Our Digital Memory

Experts discuss the long-term archiving of our cultural and scientific heritage

There is no doubt – today the internet is the most important means of communication as well as a key tool for obtaining information both at work and at home. In Germany almost 100% of people under thirty are online, sometimes the entire day. Cultural and scientific institutions are responding to this societal shift by making increasing amounts of information available online. Not only is existing cultural property being digitized and published, but there are also growing amounts of digital research data – data that is not based on any documents, books, images, sound recordings, works in museums or similar materials in non-digital form. The Rosetta Stone can still be read today, as can literary correspondence between Celan and Rilke. But how can the availability of digital data be safeguarded in the long term, or emails, blogs and online commentary archived for posterity? The fifth meeting of a conference series called “Digitale Bibliothek” in Graz was dedicated to the question of how research and cultural data can be archived in a way that will allow reliable access in the long term. The Steinbeis Transfer Center for Information Management and Cultural Heritage Informatics in Graz co-organized the event.

The workshop discussions focused on the topics of audiovisual archiving and 3D digitization. Joining forces and coordinating knowledge in these areas makes it easier to restore endangered cultural property or understand contextual links to other related objects. The examples of music archiving projects in Afghanistan and Brazil and the DISMARC portal illustrate the potential conservational function of the internet. They also show how important it is for cultural institutions to have the courage to blaze new trails when it comes to making material available online. In the field of music, searches are still logocentric so they take an indirect route via language. Here research and development must move beyond the current limits of searchability. With this in mind, there are already projects in place to explore the DNA of world music so that the derivation of music can be worked out by its source.

As data storage capacity grows, infrastructure costs are decreasing and this helps make it possible even for small, regional facilities with limited budgets to network their research activities and establish archiving systems in the long term. In the field of 3D digitization and the archiving of 3D objects, however, we are still at the start of the journey into the online world. In many cases there are still a multitude of different processes for 3D generation, and putting 3D models online often fails because not all formats are web-compatible. Integration of WebGL in the new HTML5 standard means that dynamic 2D and 3D graphics will be better supported in the future, however, and it is expected that this form of online presentation will develop and spread rapidly.

Despite lower infrastructure costs, cultural and research institutions are continuously faced with the decision of what data to archive and in which format. What is the source? Do both the text and the layout need to be archived? Should a library or an archive also store social media content? The conference presentations explored answers to these questions and attempted to outline good practice. In the process, visualization of research data, long-term archiving and long-term availability were defined as the three most important tasks facing the Digital Humanities. A new job profile – research data curator – is currently being drafted to serve as a liaison between departments and IT. Making cultural and scientific data available online also makes it necessary to initiate a number of projects aimed at networking research and cultural institutions in Austria, Germany and Europe. Among the examples cited in the best-practice session at the end of the fifth Digitale Bibliothek conference were the German Digitale Bibliothek, the Swiss Memobase platform for audio-visual cultural property and the DURAARK project for archiving architectural data.

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