Humanities grant helps library preserve digital art

How can librarians protect the historical record, now that archives include digital images, audiovisual files, photographs and manuscripts?

A $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) will allow the library to begin to develop a framework to ensure continued access to complex digital media objects, using the interactive born-digital artworks in the library's Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art as a test site.

The NEH grant is the year's largest in New York state and one of the largest in the country -- a fact that recognizes how vulnerable and valuable the Goldsen Archive's collection is.

Timothy Murray, a principal investigator on the grant and curator of the Goldsen Archive, said: "The grant acknowledges the cultural importance of the archive's 'born digital' collections -- those online or stored on hard drives, CD-ROM and DVD-ROM. Those formats will be a particular focus for the new technical framework and associated tools this grant will help the library develop."

Despite its "new" label, new media art has a rich 40-year history, making obsolescence and loss of cultural history an imminent risk. To play a media artwork requires machines that are themselves vulnerable to technological obsolescence. This is especially true of digital art, which requires hardware and software support and is often stored in extremely fragile formats.

The Goldsen's collection includes interactive work from the two most crucial decades in the emergence of digital media art, 1991 to the present, tracing media culture's shift from disk-based to networked and Web-based applications.

"Some of the digital artworks in Goldsen are designed for ephemeral experiences," said Associate University Librarian Oya Rieger, the other principal investigator on the grant. "Reproduction of an artwork's digital files does not always ensure preservation of its most important cultural content. It is essential that we anticipate the needs of future researchers and acknowledge the core experiences that need to be captured to preserve these artifacts."

The library will develop an archival strategy based on understanding what users need to use digital artworks. Eventually, it will create generalizable new media preservation and access practices that are applicable for different institutional types and sizes.

The preservation model to be developed will apply not only to new media artworks but to other digital media environments. Beyond the Goldsen Archive, the project will inform digital preservation services at the library and help explain how rich media objects are used in learning, teaching, research and creative expression by scholars and students.

Housed in the library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, the Goldsen Archive was founded in 2002 to amass an international collection of artwork and research materials on CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, videotape and the Internet. It is one of the most prominent new media archives in the world, containing thousands of digital and video artworks and encompassing a wide variety of formats and research materials.

The Goldsen Archive is also the repository of the annual competition in new media art funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the video art collection of the Experimental Television Center. It keeps the country's largest collections of Chinese and Taiwanese electronic art, as well as significant holdings from Australia and Europe, and serves as the repository of extensive historical collections of video and new media art created in Cyprus.

The library will collaborate with AudioVisual Preservation Solutions, and the project will have an advisory board composed of international leaders in curation, arts and preservation.

Gwen Glazer is the staff writer for Cornell University Library.

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