William Kilbride

William Kilbride

Last updated on 24 July 2018

The last DPC staff meeting ended somewhat surprisingly with a number of late night poetry recitals.  In honour of that unexpected turn I am going to start this post in the company of Walt Whitman:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Leaves of Grass 1855. For more see http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1322/1322-h/1322-h.htm

Now you’d be forgiven for not seeing the connection immediately, but this wonderful poem brings to mind for me the role of the designated community in the validation of representation information within the OAIS information model.  It’s a stretch but stay with me.  I think it’s quite important.

A Final Frontier

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way.  OAIS is the product of the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems, so there’s already an astronomer in the room every time we reach for the model. To some extent that origin haunts the language and assumptions of the model, and because OAIS is the lingua franca of digital preservation generally, there’s a little bit of space science behind just about every digital preservation conversation we ever have. I have quipped before, that every agency which tries to conform to OAIS is inadvertently comparing themselves with NASA, and while this might be fine if you are NASA (the axiom of equality) it’s bad news if you are a small local record office with one full time member of staff and three volunteers.  I say this out of generous whimsy: I don’t say it to discourage the adoption of OAIS, just so that first time readers and new entrants to the digital preservation community understand why we sound the way we do.  Keeping this context in mind helps understanding: otherwise the sprinkling of stardust can be hard to digest. 

I’m guessing here, but it’s not the functions or the terminology that Whitman was getting at.  He wasn’t wanting better diagrams or charts.  His point is rather more about sui-generis nature of human experience and the irreducibility of wonder. The astronomer in the story does not own the stars: we all do.  Scientific terms notwithstanding, the stars are what they are and they are also magnificent.  They can be both and that’s fine.  The stars are not the special property of the astronomer.

Archive Fever (compulsory reference to post-modernity)

I think we can accept that meaning-making can be hard and contradictory.  I’m talking here about the textual turn of cultural hermeneutics and post structuralism in particular. One can accept this is the case without getting lost in the theory, but not everyone is so happy about it.  Commonsensical Anglo-Saxons contentedly blame this on Europe with indiscriminate ire at the trendy contagions of continental philosophy, arguing that the whole genre of post truth informatics has some origin in the legacy of postmodernism, and there is some truth in this claim.  It has certainly been a mixed blessing for archives, libraries and museums. 

On one hand, the recognition that knowledge production is a fundamental tool in the reproduction of power has transformed memory institutions from the gatekeepers of authoritative resilience to the enablers of progressive narrative(s).  Derrida equated archives with a sort of house arrest, both the source and containment of power, arranged to the practical convenience of the authorities and only shared on asymmetrical terms with the public.  So it’s no small accomplishment to note that for three decades now any number of disenfranchised communities have taken back control of our cultural storehouses to establish new and often conflicting histories that subvert established norms and empower those previously excluded.  Archives, libraries and museums have largely welcomed these new if at times unruly patrons on the assumption that if the epistemology of the institution is not fundamentally about justice then, by default, its purpose is to sustain injustice.  And no one wants that.

On the other hand, if signifier and signified are in permanent freefall, and if context is the last and only guarantor of meaning, then Humpty Dumpty was surely right: words mean just what you want them to mean, nothing more and nothing less.  It’s even worse for memory institutions where the absence of authorial voice doubles down on the impossibility of authoritative meaning-making.  So, if something means nothing, anyone can interpret everything to mean anything. In a crisis of relativism and self-congratulatory truth-making, where power is self-arbitrating and context is fluid, what’s the use of archives at all?

You might summarise the legacy of post-modernism like this: everyone entitled to their own narrative; and everyone empowered to ignore everyone else’s. 


I take the view that things are not so bad on the linguistic side as we might suppose. If Derrida had actually meant what he had said, then he wouldn’t have been able to write so many books about it; and Saussure must be pure ragin’ (you see I can now use native Glaswegian in an authoritative scholarly blog) that he never got round to contemplating syntax or grammar.  Although I have not yet had quite enough of experts, I can accept that meaning-making is hard and knowledge can be contested. In fact, considering the amount of power that a robust narrative can command, I am happier to engage in the struggle over meaning than to let it go by default.  That’s a fundamental exercise of what George Davie called the democratic intellect, a slightly dated idea whose value is long overdue for re-assessment. But this is a digital preservation blog and I should stick to my topic.

If the challenge to meaning-making began with post-modernism then it has been turbo-charged by technology. Francophone theorists of the 1960’s legitimated the challenge to legitimacy while anglophone engineers of the 1970’s delivered the machinery of change. (As an aside I don’t fully understand why French engineering didn’t beat them to that bit considering the early adoption and wide distribution of Minitel. But that’s a different speculation for another day.) The result: I can assemble my own history from the many ubiquitous sources that I chose not to ignore; I can publish it; and in so doing I can find an audience to share my pain; and then we can all live secure in these self-made echo-chambers of reflexive narrative, repeated so often than they might as well be true. That’s becoming the all-too-common experience of social media and it’s no wonder it’s become fashionable to call it anti-social media.

Knowing me knowing you

Meanwhile, back at the trusted digital repository, the concept of representation information is alive and well. 

It seems to me that, if you strip everything else away, representation information is the unique characteristic that distinguishes digital preservation from every other kind of content management. Representation information is the OAIS feature that holds the semantic and structural components of an information package ensuring the transparency required to ensure that a ‘digital object’ can become an ‘information object’ in the hands of a designated community.   

