How to manage a crack in a digital vase

I start with a text copied from the PhD dissertation of Ari Häyrinen, just published at the University of Jyväskylä:

“Digital heritage may be the most fragile heritage that we have. A crack in the ancient vase does not destroy the evidential value of the vase. The vase might be more fragile than before but as a whole, it still has all the heritage characteristics left. But a “digital crack” – missing sequence of bits – in digital data may render a digital object totally inaccessible.”

I haven’t had time to read the complete work, just browsed some most interesting pages. The work seems to be an important documentation and comment on policies, practices and means to publish, distribute and preserve cultural heritage in the digital format. You can check it by yourselves: Jyväskylä studies in Humanities 187: Ari Häyrinen: Open Sourcing Digital Heritage – Digital Surrogates, Museums and Knowledge Management in the Age of Open Networks, University of Jyväskylä 2012. You can find it: https://jyx.jyu.fi/dspace/handle/123456789/40157. If you prefer paper copy, you need to check the University webshop http://julkaisut.jyu.fi/by name or number ISBN 978-951-39-4907-5.

The primary reason I quoted the text was the analogy Ari Häyrinen had created. If a vase is broken, you can re-create it from the fragments and it still looks like a vase, however if you lose a piece of bit stream of digital content, in most cases you lose the complete digital artefact. We can always hope that our skills in re-crating digital contents from the fragments will improve which is very likely. There is also an option which is not possible for the unique pieces of art: make copies.

The nature of digital technology is the one used in the mass production: if I drop my Aalto vase and it breaks to the pieces I can buy exact the same one from a shop or antiquary. We, who are thinking ourselves as the archivists or guardians of the cultural heritage, just have to take care that there is another copy of the digital artefact or the document, that we can use.

Number of copies always create the question how to manage the authenticity. This is a major question if you think medical or public records or a piece of digital art, for example. However, it is not so important if my personal email to a cousin, the list of Christmas card receivers, school photo or one of the unpublished manuscripts has two or three versions. More important is that one of those is available. Most of the discussion about digital preservation is concentrated on those activities where authenticity and integrity are essential features of the service or plan. That is why we are planning and building complex and ultra secure systems. When I know for sure, that the ordinary citizens, associations or private SME’s will not invest similarly in digital preservation as the national archives or library have to do, should we also have different standards?

One target of this project is to publish in Finnish a digital preservation guide for ordinary citizens. In there I think to start by translating the Personal Archiving website of the Library of Congress (http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/personalarchiving/index.html). The first important step in personal digital preservation is to make copies and keep those in different locations. In the best case, you can have a piece of software to control those copies. I hope we can create or loan something for this as well. If there is already an Open Source application, kindly inform us.

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About Osmo Palonen

I used to work as Project Manager at the Mikkeli University of Applied Sciences since 2003 until end of May 2014. I have started and developed digital archiving and digitization in projects and customer service operations. My background is in journalism and industrial automation for printing industry. The first one lasted 16 years and the latter 14. As a hobby I am the editor of quarterly Faili, read history and crime books as well as listen to jazz, blues and rock. I am a founding member of FC United of Manchester and life-long supporter of hockey team Kärpät of Oulu. I made my MA in history and IT at the University of Tampere 2011.
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