[Much of this language came from the grant narrative and so means that Stuart and I are co-authors this post.]
While Stuart and I finish Pathfinders, where we have developed the methodology for preserving the experience of early digital literature, we have already conceptualized the next step, which we are calling Pathfinding. This phase is a two-day symposium that will bring together leaders in the preservation, archiving, and dissemination of electronic literature, computer games, virtual worlds, digital collections, online journals, and mobile media to initiate a nationwide, trans- institutional consortium for treatment of born digital objects.
The project builds upon the research undertaken in Pathfinders (Grigar and Moulthrop, NEH ODH Start Up Grant, 2013) that introduced an important innovation––the documentation of experience––to the preservation, archiving, and dissemination of born-digital productions. To support the symposium, we have written another Stage 2 NEH Start Up grant. We will know in March if it has been funded.
The symposium’s goals are to : 1) share and exchange knowledge gained from Pathfinders, as well as other initiatives relating to the preservation of born digital objects; 2) coordinate diverse approaches to work of this type; 3) broaden the scope of inquiry beyond art and literature to all types of digital expression within Digital Humanities; and 4) facilitate a critical discussion of concepts and methods in this emerging field.
Pathfinding aims to bring new approaches and document best practices in a core area of Digital Humanities: the posterity of expressive objects developed in computational media, what we refer to as “born digital objects.” While Pathfinders focused on documenting experience through a process we call the “traversal,” exploring collection––that is, the use of historical platforms that themselves suggest a specific cultural context––as a method of preservation, archiving, and dissemination, Pathfinding applies our findings for the purpose of opening a critical dialogue about the full range of relevant strategies, including the importance of combining migration to newer media, software emulation, and collection for this purpose. Discussion among key innovators from a wide range of fields that generate and/or study born digital objects will improve understanding of potential and limits of various approaches and lead to better coordination of future research, both in sharing of tools, insights, and strategies, and in decisions about areas of focus.
The need for this kind of project in the humanities led by those with experience in the production and scholarship of digital born mediacannot be overstated. As Alan Liu observes, “[w]here postindustrialism extends its baseline back only as far as the last financial quarter or year, the humanities respond by asserting that the real value of knowledge can only be gauged across centuries and millennia” (381). Writing has been the primary means by which humanists have extended their work through time, but with the advent of digital media, writing faces serious complications. Enfolded within software systems, writing and other forms of symbolic expression are subject to disruptive forces of obsolescence, in material as well as social terms. Media objects themselves grow more complex, from the basic duality between encoded or latent text, and what users see, to the particular intricacies of individual interfaces and architectures. If the humanities are to remain a vital cultural force, it is essential that humanists evolve ways of dealing with relentlessly advancing media.
It is also clear that multiple approaches are needed. Some objects may lend themselves to software emulation or system migration––two other methods of preservation––while others, constrained by property claims and other issues, may be better served by collection and the documentation of experience that we argue goes hand in hand with it. Each of these methods brings unique affordances, and each also comes with limitations. Scholars committed to the posterity of computationally intensive expression need a frame of reference that integrates approaches across a broad domain of application.
While preservation, archiving, and dissemination has long been an interest of the Electronic Literature Organization’s (ELO) PAD project, reflected in the publication of Acid-Free Bits (version 1.0) in 2004 and Born-Again Bits in 2005, much has taken place in nine years that require an extension of this work. The development, for example, of scholarly collections of Stephanie Strickland’s and Judy Malloy’s work at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University and Deena Larsen’s and Bill Bly’s at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at the University of Maryland predicates further research in best practices for preserving born digital work. Moreover, we believe there is much to be gained in sharing what we have learned from Pathfinders with scholars and artists who study and create other forms of born digital objects so that we can determine best practices for those works where participation and interaction feature largely and continue to contribute to literary criticism and history of these important cultural works.