In 2013, Cornell University Library received a research and development grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to design a framework for preserving access to digital art objects. The Preservation and Access Frameworks for Digital Art Objects project (PAFDAO) was undertaken in collaboration with Cornell University’s Society for the Humanities and the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art, a collection of media artworks housed in the Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. This collection of complex interactive born-digital artworks is used by students, faculty, and artists from various disciplines. Despite its “new” label, new media art has a rich 40-year history, making obsolescence and loss of cultural history an imminent risk. As a range of new media are integrated in art works, these creative objects are becoming increasingly complex and vulnerable due to dependence on many technical and contextual factors. The phrase new media art denotes a range of creative works that are influenced or enabled by technological affordances. The term also signifies a departure from traditional visual arts (e.g., paintings, drawings, sculpture, etc.) and often the interactive nature of works.
We are pleased to announce that the Preserving and Emulating Digital Art Objects White Paper describing the project’s findings, discoveries, and challenges is now available. The ultimate goal of the project team has been the creation of a preservation and access practice grounded in thorough and practical understanding of the characteristics of digital objects and their access requirements, seen from the perspectives of collection curators and users alike. Equally important has been the establishment of service frameworks and policies that are sustainable, realistic, and cost-efficient. So all through the project, one of our principles has been moving the experience gained through research into practice. Although the initiative focused on new media art, we hope that our methodologies and findings will inform other types of complex born-digital collections as well.
Throughout our project, a reoccurring theme in our findings involved the difficulties associated with capturing sufficient information about a digital art object to enable an authentic user experience. We have concluded that the key to digital media preservation is variability, not fixity. The trick is finding ways to capture the experience—or a modest proxy of it—so that future generations will get a glimpse of how early digital artworks were created, experienced, and interpreted. So much of new media works’ cultural meaning derives from users’ spontaneous and contextual interactions with the art objects. Providing appropriate cultural and historical contexts for understanding and interpreting new media art is part of each institution’s individual mission, but also a matter of collective importance, given the rarity of such collections, the numerous challenges of establishing preservation protocols, and the overall scarcity of resources.
During the last few years, we have witnessed several trends and advancements, for instance, the increasing prominence of video and web art. The organizational, technological, and financial challenges associated with preserving and providing access to web-based resources is quite astounding. So as we develop strategies for CD-ROM-based content, we are mindful that there are more significant challenges ahead. As described in the white paper, although emulation was not included in the original project plan, it emerged as a viable strategy. Institutional experiences and perspectives on emulation will not scale unless there are communities of emulation involving archivists and curators. We need to explore how cultural institutions can interface with groups involved in emulation, which currently is driven by games communities and hobbyists.
We would like to emphasize that, as artists have increasing access to ubiquitous tools and methodologies for creating complex art exhibits and objects, we should expect to see an increasing flow of such creative works to archives, museums, and libraries. It is nearly impossible to preserve these works through generations of technology and context changes. Therefore, diligent curation practices are going to be more essential than ever in order to identify unique or exemplary works, project future use scenarios, assess obsolesce and loss risks, and implement cost-efficient strategies. Also, we would like to emphasize that access is the keystone of preservation. The preservation of digital art objects needs to be conceptualized, motivated, informed, and energized by present and future use.
PAFDAO Project Team
Note: An interview with the PAFDAO team about their efforts is available on The Signal, the Library of Congress’s digital preservation blog. The post is titled Authenticity Amidst Change: The Preservation and Access Framework for Digital Art Objects.