I have recently moved, so I went through the process of deciding what to keep, what to donate and what to throw away.
One of the things I kept was a banker’s box full of examples of my print and packaging designs. I might never use them but I thought it was a neat idea to keep examples of my work.
One of the things I threw away was a box of old floppy discs. They contained a copy of my “graduate thesis”. Although they brought back memories and made me shed a tear, there was no point on keeping it since I don’t own a floppy disk drive and, even if I had one, knowing how unreliable floppy discs are, I am pretty sure that by now they are unreadable.
This exercise made me think on how fragile and volatile digital design is. Websites, software and digital imagery get replaced and upgraded at a very fast pace nowadays. True, sometimes their old versions get backed up for future reference but very often the storage medium used for the backup becomes obsolete, defeating the purpose of archiving.
One can always print versions of digital imagery, of course, but dynamic design pieces, such as a responsive website layout or an SVG animation, cannot be easily archived or communicated in printed form.
It frightens me to think that one day all this design effort will be gone and impossible to recall, like the hypothetical poly-chromatic façade painting of the Greek temples, washed away by the rain and gone down the drain.
So, my question(s) are:
- What can be done to preserve the history of digital design for future generations?
- What would be a good way of archiving dynamic design pieces in a way that does not become obsolete?
- Is it pointless to do so?
You have a few things that you need to be concerned about preserving. When we talk about digital preservation, we typically are concerned with:
The physical media. This is handled through what’s called a ‘media refresh’, typically done every 5-10 years, depending on the type of media. You read everything off of the older media, validate it against the checksums (that you hopefully stored in multiple locations), and then write it all back out to fresh media. This is typically known as ‘bit preservation’, as you’re only concerned with the digital file existing as it has before, not if you can actually read it or not.
The file format. You need to make sure that whatever format the information is stored in can still be read. This might mean opening up the files in a newer version of the software and saving it again, or writing it out to a different file format. In some cases, we archive both the original and a few varient forms. (see note below re: museums)
The software / operating system / hardware. There are cases where projects may be tightly tied to to the software or hardware on which it runs. (eg, Doomsday Project. If you have something in HyperCard or other software that no longer exists, you might have to archive the software, a virtual machine that can run the software, plus an emulator for the hardware. In some cases, there are groups that are specifically archiving old hardware, but it tends to be for cases where they have lots of software that all needs the same hardware (such as the UT Videogame Archive). If you’re trying to re-create the experience of an early video game, the monochrome monitor and buckling spring keyboard may be as much of a part of the experience as the software.
And remember, if you’re archiving a website, you’d want to not only archive a VM with the fully functional server, but you also need to archive browsers from that era which will interact with them properly, as we have cases where certain features are deprecated (
lowsrc) or on the way out (XLST). You might also need a proxy to recreate the appropriate network speeds (ie, dialup), to set the proper context.
Which gets us into the question of what it is that you’re actually trying to preserve.
Although some museums will make replicas of items to go on display, and the Smithsonian has started 3D scanning items, most museum digitalization projects are actually taking images of objects or other recordings (audio, video, etc.).
If you just need the basic look of your work, and not the interactive aspects, you might want take screen shots or generate PDFs of specific portions of the work. You should document/catalog those images to explain what specifically you’re trying to show in the image. You could also capture video of typical usage, or the specific interactive components that you most want to highlight for your portfolio.
So remember — trying to capture the ‘essence’ of the work is fundamentally different from trying to capture the ‘bits’ of the file, which is different from trying to ensure future use of the ‘content’ of the file(s). You need to decide what it is that you’re trying to preserve, as that will affect what you preserve, how you preserve it, and how you catalog it for future use.