Clifford Lynch has just published a thoughtful and carefully researched article on Stewardship in the “Age of Algorithms”. Lynch’s central claim is that the web, algorithm-based institutions and our contemporary social media are in practical terms impossible to archive and preserve via traditional approaches. The traditional approaches that he has in mind are ‘format migration’ and ‘emulation’, but he appears to suggest that these are alternative approaches when they are essentially complementary. In fact one cannot have format migration without emulation, and any software emulation requires appropriate file format inputs. Lynch gives us a handy explanation of the format migration strategy:
The traditional models of digital archiving are twofold: format migration and emulation. Both, of course, assume a substrate, which is now relatively well understood and implemented with a fairly high degree of confidence, assuming reasonably consistent and continuous funding, of bit-level preservation by migration from one storage technology to the next as necessary . The first approach, format migration, is best suited to “document-like” objects: PDFs, Microsoft Word files, audio, video, XML, JPEG, TIFF, etc. Here the idea is that, as standards, or de facto standards, gradually evolve and the ecosystem to deal with those types of files shift, curators will migrate the file formats, but this strategy is not necessarily as simple as it seems. New file formats are often not isomorphic to older ones. Formats may be proprietary and/or undocumented, and even objects claiming to conform to well-known standards may not implement these standards correctly or may add proprietary extensions. Lynch:Stewardship in the “Age of Algorithms”
Lynch should really emphasise that this migration of formats is insufficient and inadequate, in fact completely pointless, if it is not also accompanied by the parallel development of methods of emulation. Primarily this requires software development of programs or apps to do the emulation. There is no gain in having a magazine in a digital file format if you do not also have some software and a device on which to read it. File formats only have use in the context of software that can read, select, compare, edit etc those digital objects. And any innovations in the formats necessitates corresponding advances in the software which allows us to use or interpret these formats (Adobe readers, Kindle or iBook software, web browsers etc.).
While this may be a small correction to Lynch’s overall argument, it points to an important consequence. In digital culture, preservation — even of traditional cultural objects — is not a closed process. Once we aim to preserve analog or primarily physical cultural objects (for example photographs or books or magazines) in digital repositories and databases we are implicitly committed to an ongoing task of enabling and facilitating new forms of access. Precisely because our digital culture and our innovative technological mix will be inventing new ways of interacting with and enjoying these traditional cultural objects. Nor is it a settled or obvious question how these improvements and developments should be pursued.
This need for an ongoing commitment to preservation struck at Exact Editions very early in our development. We firmly believe that magazines, books and newspapers are all becoming more digital, but we also took it as an article of faith that back issues and archives have important and valuable content that should be available to digital subscribers, so our solutions whether through web browsers or via apps on smartphones and tablets have always ensured that archives and back issues are accessible to the subscribers of current issues. Just as the software of a digital magazine has to welcome and display each new issue, so its database should reach back and awaken back issues that in a print culture are usually filed inertly and inaccessibly on shelves or forgotten heaps.
The digital transition is nevertheless very real. Although the magazines that users read on their branded apps, are in one way strictly equivalent to the printed versions that they might have read in the Boston Library public reading room or Viennese cafes in the 19th century (with those bamboo frames that we still sometimes see) yet the reading experience and the arrangement of the digital editions is very different. It is only with a digital app or a web browser that one could expect to see all the decades or years of a magazine’s issues tidily piled up on a virtual desk. This stacking of issues emulates in a virtual form the tidy arrangement which would be quite hard to achieve with printed issues: and from most points of view it is a much handier solution than the collection of previous issues in carton sorters.
Digital archiving even of historic and contemporary print formats is not easy; but it is both obviously possible and culturally necessary. The 12 complete magazine archives which are showcased in celebration of International Digital Preservation Day #IDPD17 are all growing and their preservation needs in 5 or 10 years time may be unanticipated by their current formats and their existing software. By then we hope to have found out what it is that mixed reality, block chains and machine learning are surely going to teach us. And the archives may in one way look the same, but they may behave a little differently.