Unstable materials. Part 6: Digital – fragile, material

Concerns about digital preservation, the fragility of the digital record, have been quite prevalent since the early 1990s (see a previous post – Unstable material Part 5 – and Brown 2013, 9). Some discussions of the digital record have been characterised by what Blanchette (2011) calls the “trope of immateriality”. Such discussions promote or reinforce the idea of unstable materials – with the digital theorised as immaterial, and evidently (consequently?) unstable.

This idea of immateriality is perhaps partly built on the fact that the same digital files can be replicated, and migrated, and therefore are not necessarily bounded by the physical media on which they are stored (provided adequate curation methods are in place). Yet these digital files are material in the sense that they are reliant on various forms of material infrastructure:

“….computation is a mechanical process based on the limited resources of processing power, storage, and connectivity.” (Blanchette 2011, 1042–1043).

Thus, depending on perspective, digital can be seen as both immaterial and material. Kirschenbaum (2008, 27) noted “…the ways in which electronic data was simultaneously perceived as evanescent and ephemeral in some quarters, and remarkably, stubbornly, perniciously stable and persistent in others”.

And yet, despite the abilities of computer forensics experts, digital data can easily become inaccessible (if not actually deleted) if steps towards preservation/curation are not made early in the lifecycle of the data/resource. On top of this, it must be tackled on an ongoing basis. There are evident troubles with this in terms of the ongoing implementation of financial and labour resources – in fact the way that digital projects are often funded limits their sustainability and long-term preservation:

 “…time and again …….scholars create projects but lack the means to continue to maintain them over time. Often, these resources are left to sit quietly somewhere, degrading not so gracefully and dependent on the good will of library or IT staff and the weekend hours of the faculty PI for maintenance, or simply considered ‘complete’ and no longer updated.” (Maron and Pickle 2014, 11).

This is now a recognised problem, and requirements to outline how digital resources are to be sustained in the long run is being built into some funding proposals. There is increasingly a recognition that in order for digital projects to last in the long run, audience engagement needs to be taken into account and in order, in turn, for this to be sustained, the resources need to be maintained as useful and useable (Maron and Pickle 2014, 42).

 “the more a digital object is handled and manipulated and shared and even kicked around, the longer it will endure. The harder they work, the longer they last.” (Nowviskie 2012).


Blanchette, J.-F. (2011). A material history of bits. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 62(6), 1042–1057. doi:10.1002/asi.21542

Brown, A. (2013). Practical Digital Preservation: A How-to Guide for Organizations of Any Size. Facet Publishing.

Kirschenbaum, M. G. (2008). Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. MIT Press.

Maron, N. L., & Pickle, S. (2014). Sustaining the Digital Humanities Host Institution Support beyond the Start-Up Phase. Ithaka S+ R: New York, NY, USA.

Nowviskie, B. “Reality Bytes,” 20 June 2012 blog post, http://nowviskie.org/2012/reality-bytes/