In pondering the simultaneously hazy and murky future of digital preservation, and especially when considering conversations regarding emulation and the difficulties of ensuring “backwards compatibility”, it’s interesting to look back: to reflect upon archives past and consider whether more traditional preservation solutions have a role in the future.
Physical storage media (servers, disks, and drives) have limited lifespans. Consequently, they require either parallel care for or ongoing development of machines/applications capable of reading them or periodic migration to new formats. In consideration of Moore’s Law (the historic pattern of exponentially increasing technological development) the ongoing effort required to preserve digital content seems unknown at best and prohibitive at worst. In contrast, analog/physical storage media (paper, microfilm, film, vinyl) retain information without technological mediation and have proven longterm durability with minimal care. Why not consider traditional preservation methods for a digital resource such as UbuWeb?
Archiving UbuWeb as Analog
Harvesting the html code, embedded text, PDF’s and images for UbuWeb requires some basic knowledge of web harvesting, but is otherwise relatively quick and easy. Compiling and indexing these files is possible with any decent text editor or Microsoft Word. Distributing the text files is as simple as uploading PDF versions to a self-publishing site such as Lulu.com. The end result is an exact paper copy of the site’s structure and layout. Further consolidation (to address space concerns) is then possible through microfilming.
While the resulting object excludes audio and video files, these can be recreated (though not as easily distributed) via vinyl and flipbooks with sound-on-disc companions (if not film with sound-on-film component). This option requires a larger initial investment of resources, but the resulting object is highly durable, requires little maintenance and the original information retrievable through simple mechanical means.
A drawback to this method is the discontinuity it introduces, however similar discontinuity issues arise though conversion of UbuWeb to a digital collections format. An odd benefit to analog preservation is that deconstructing the site in this way can be construed as a transformative artistic act, thus thwarting intimations of infringement. In fact, the special collections unit of a liberal arts college in the United States has already expressed interest in acquiring a microfilmed version of the UbuWeb site. So far, this option seems the most promising in terms of preservation, even as it doesn’t improve site access and navigation, especially because (cf. Moore’s Law) the efficiency and fidelity of digitization will render these analog counterparts as effectively indistinct from migrated data.