Friday, 15 November 2013

week 10 blogging question

This week's blogging question has to do with a practical matter raised by our Kirschenbaum reading from week 9: how will you ensure that your research materials, especially digital materials, are preserved? Imagine that someone in the far future (say, the year 2112) wants to understand what research your project was doing, much as we look back to the lab notebooks, letters, records, and other materials left behind by Darwin, Freud, Turing, Banting & Best, and so on. Not long ago I had the exciting experience of paging through Alexander Graham Bell's lab notebooks at the Smithsonian American History Museum and the Library of Congress. These notebooks document the day-to-day activities that led to the invention of the telephone, among other developments. It was a window into the process of scientific research that I couldn't have obtained solely by analyzing its products -- even through the close analysis of artifacts that we discussed this past week. Scientists have a strong tradition of documenting the processes of their work, due largely to the need for valid scientific results to be replicable by others. Researchers in anthropology and ethnography often keep field journals for different reasons, too, but all fields could learn from the tradition of self-documentation for the sake of the future.

However, as Kirschenbaum and other scholars of digital preservation point out, this all gets tricky when our notebooks and other records are digital. What kinds of records (digital and otherwise) will your project generate, and what best practices will you follow to preserve them? Where would you look to find those best practices? In the field(s) where you situate your research, are there professional associations who have issued statements or guidelines on archiving digital research materials? Thinking back to our class on research ethics, does your project involve records or data that must not be preserved, and how will you ensure they are destroyed? (Is it enough to press "delete" and then empty your recycle bin? Kirschenbaum's book Mechanisms suggests otherwise...) Keep in mind that this question isn't just asking how you'll back up your work to save you from, say, a laptop theft or hard drive crash. Rather, the question is about preserving our materials into a technological future that we can't actually see from here. We don't know how technology will change, but what's the best we can do at present to leave behind records that will survive those changes?

Before I came to the iSchool, my own strategy was to encode all my research data into the metadata fields of YouTube kitten videos (click at your peril), since they seem to be the most durable and pervasive digital records that humans have ever made. We can be fairly certain that someone in 2112 will be watching a kitten video when they should be researching their INF 1240 assignment, though the video may be a hologram, and the kittens may be cyborgs or genetically modified to catch mice telepathically or something. However, I expect you all to come up with a more intelligent strategy -- one based on what we actually know about responsible documentation and digital preservation, not idle speculation about kittens.

Incidentally, this isn't an entirely new question in the history of research, technology, and record-keeping. Here's an interesting story to serve as a counter-example to Bell's still-readable notebooks: More details and recordings may be found here:

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