Imagine a future where our historical archives are prone to unexpected deterioration and sudden, severe changes in appearance. Sounds more like the plot for a dystopian science fiction story than a worrying and imminent reality. Nevertheless, this is the situation that digital preservation professionals are increasingly met with. Towards the end of last year, the point was raised by Barbara Sierman in a blog post when she asked 'Where is our Atlas of Digital Damages?' In other words, how do we document evidence of corrupted files, colour damage and pixel loss in digital images and objects? In response, an Atlas of Digital Damages was launched via Flickr, a crowdsourced group where people can upload examples of their dodgy digitalia (see example below).
An example from the Atlas of Digital Damages
This issue seems especially relevant at a time when the digitisation of rare and fragile materials is being promoted as a method for preserving and providing access to collections. Being interested in collections myself, particularly (for the purposes of this blog) in science fiction collections, I've viewed digitisation in a similar light when photographing rapidly disintegrating SF periodicals from the 1920s and 1930s. Although digitisation seems to offer preservation options, it's perhaps not yet well established enough to offer permanent solutions, which is why many digital preservation projects are currently underway to develop better preservation standards.
And in fact the idea of finding permanent solutions to preservation problems, digital or otherwise, is somewhat misguided anyway. As David Lowenthal writes in The Past is a Foreign Country:
Preservation itself reveals that permanence is an illusion. The more we save, the more aware we become that such remains are continually altered and reinterpreted. We suspend their erosion only to transform them in other ways.
If we can only slow, rather than halt the passage of time, what would be deemed an acceptable stage of deterioration? With books and manuscripts, their manifest age lends them a sort of authenticity or authority. Conversely, damaged computer files more often highlight the perceived ephemerality of digital information. Lowenthal's notion of transformation also re-focuses the question of digital preservation back onto the object and identifying the important aspects of the object in the digital realm. How do we define the authentic look of the digital object? How do we distinguish the original and what would be the effect of losing it? And does the concept of an original digital object even make sense? The Atlas of Digital Damages presents the opportunity to begin thinking about some of these concerns, and how we might address them in the future.