When is the Right Time to Talk About Preservation?

Greenhouse Studios Design Process

At the Greenhouse Studios, we are working out the process of creating new forms of scholarship. One important aspect of what defines scholarship from projects is sustainability.   As I like to say, there is no scholarship without persistence. The infrastructure of persistence is well understood in traditional academic publishing, and is less understood in the world digital humanities.

The GS model works through five distinct phases, Understand, Identify, Build, Review, Release, and is based on the idea of flattening traditional academic hierarchies: we do not build things for faculty, we gather together a group of people around a common intellectual question, and go from there.

As archivists, we have traditionally said that it improves the preservation  potential of any digital record for the archivist to be a part of the creation of that record from the beginning.  At the GS we are testing what that actually means in terms of new scholarship. What is the beginning? When is it appropriate to consider preservation?

Originally, we had a sense that it was important to consider preservation at the very beginning, but as we move through the process with our initial cohorts, we are finding that thinking about preservation in the initial, Understand, phase, when conversations are more about “what if” than anything else would limit the imagination of the group.  The second phase, Identify, seemed a more logical place to have a preservation discussion, since this is where the project’s core deliverable would be defined.  However, this too was not the time, as this phase served to define more of the intellectual direction of the project rather than the technology, even though the technology is generally defined in this phase. So the current thinking is that the preservation discussion will happen in the Build phase.

Pushing the preservation discussion further downstream has a number of effects. At the moment we don’t know if these are positive or negative effects. It or course gives the project much more flexibility to be creative if there are no limits on what they can do. It also keeps the preservation discussion on a transactional relationship, outside the bounds of the project.

To use Henry Mintzberg’s terminology, GS projects are organized as ad hocracies—where roles are loosely defined and fluid. Although within the GS projects are considered ad hocracies, the GS exists within a professional bureaucracy, where roles and responsibilities are sharply defined, and the external technostructure of payroll, procurement, and Human Resources processes tend to constrict the freedom of the GS participants.

That discussion is for another day. The question today is whether or not preservation is integral to the development of scholarship or if it is part of the technostructure. By pushing the preservation discussion farther downstream we also push it farther into the technostructure, as preservation becomes an external demand that must be satisfied, rather than a integral part of the creative process.

Do preservation considerations belong within the creative process, or is it the job or archivists to figure out how to preserve whatever creative people ultimately create?   It seems obvious that involving archivists in the early stages of more tradtiionally-based scholarship and the creation of  data management plans and such contribute to preserving research data. But they still stand outside the creative process.  We will ultimately figure this out, but for now, we are watching and waiting.


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