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EC: What Do We Mean by ‘Preserving Digital Information’? Towards Sound Conceptual Foundations for Digital Stewardship


Digital preservation is fundamental to information stewardship in the 21st century. Although much useful work on preservation strategies has been accomplished, we do not yet have an adequate conceptual framework that articulates precisely and formally what preservation actually is. The intention of the account provided here is to bring us closer to this goal. Following an initial analysis of the concept of preservation as it occurs in ordinary discourse around digital stewardship, several influential preservation models are analyzed, identifying both useful insights and problems. A framework of interrelated concepts is then developed that analyzes the challenges of long term digital stewardship through the lens of information communication. Successful digital stewardship is understood as reliable, mediated, intentional communication with an emphasis on the agents involved in the process and the roles they play in supporting the intended flow of information through time and inevitable changes in the underlying mediating communication technology. The complex notion of the digital object, commonly considered the persistent unit of digitally–communicated information, is unpacked into its fundamental abstract and concrete components, avoiding the common category mistakes that pervade digital preservation discourse and impede a clear understanding of the nature of preservation. This conceptual framework makes use of the conceptual machinery of Situation Theory [Devlin, 1995] and the Gricean theory of meaning [Grice, 1957,Grice, 1968]. The notion of an interpretive frame [Dubin et al., 2011] is adopted here to model the contingent mapping between the fundamental components involved in the representation of information and extended with the notion of a constraint (from Situation Theory) to clarify the role of agent intentionality in the process of establishing the appropriate mappings that ultimately support the successful communication of units of information. This agent–based intentional perspective not only captures the social and contextual nature of successful digital stewardship, but also promises to support a finer grained analysis of preservation expectations from different stakeholders and the potential practical strategies to fulfill them. This research is intended as a contribution to the overall digital preservation agenda by bringing us closer to sound conceptual foundations for the long–term stewardship of our digital scientific and cultural heritage.

Read the dissertation here: What Do We Mean by ‘Preserving Digital Information’? Towards Sound Conceptual Foundations for Digital Stewardship – Academic Commons.

This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief Amanda Morton based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: Matthew Lincoln, Miriam Peña, Ellen Brown, and Kathleen Christian