Conservation and Digital Preservation: (Where) Do the Two Roads Meet?

David Stevenson
The Electronic Media Review, Volume Four: 2015-2016


To state the perhaps obvious, conservators are concerned with tangible things. Objects that we can see, assess, and address are central to all conservation pursuits. Without the ability to observe and assess, as conservators we cannot move forward in our efforts. To state another obvious fact, you cannot actually see binary code, the basis of all digital information. Collecting institutions are in the earliest days of acquiring what will become a more prominent aspect of their collections: digital material. In years past, the word digital in the context of archives, libraries, and museums has evoked ideas of digital portable physical media, including hard drives and optical media. The real digital object is not the physical information carrier, but rather, the digital file, with all of the intellectual, creative and informational content that it holds. However, unlike the physical paper object, photo­graph, artifact, book or painting, the properties of these files may not be immediately evident, or even accessible.

The majority of digital preservation is non-tangible: the software or the operating system to support access to files, the bit stream of the file, or the metadata that is buried in an associated file. And yet, preservation efforts are essential, as digital objects are constantly at risk and require attention and monitoring over time. Also too, processes of preservation are unfamiliar for some: metadata extraction, file normalization, and auditing. For preservationists, this deviation from our standard methodologies of observation and assessment raises so many concerns and questions. Can the mindset and training of the conservator, given our natural preoccupation with the physical object, aid in understanding the esoteric digital object? Do digital objects have artifactual prop­erties? If preservation efforts necessitate change to the digital object, what principles will guide us? Are there transferrable concepts, or practices, between these two different, but neces­sarily linked fields of practice?

This presentation would aim to address the questions above, by using the Canadian Centre for Architecture as an example, while at the same time looking at the bigger picture from different perspectives.

David Stevenson
Canadian Centre for Architecture
Montréal, Québec, Canada