iPRES, the annual International Conference on Digital Preservation, took place in Glasgow 12th-16th September 2022, hosted by the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC). In this blog post, Alice Zamboni reports on some of the highlights of the conference, held in person after a two-year hiatus.
The title chosen for the 2022 iPRES Conference, “Let Digits Flourish. Data for all, for good, for ever” is also an exhortation that perfectly captures the ambitions of the Digital Preservation community and the spirit of its annual gathering at iPRES. Its rich conference programme combined traditional panels with lightning talks, workshops and interactive sessions. The subdivision of the programme into the five thematic strands of Resilience, Innovation, Environment, Exchange and Community was an effective way to foster interdisciplinary conversations among experts who are busy tackling similar issues from different angles and work towards the same goal of ensuring the preservation of digital heritage worldwide.
Thanks to the generous support of the DPC career development fund, I was lucky enough to be able to attend iPRES in person. As I am only a few months into my role as graduate trainee digital archivist at the Bodleian, this was my first professional conference. For me, attending iPRES was the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with current trends and developments in the field of digital preservation and learn more about the important work undertaken in Archives and Libraries across Europe and further afield.
One session that skilfully interwove many of the ideas running through the conference was held on Thursday 15th as part of the Resilience strand. The session brought together archivists, researchers and experts from various Industries, which allowed for a multifaceted exploration of the obstacles posed by the preservation of complex digital resources connected to academia and the art world. The session touched upon a number of issues, from the threat that obsolete software poses to Internet art, to the importance of digital preservation strategies for academic research projects with a digital output and the application of web archiving to academic referencing.
The first two presentations highlighted the value of web archiving as a way to ensure the preservation of online resources used in academic research. Sara Day Thomson and Anisa Hawes’s talk focused on the website created as part of the Carmichael Watson Research Project, based at the University of Edinburgh. The website hosts an important online database of primary written resources and artefacts relating to Gaelic culture. Following the end of the research project, the website was taken down owing to security issues caused by its infrastructure. Day Thomson and Hawes were involved in the complex task of archiving this very large online database using Webrecorder.
Without the web archivists’ intervention, the Carmichael Watson Project website would have simply vanished. The presentation made a case for the development of digital preservation strategies, which should be viewed as a priority by academic institutions whose research output includes important digital archives and databases. Equally, this case study sparks questions about whether web archiving is the sole and most viable solution for the preservation of digital archives and databases. Does the website – its structure and the way in which it displays the database – matter and is therefore worth preserving for its cultural and evidential value, or could the research output be separated from the website and preserved through other means?
Martin Klein’s (Los Alamos National Laboratory) paper on Reference Rot presented another issued posed by the ubiquity of the internet in academic writing and publishing. As the number of scholarly resources available solely in electronic formats grows, so too does the amount of bibliographic citations that include a URL. Yet these links are easily broken. Many of us will have experienced the disappointment of clicking on a hyperlink only to find that the resource is no longer available on that webpage. Fewer will know that this phenomenon has its own nickname: content drift, which exposes URLs to link rot. Luckily, Klein’s project has devised an automatized programme for the creation of what he described as ‘robustified links’. In this way, it is possible to create an archived version of a URL, along with a unique resource identifier that includes information about date and time of creation of this robust link.
Both presentations offered me a new perspective on the work that I do at the Bodleian, where I help manage the Bodleian Libraries Web Archive. I often wonder who the current users of our web archive may be and what value this collection of websites may acquire in decades from now. The two talks made me appreciate the growing recognition of web archiving as a form of preservation of digital heritage as well as the value that these archived resources have for different stakeholders.
The second half of the session turned from academia to the art world, with papers by Natasa Milic-Frayling (IntactDigital Ltd) and Dragan Espenschied (Rhizome). The two papers explored some of the challenges faced by the preservation of Internet art. Both talks were interesting for the historical perspective they offered on recent developments in the art world such as NFT artworks, which may eventually find their way in a contemporary artist’s archive. As Milic-Frayling pointed out, the internet opened up a world of possibilities for emerging artists in the 1990s. Thanks to the web, artists could reach new audiences online without the mediation of art galleries and exhibitions. Yet the dissemination of artworks in the online environment has exposed them to the insidious threat of software obsolescence.
Espenschied showed the valuable work that Rhizome’s platform ArtBase has done to counter this issue. Active since 1999, this archive of Internet art employs various pieces of software to handle obscure data formats used by artists in the 1990s and allows users to perform the artefact choosing from different options, such as browser emulation or a web archived version of the artwork.
Milic-Frayling talked about her recent collaboration with artist Michael Takeo Magruder. Some of his Internet art pieces were created using Flash and VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language), both of which are no longer supported by today’s browsers. At first, it may be difficult to comprehend how a piece of software can negatively affect a work of art. Conservation issues affecting analogue archival material – from the threat of humidity and bookworms for a rare printed book to the excessive exposure to light for a delicate drawing – are tangible and visible. Yet software obsolescence should be taken just as seriously for the way in which it affects the born-digital counterparts to works on paper. In Magruder’s net art piece World[s], the combination of FLASH and VRML contributes to the creation of mesmerizingly intricate three-dimensional virtual shapes floating through a dark space. If the software is not correctly read, the integrity and quality of the artwork are endangered and potentially lost forever. Milic-Frayling worked to ensure the preservation of these net art pieces, guided in her approach by the artist’s requirements around access to and display of his artworks.
Together, the four talks contributed to show that born-digital resources are fragile and especially vulnerable to obsolescence. Yet the picture they painted was far from bleak. The speakers also made a case for the resilience of digital heritage, which owes much to the work that digital preservation specialists do to ensure that born-digital complex objects adapt to constant technological advancement and continue to be accessible to future generations.
Some useful links:
Digital Preservation Coalition – https://www.dpconline.org/
Webarchiving with Webrecorder – https://webrecorder.net/tools#archivewebpage
Robustifying Links Project – https://robustlinks.mementoweb.org/
ArtBase archive – https://artbase.rhizome.org/wiki/Main_Page