Now this is where it gets interesting.  Representation information is interpreted using representation information.  At face value this implies a sort of recursive absurdity in which we need a map of all knowledge at a scale of 1:1 before we can make sense of any individual entity.  It’s vaguely reminiscent of the challenge Carl Sagan took on when he strapped gold disks to the side of the Voyager crafts to be recovered in deep space in 40,000 years’ time, with not only precious recordings of scientific and cultural information but also somewhat desperate efforts on how to make sense of the recordings.  Representation information exists because there is literally no limit to what people in the future might not know.

Thank goodness that’s not what the OAIS proposes.  It notes firstly that representation information can link: that you really only need one explanation of the Comic Sans font. A reference is fine.  We don’t need to back up all of human knowledge so long as we can have persistent identifiers that link to it (another blog post which will have to wait). 

Moreover, OAIS notes that there is an underlying knowledge base which we can take for granted.  ‘For example, a person who has a Knowledge Base that includes an understanding of English will be able to read, and understand, an English text.’ So the extent of representation information is mapped against implicit knowledge between two agents within an information exchange.  Information objects are generated therefore through a mix of data object, representation information and implied knowledge. 


You could ask, if the link to an authoritative definition within a representation network is one of the keys to unlocking meaning, then whoever gets to assign that link or manage the end-point is a very important individual, a dependency that is open to abuse.  But it’s the implied knowledge that sits alongside representation information that is interesting to me.  How can you meaningfully measure the extent of implied knowledge in a preservation process that evolves over decades?  There are two important themes here: the designated community and the mechanisms that measure changes within the knowledge base of a designated community. To summarise, OAIS assumes a special class of consumers which it defines as the designated community, which should be able to understand the preserved information. The designated community has a role to define (and thus set boundaries to) the extent of representation information.  So long as the OAIS charts and tracks that community through time, then representation is manageable.

On one hand, this is self-evidently necessary because the alternative is the recursive absurdity of too much representation information.  But reading that through the lens of three decades of archive theory, it implies that, if you’re not part of the designated community, you’re not expected to use or understand the collection. Moreover, the OAIS has no explicit responsibility to help you, and no requirement to listen to you. 

I can understand why this might be true in the context of academic research.  I recall a certain empowerment at the Archaeology Data Service when it became plain that our responsibility was to the relatively small but expert group of professionals that would be able to use complex stratigraphic databases or were motivated enough to read assessment-level reports from development control archaeology.  We could help as much as we had time: but didn’t have to render them meaningful to the whole of the world. That was someone else’s job.  

But that’s an academic discipline being supported for its own purposes: it’s not really a public place. Isn’t it slightly more worrying when identities are in question: where honest misunderstanding may arise or faux conflicts be engineered.  Best practice in the digital preservation community means that, even where power is protected or public money spent, that the digital archivist is empowered, in fact is required, to exercise a kind of exclusion. Is it possible that archives and museums have spent 30 years coming to terms with inclusion and polysemy which the digital preservation community is turning all retro-tehno-cratic. And this at a time when there’s more excitement and joy around community archives, not to mention the right of individuals to control and refute their own digital identities?

True Communication

Of course there’s a lot more to it than this.  I want to be encouraging and supportive.  I would guess it leads me to two conclusions.

Firstly, to observe that the digital preservation community has borrowed heavily from the generous support of the scientific community, space science in particular.  It’s hugely to their credit and there should be no implied criticism that they do what they do and that they do it so well.  It’s just to say what all archivists and museum curators would tell you: that context and provenance matter when it comes to interpretation.  If OAIS looks like a wiring diagram from a space craft, well that’s because it comes from this stable.  And it’s not just the systems but the values and epistemology of space sciences are wired in too.

Secondly, to observe the importance of pluralism and to call for a return to polyvocality.  If anything, the archives and museums community have shown the way over the years: it’s one of the things they bring to the digital preservation party.  We must find better and more thoughtful ways of engineering spaces for overlapping and contested meanings in our digital preservation actions.  Let’s understand more carefully the journey of the archives profession over the last three decades: they have quite a lot they can tell us.

I suppose the message, again, is that digital preservation is a human project situated in time with all the flaws and opportunities and ethics which this entails.  More than anything it’s about communication and the challenging process of meaning-making.  It’s not a choice between charts and diagrams and wonder at the stars, but a recognition that there are many valid responses to the world around us. And so our purpose connects times and cultures.  We’re used to the idea that digital preservation means a commitment to length of time: we forget at our peril that our mission is to the width of meaning.

I started in poetic mode and so I shall leave the last words to Liz Lochead:

Remembering how hard fellow feeling is to summon

When wealth is what we do not have in Common,

May every individual

And all the peoples in each nation

Work and hope and

Strive for true communication --

Only by a shift and sharing is there any chance

For the Welfare of all our people and Good Governance.

Such words can sound like flagged-up slogans, true.

What we merely say says nothing --

All that matters is what we do.

Liz Lochead 2012, Excerpt From Connecting Cultures, http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poems/connecting-cultures © Birlinn 2016


I am grateful to Sarah Middleton who proofed and commented on this post before release and to Lorna Hughes and Marcel Ras who provoked it but must not be held responsible.

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