see Mitcham’s acknowledgement that in digital preservation there is no ‘one size fits all’ and her emphasis on the value of open documentation. These both recognise a reality for those working in government or collecting digital archives– that you need to be accept each set of records will be different and come with a whole new set of problems to solve – and that only by collaboration can our discipline build solutions to those problems in a cost effective way. Perla Innocenti, although speaking of digital art preservation, acknowledges the substantial work done in the archives/records community on authenticity and trustworthiness, noting the criticality of properly recorded provenance. This one of only a small number of references in the book to work done over the past two decades on digital records preservation in the records/archives world.

Part 3 deals with approaches, practices and tools. Here we explore the challenge of preserving software, tools for special preservation challenges such as 3D, and the many ways in which metadata is critical to successful preservation activity.

The two chapters on the preservation of software were of interest because this is not typically within the stated preservation aims of government and institutional archives in Australia. Both chapters detail the ‘7 techniques’; ranging from emulation (one of the better known approaches; software mimics the original tool and its operating environment), to ‘hibernation’ (preserving the knowledge so that a piece of software may be resurrected down the track) to procrastination (not recommended!). Matthews, Shaon and Conway, in examining how to measure the success of software preservation borrow the concept of ‘performance’, developed by the team at the National Archives of Australia in 2002. This is not the only parallel with digital records preservation – these authors also examine the concept of authenticity; how much will a user trust that the software’s provenance is uncorrupted and it operates within the parameters of its design, that its outputs are consistent with its original outputs?

In the chapters on tools and techniques, Delve, Denard and Kilbride outline discussions at the symposia on how to meet the challenges in preserving complex objects such as visualisations and simulations. Here, the issues of scale and complexity they identify would be well known to archivists working in all environments. In learning about preserving 3D digital content with the Image and Spatial Data Analysis Division (University of Illinois) it was very useful to come across their Conversion Software Registry, a very handy resource if looking for tools to create renditions of lots of formats, including the difficult 3D ones. This problem is only becoming more pressing as governments, local government and the private sector move entirely to keeping 3D models and plans in lieu of paper or scans of paper plans and schematics.

Jerome McDonough from the University of Illinois describes some of the practical obstacles faced by those preserving games (going as far back as 1962’s Spacewar!) – including copyright infringement and the need to retain standards documentation for standards on which games may depend. The EU-funded TIMBUS project is of interest for recordkeepers, with its emphasis on the preservation of business processes and their computing environments. Combining techniques from digital preservation, business continuity and risk management, it offers an approach to business process preservation which has many similarities with work process analysis for recordkeeping purposes. However in defining metadata to represent the way digital ‘objects’ interact with these processes, TIMBUS presents a mixture of digital preservation standards (PREMIS, OAIS) and software registries. It would be interesting to see this work ‘join up’ with understandings of recordkeeping metadata to create a more flexible and business-centric framework.

In Part 4 we are presented with a number of case studies. These are interesting, addressing preservation challenges in archaeology, feature film visual effects and 3D visualisation from the cultural sector. The overriding sense here, however, was that here were a variety of experts in their fields, all trying to solve the same problems that had been articulated throughout the book; documentation of context; determining what to preserve; making preservation technique choices and sustainability. They all seemed to have been working in isolation – a problem that the JISC symposia were perhaps set up to tackle. Part 5, ‘A legal perspective’ describes some of the copyright and information security issues affecting digital preservation activity.

The ‘Pathfinder conclusions’ offered by Delve and Anderson at the conclusion of the book seek to summarise the challenges and make recommendations. They separate out three categories of complex objects: visualisations/simulations; software art / digital art; and gaming / virtual worlds, but the challenges and responses are largely compatible. They revolve around documenting context, tracking provenance, choosing appropriate preservation strategies and understanding the intention of the creators. The strategies are not limited to those to be carried out by memory institutions or others with a stake in longevity, but also are recommended for artists and games creators, with an understanding that it is vitally important that their preferences are accommodated.

In summary I found Preserving Complex Digital Objects an interesting, if at times frustrating, read. Perhaps because it is essentially a set of proceedings from a series of events, with the editors having less control over the nature of the contributions than for another kind of text, the level at which the chapters are pitched varies quite a bit. So in some we are given some pretty basic information on the main elements of (any) digital preservation program, while in others the author drills down into a much more advanced explanation of the issues and approaches in their area of speciality. Some of the frustration also came from the fact that there were many aspects of digital preservation relating to tests for authenticity, metadata and more discussed in this book which have been extensively researched and tested by projects such as Interpares and others, while here they are raised as if new. We have not been doing a great job, as a profession, of ensuring that our findings, models and our successes in digital preservation and recordkeeping are well understood in related disciplines such as librarianship, data archiving and digital humanities. We should improve this if we are to pursue the collaborative approach which is recommended here and which will be essential for all of our continued viability.

– Cassie Findlay

This is a pre-print version of a review which appears in Archives and Manuscripts, Vol 43, Issue 1 2015.


About Cassie Findlay

Digital archivist and recordkeeping professional, co-founder of the Recordkeeping Roundtable. @CassPF on Twitter.
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