Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Digital Patrimony, digital archiving, and the repository

Yesterday evening I was musing about William Dunbar's Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, wondering if it would be fun to investigate doing a reading in two voices as a performance, perhaps a little like the Irish Catullus.

And this led me to another thought - we're always very unclear when we talk about institutional repositories and digital archiving what we want to do. If you work in a university as I do the probable answer is something along the lines of "capturing the scholarly outputs of the university to increase access and enhance the reputation of the institution". And this is basically thought of as something like a preprint server with some indexing and metadata so you can easily find out who is working on chimpanzee tool use for example.

And this is a model that works reasonably well for the sciences - after all it's basically what scientific scholarly publishing has been doing for years.

The preprints are documents in their own right, rarely subject to modification and can be happily distributed in a non-revisable format such as pdf.

And then we turn to what these days are called the 'humanities and the creative arts'. And it all gets messy but perhaps our friends Dunbar and Kennedie can help us.

The Flyting was originally a court entertainment cast a duel of wit (and copious obscenity) between two poets of the day. Imagine it as a sort of Medieval Scots rap name calling contest. (Or as an early analog of Commedia dell' arte.)Even better imagine it done by the Baba Brinkmans' of the day. The text was written down and appeared in one of the first books printed in Scotland.

It's important as it was done in Scots and the book is an early record of upper class spoken Scots usage - before then we really only have charters and legal documents, and the language used is shall we say, a little more restrained.

Now let us say we want to digitise the work. Yes, but what do we want to do?

If what we want to do look at a representation to the book to reduce wear and tear on the original, then what we would do is take some high resolution pictures of the pages of the book and perhaps write a clever flash application to let you turn the pages. We might also accompany the images with a transcription of the text, as the original typeface is hard on modern eyes.

Oh look we've just made two objects out of one. If we add a modern translation we've got three distinct objects - the digital representation of the object itself, the text, and the translated text.

Now how should we store them? The pictures are simple - we store them in a lossless well known image format. But the other two - should we store them in a non revisable format such as pdf, or a revisable format such as epub or odt (or indeed provide an option to provide the text in a range of formats). And of course if we're treating these as scholarly inputs, what should we then do with the mp3 recording of the reading in two voices? Done as part of a language or theatre studies project its arguably a scholarly output, and part of the digital patrimony of the institution. Oh, and we edited and abridged the text to fit it into thirty minutes. Do we archive that as well, and do we archive it as a set of edits or just the final edit?

Add mixed media art works and it becomes even more complex...

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