Humanist Discussion Group

Humanist Archives: Sept. 22, 2021, 6:54 a.m. Humanist 35.257 - Institutional Support for DH Websites

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 257.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
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    [1]    From: Alan Liu <>
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 35.254: Institutional Support for DH Websites (96)

    [2]    From: Gioele Barabucci <>
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 35.251: Institutional Support for DH Websites (28)

        Date: 2021-09-21 08:40:19+00:00
        From: Alan Liu <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 35.254: Institutional Support for DH Websites

Just to add a blast from the past to this thread on digital preservation:
in 2005 prior to our current technological and institutional contexts for
worrying the issues of digital preservation, sustainability, and graceful
degradation, I lead-authored a proposal by the Electronic Literature
Organization titled "Born-Again Bits" 
It was part of the ELO's Preservation, Archiving, and Dissemination 
(PAD) initiative, which we ultimately did not get the funding for. 
(See also a report for the same initiative by Nick Montfort and Noah 
Wardrip-Fruin on "Acid-Free Bits" 

Just before that at a 2003 event titled "e(X)literature: Preservation,
Archiving and Dissemination of Electronic Literature" 
( co-organized by 
ELO and our Digital Cultures Project at UC Santa Barbara, one of the 
wisest things I have ever heard said about this whole set of digital 
preservation issues was by Howard Besser, who was founding director 
of the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program at at NYU's 
Tisch School of the Arts. I wish I had a recording or exact quote. 
Paraphrasing: Howard stood up and said, "Preserve the bits," and then 
he explained. The basic thought is that preserving the stack, programs, 
behaviors, and interface for the long term is a pipe dream. Even preserving 
the "data" in accessible and readable forms is iffy, since that actually 
depends on the same suite of stacks, programs, etc.

If we really care about preserving the digital, Howard said, then robustly
and in multiple ways  _preserve the bits_. An example of preserving the
bits is to create a disk image (
-- something like the disk image of William Gibson's digital poem in
_Agrippa: The Book of the Dead_ that The Agrippa Files project I led
created with the aid of Matthew Kirschenbaum 
That disk image later allowed us not only to emulate a "run" of the code
but also enabled multiple scholars and hackers to crack the vaunted,
so-called encryption of the strange run-once-and-self-destroy Agrippa poem.
(See the "Cracking the Agrippa Code" contest Quinn Dupont organized in

A disk image will not run in future digital environments, alas. But -- and
this was the core of Besser's thought -- we will have created the basis for
someone in the future with enough motivation and resources to do the
heavy-lifting (programming, lining up institutional and funding support,
etc.) needed to resurrect a living facsimile of the original work through
emulations operating in updated stacks, programs, and so on. It will be up
to the future, however, what is important enough in the context of that
future's social, political, cultural, economic, aesthetic, and other values
to devote resources to recover our past in faux working order. That means
that my project, and yours, may not make the cut. We are expendable,
because in the last instance, we are mortal. Utopian digital preservation
dreams are not unlike what the original Egyptian Books of the Dead (spells,
etc., and a crucial weighing of the heart:
were for. They are magic for ferrying the dead to eternal life. I'm not
personally a believer in my after life. But I believe in _their_ afterlife:
the lives of those in future, and in other cultures, who will judge
(weighing our heart) whether to make us born-again bits.


In our current technological environment, the WhatEvery1Says (WE1S) project
I just finished directing ( is implementing the
"preserve the bits" philosophy in the following way. We are depositing our
datasets, programmatic tools, etc. in an institutional repository (we chose
the international Zenodo open-science repository created by OpenAIRE, the
EU, and CERN). (See our deposits so far: And we are
containerizing our entire operating and processing environment (our
"Workspace" of Jupyter notebooks, visualization tools, and other tools: in a cloud-served Docker
environment ( that we hope
soon also to deposit in Zenodo 
( The idea is that our
datasets will be in Zenodo. And the Docker containers for spinning up
working tools will be in Zenodo as well. So (and this is the core of the
Besser philosophy again), if you care enough in the future you could
regenerate all our stuff again in working form. Digital preservation in
this manner means making it easier in the future to recover the raw bits
and run them with their stack, tools, etc. in emulation.

However, a caveat: even containerization as a strategy is mortal.
Docker-like containers preserve a fair amount of the operating systems,
stacks, and digital environment around them--but not all. At some point,
they also have dependencies that are not in the container. Ultimately,
after all, there is the dependency -- the extreme software "library," if
you like -- of what Benjamin Bratton, in one of the most powerful chapters
of his _The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty_ calls "The Earth Layer."
And that's even before he gets to "The Cloud Layer" and then all the layers
of the conventional Internet stack

--Best wishes to everyone. Alan Liu

        Date: 2021-09-21 08:02:06+00:00
        From: Gioele Barabucci <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 35.251: Institutional Support for DH Websites

On 20/09/21 10:21, Humanist wrote:
>          Date: 2021-09-19 15:05:16+00:00
>          From: Frederike Neuber <>
>          Subject: Re: [Humanist] 35.249: Institutional Support for DH Websites
> In the end the scholarly effort often lies
> primarily in the data, even if most of us need an interface to use it. But:
> if your current website will not be longer available and the data is at
> least accessible in a repository, new interfaces can be build in the future
> (maybe in the context of other projects).

Thanks Frederike for bringing up this point and giving me the chance to
advertise this paper of ours that we presented at the DiXiT conference
in The Hague:

Data vs. presentation: What is the core of a scholarly digital edition?
Gioele Barabucci, Elena Spadini & Magdalena Turska

In Advances in Digital Scholarly Editing, Peter, Cappellotto, Dillen,
Fischer, Kelly, Mertgens, Sichani, Spadini, van Hulle (Eds.), Sidestone
Press, 2017


Gioele Barabucci <>

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