Principles that Guide Restoration and Reconstruction of Born-Digital Literature

The restoration and reconstruction projects the lab has produced, in varying degrees, required approaches like migration, emulation, and collection as part of the digital preservation process. In some cases, text and are were migrated while code is completely rebuilt. Other cases see a bit of code added to a HTML page that result in the emulation of the Adobe Flash Player so that the work can be displayed on a contemporary browser. Still in other cases, no migration nor emulation is required but a slight change in the code predicates the need to check the new version against the original on legacy computers. What this means, then, is that preservation approaches––emulation, migration, collection––serve larger purposes in the work we do––restoration and reconstruction––and are applied in specific and unique ways to conserve both the integrity of a work as well as its ongoing accessibility.

Undertaking digital restoration and reconstruction also means that the conservation of any work starts with a general set of principles that guide decisions made about its preservation.

Guiding Principle #1
First, we strive to preserve the most fragile works first. Works published on outmoded physical media, like floppy disks and CD-ROMs, are especially in danger of disappearing. The average life-span of floppy disks, for example, was predicted to endure only 10 to 20 years while the CD-ROM format, from one year to decades. The classic works of hypertext literature published on these formats that the lab holds in its archives, however, emerged in the late 1980s on to the late 1990s and, so, are well past their predicted life span. King of Space and Victory Garden were published 30 years ago on this format. Even the most recent work the lab has reconstructed, Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, was published in 2001 on CD-ROM, and is now over 20 years old. Likewise, the demise of Flash at the end of 2020 caused the lab to turn its attention to a wholesale preservation project to emulate all of born-digital literature created with it and held in the various collections hosted at The NEXT. To date, the lab has preserved over 700 Flash works spread throughout The NEXT’s 40 collections.

Guiding Principle #2
The second principle we follow is to use preservation methods that ensure the integrity of the work and its long-term accessibility. When reconstructing a work originally created with Flash, for example, we reconstruct it with Ruffle and Conifer rather than in open web languages since the emulation of the Flash Player and a functional browser, respectively, offers a closer proximity of the work’s functionality––particularly its smooth transitions between scenes and interactive behaviors programmed originally via ActionScript––than a version created in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Similarly, hypertext literature created with outmoded proprietary software, like King of Space’s Hypergate, are reconstructed in open web languages, avoiding libraries not supported by active communities for menus, carousels, and other features, so as to avoid the danger of potential future unsupported systems.

Guiding Principle #3
We also consult with the work’s artist and other stakeholders about the parameters and vision of a restoration and reconstruction. In the case of Amnesia, a work whose artist died 22 years ago, the lab consulted his notes and met regularly with representatives of his literary estate for feedback and approval. Holeton met regularly with the lab and provided ongoing feedback when we reconstructed Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, and Moulthrop led the reconstruction of Victory Garden 2022. In all cases, the lab leaned heavily on the work’s stakeholders to maintain the author’s vision of the reconstruction.

Guiding Principle #4
Some of the works we restored and reconstructed were under copyright and so could not be preserved until proper permissions were granted. The classic hypertext literature published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. from 1990 to 2006 on floppy disks and CD-ROMs and created with outmoded software like Hypergate, HyperCard, and Director could not be restored or reconstructed because their copyright license did not allow them to be distributed, though their artists retained the rights to the work. Recognizing the danger this posed for the cultural history of born-digital literature, Grigar and Moulthrop developed the Pathfinders methodology for documenting these works that followed Fair Use rules. Since 2015, 28 of the 48 titles published by Eastgate Systems, Inc. have been preserved using this method that includes video playthroughs (called Traversals), video interviews with the artists, images of the packaging and physical media, and critical writing about the work. While Pathfinders helps to maintain the works’ presence in the public sphere, it does not go far enough to keep them in the hands of the reading public. When Eastgate Systems, Inc. gave distribution rights back to Holeton, Smith, and Moulthrop, only then did the lab begin the process of reconstructing those works.

Guiding Principle #5
In creating a new edition of a work of hypertext literature, the lab respects previous versions, particularly those established as authoritative. The lab’s edition of Figurski at Findhorn on Acid gives the reader a taste of the classic Storyspace environment but acknowledges that it cannot replace the authoritative edition published in 2001. Thus, the lab restores and reconstructs not to replace but to maintain our cultural heritage.

Guiding Principle #6
Restoration and reconstruction projects are aimed at both a contemporary audience and some undetermined future generation of readers and players that we cannot even begin to define. Abby Smith Rumsey warns digital preservationists of the dangers of “a monoculture” and encourages us to “want more knowledge, not less, about the multiple ways to be human.” She reminds us that “[o]ur obligation to future generations is to ensure that they can decide for themselves what is valuable” (2016: 175-176). We can accomplish this task by preserving all we can while we can with the best tools available to us. In this way, the lab may ensure the works we preserve are circulating among audiences in the present moment but is also focused on endeavors that may make it possible for works to survive long enough to resonate with someone in a some distant future time.

Guiding Principle #7
The goal of preserving the most fragile works to which we have access and have permission to restore and reconstruct means the lab strives to save as many of them as possible without regard to maintaining or producing a canon. As N. Katherine Hayles reminds us, it makes no sense to argue about canon when we cannot hold on to the works long enough to erect one (Hayles 2022). For example, of the 22 classic hypertexts created with proprietary software cited in Astrid Ensslin’s book, Canonizing Hypertext: Explorations and Constructions, 16 are no longer readily accessible. The six that remain extant have been reconstructed by the artist, the lab, or my colleague Mariusz Pisarski. Without the lab’s intervention in Flash literature and net art, none held online by Turbulence, a major international art showcase, nor those published in many of the online journals of the late 1990s to mid-2000s held in The NEXT and devoted to net art, would be available to experience much less to canonize.

Guiding Principle #8
When we undertake restoration and reconstruction projects, we do so with the idea that we are building a structure that allows for future restorations and reconstructions. Projects are shared via Github, for example. “Build Notes” are maintained so that the next team of preservationists are aware of the steps taken to arrive at the edition they are about to restore or reconstruct. An archive of the media files are held so that they too can be shared with others. Thus, it is understood that whatever work we undertake on behalf of a work is temporary and that in some future time it will need to be preserved again.

Guiding Principle #9
Finally, following the strategy of distributed preservation, or LOCKSS (lots of copies keep stuff safe), the lab shares and saves multiple copies of whatever we restore and reconstruct. Locally, files are saved on the server, which is backed up nightly. They are additionally archived in the lab’s Basecamp site and held on back up hard drives held at different locations at the university and with key lab members. As mentioned previously, the lab also keeps files of works we have restored and reconstructed on Github so that others can access them. Additionally, all editions and versions of works we have collected are held at ELO’s The NEXT and made available with permission of the artist, which means that works and their files have the potential of being shared widely among visitors to this venue.

Dene Grigar is Director and Professor of the CMDC Program. She specializes in electronic literature, emerging technologies and cognition, and ephemera.