Born Again Bits

I am not a digital preservation professional. I do not even play one on TV. The digital preservation guru at RLG is Robin Dale, who sits in the same pod as I do (a “pod” in RLG parlance is a set of four cubicles that are open to one another — all four program officers sit in a pod). So a little bit of digital preservation pixie dust rubs off on me because of where I sit. My husband is a real live digital preservation professional, so preservation is frequently a topic of conversation during our commute or over the dinner table. So add a small sprinkling of additional pixie dust.

In 2002, I was asked to speak with a group within the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO). ELO was interested in the preservation of electronic literature, and they were interested in talking to me because of my experience with the TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) and with METS (Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard). I protested that I was not a preservation person, but they insisted, and the initial call turned into a series of conference calls, and years later, I wind up with my name on a publication, Born Again Bits. Thanks to Alan Liu for inviting me to participate in this adventure.

The discussions with the crew at ELO were interesting, because we spoke entirely different languages. None of them had the library and archives background that I do, and I had no clue about electronic literature. (A good definition of electronic literature plus some examples can be found on the ELO website.) It took many calls for us to be on the same page, so to speak.

What’s interesting about ELO is that it’s a community of scholars and practitioners — the user community for the material in question. The resulting publication, Born Again Bits, represents a user community putting forth a framework for digital preservation of material they use and produce. This is an important thing — I’d be interested to hear from readers about other, similar efforts. Born Again Bits is not the first such publication to come out of ELO. A little more than a year ago, the ELO published Acid-Free Bits: Recommendations for Long-Lasting Electronic Literature. Acid-Free Bits is a primer on creating preservation-friendly electronic literature.

This ties in with a commute conversations with the husband. Last night he said, “In a digital preservation repository, preservation staff preserve digital bits and format definitions. Where should the responsibility for preserving functionality and playability reside? Also with the preservation staff? Or does it make more sense to try to incorporate members of the community that created the material and members of the community that will make use of the material? After all, they are the people who maintain anyway, of necessity, current detailed knowledge of functionality and playability.” Acid-Free Bits and Born Again Bits represent community involvement with preservation functions, which is an important step in preserving our increasingly digital heritage.

One Comment on “Born Again Bits”

  1. I was really interested in the comment about community participation in preservation. The Camileon project used community-built (or enthusiast-built) emulators for the BBC micro computer in their project to preserve the BBC Domesday videodisc (see and Many graphics converters are community-built and will be important for future preservation. High grade (and low-grade) open source software is often community-built.

    How can we bring this expertise, enthusiasm and willingness to commit many hours to thankless tasks into the digital preservation community?

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