Inspection is the process of gathering detailed information about a file, in preparation for migration to new formats, as well as to check the status of works already preserved or yet to be preserved.
In the analog realm, works are regularly inspected in order to detect signs of deterioration in the physical objects. In the context of digital media, inspection of elements consists of checking regularly for operability. It is important to ask, for example, if the software and operating system are functional and still able to maintain the integrity of the work. These kinds of inspection tests cannot be performed without the appropriate hardware. Hardware devices also need to be inspected for operability to ensure that equipment is fully functional. Inspection reveals what conservation and preservation actions are needed.
The following characteristics or basic attributes of computer-based artwork should be examined and described in the catalogue during inspection:
Operating speed of piece; does navigation of piece appear sluggish or fast? (Be mindful that the piece can be intentionally programmed by the artist to run at a specific speed.)
- Arrangement of images and/or text
- Readability of images and/or text
- Functionality of hyperlinks
- Calibration of display device
Rapidly changing technologies and the threat of obsolescence necessitate regular inspection and evaluation of the integrity of a computer-based artwork-the work as an interoperable system of data, data formats, software, and physical hardware.
It is hard to quantify how often items should be inspected. Often, software upgrades do not provide backward compatibility, thereby rendering large amounts of digital information obsolete in a short amount of time and without advance warning.
Storing digital media on a system of redundant independent hard disks, or on a server duplicates your data and keeps it relatively secure, provided it is well managed. This is the most expensive option.
As cost per megabyte has decreased, a single external hard drive is an affordable solution and is reliable enough to store the components of a digital work.
Like hard drives and disks, computer equipment and monitors should be kept consistently cool and dry and free from airborne contaminants.
Assessing the Risks
Using an item-level inventory, assess each component in terms of risk of deterioration or obsolescence. Distinguish file formats as proprietary or open source. Who developed the standard, when, and who owns it now? What software is needed to read/view the file? Is the format still supported?
Similarly, assess hardware requirements to "run" the work. Is the software application still supported? Are special installations or plug-ins required? What is the hierarchy and overall infrastructure of the work? What are the requirements for display? Describe the "look" of the work. What are the formal qualities (image content and image quality)? What are the artist's installation instructions?
What is the functionality of the work? Describe the "feel" of the work. How does the user interact with the work? What are the variables? Focus initial preservation efforts on works that have physically deteriorated or include proprietary components that are no longer active or supported in the industry.
Digital Media Preservation Strategies
To migrate an artwork involves upgrading equipment and source material. The obsolete Umatic tape could be upgraded to digital betacam tape, for example. There are several levels of migration. Maintaining the original integrity and functionality of the work, you can transfer hardware and software to a new operating system or you can transfer an obsolete file format to a new format.
The major disadvantage of migration is that the original appearance of the artwork will probably change in its new medium
To emulate a work is to devise a way of imitating the original look of the piece by completely different means. Emulation involves the re-creation of the technical environment required to view an object. This is achieved by maintaining information about the hardware and software requirements so that the system can be reengineered by future systems to emulate the original environment. This approach means you do not need to migrate files, but emulators must be created for every software and hardware configuration, which can be expensive. Possible disadvantages of emulation include prohibitive expense and inconsistency with the artist's intent.
Encapsulation groups a digital object with all components that are necessary to provide access to that object. In encapsulation, physical or logical structures called "containers" or "wrappers" provide information about the relationships between all data and software application components. Encapsulation aims to overcome the issue of obsolete file formats by including details on how to interpret the original information and possibly re-create the original work.
It is critical to document all preservation actions and experiments in the catalogue. Although the archivist should avoid making changes that compromise the overall functionality or "look and feel" of the work, any changes that occur, if at all, should be thoroughly documented and explained.
Electronic Arts Intermix
Independent Media Arts Preservation
Variable Media Network
Netherlands Media Art Institute