‘Nothing is the same as something else’: significant properties and notions of identity and originality

Abstract

What does it mean to claim that one record, one archival object, is identical to another? Questions of identity (or ‘sameness’) often arise in the fields of digital preservation, imaging, transcription and editing. Experts in these fields sometimes assert that success in their mission depends on the ability to define the ‘significant’ or ‘essential’ properties of records and that, if these can be protected, the identity of records will be preserved across episodes of migration or conversion. However, the determination of ‘significant properties’ is no less problematical than the debate about notions of ‘value’ in appraisal theory, not least because different user communities will bring different perceptions of what constitutes significance. The sameness of discrete entities, the concept of significance and the methods by which sameness or significance might be assessed are all open to dispute; opinions will inevitably depend on the contexts in which judgements are made. Originality is also a frequently contested notion, especially in the digital world, but must not be dismissed as meaningless. The copies that emerge from acts of migration, conversion or transcription are neither incontrovertibly identical to their originals nor carriers of properties that are objectively significant.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The word ‘significant’ is ambiguous. It can connote ‘important’ or ‘noteworthy’. It can also bear semiotic overtones; A is significant because it signifies B. Digital preservation literature rarely discusses what might be meant by ‘significant’, but in practice the former sense seems to prevail among preservation experts. Their parallel use of ‘essential’ appears to confirm this.

  2. 2.

    The preacher’s name is given in the letter printed by Hart and Smith (1998) p. 49.

  3. 3.

    See the Dickinson Electronic Archives website, http://www.emilydickinson.org/.

  4. 4.

    For the ordering and reordering of records over time and space, see MacNeil (2008). For an exploration of the concept of collections, and of the tendency in archival practice to neglect collection histories, see Yeo (2009) and (forthcoming).

  5. 5.

    Care may be needed to achieve this where fonts are concerned, since computer systems do not usually store fonts in document files, and are programmed to substitute an alternative if a designated font is not available. (A timely demonstration of this potential pitfall occurred when I submitted this article to Archival Science via the PDF conversion tool on the journal’s website; this tool had no difficulty in handling , but it proved unable to retain my selection of the ‘Papyrus’ font, and silently converted the word to the somewhat different ‘Arabic Typesetting’ font.) Much of the computer industry remains pervaded by notions that only verbal content matters and that, ultimately, features such as fonts are not significant; archivists and users of archives may perhaps take a different view.

  6. 6.

    For a parallel argument, see Searle’s maxim (1969, pp. 35, 51–52) that ‘institutional facts’ are underlain by ‘constitutive rules’ in the form ‘X counts as Y in context C’.

  7. 7.

    In the axiological literature, useful introductions to the subjectivities of value include Smith (1988) and Goldman (2008).

  8. 8.

    This line of thinking is often associated with the identification of a ‘designated community’, as recommended in the OAIS model for digital preservation. Although OAIS’s formal definition of a ‘designated community’ (‘an identified group of potential consumers…’) acknowledges that it ‘may be composed of multiple user communities’ (Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems 2002, pp. 1–10), this proviso is frequently overlooked. The mental exemplar appears to be the so-called ‘special library’, intended for a defined readership with distinctive interests.

  9. 9.

    Cf. the comments on ‘bounded variability’ made by Duranti and Thibodeau (2006, pp. 47–48).

  10. 10.

    Frequent migrations may be less necessary than archivists once believed; superseded file formats ‘from consumer-oriented commercial software products’ now usually remain accessible at least in the short-to-medium term (Rusbridge 2006). The introduction of XML formats in these products seems likely to enhance this trend. But longer-term accessibility, particularly of rarer or more specialised formats, remains problematic, and reliance on backwards compatibility features provided by software vendors can be dangerous; the latest version of Bloopersoft Millennium Plus may be able to open digital records created using Bloopersoft 1994 but display them in a distorted form. The challenges of technological change are not yet fully resolved.

  11. 11.

    Cf. the contention by staff of the National Archives of Australia that ‘what the researchers want’ from Australian census records is ‘reliable personal information’. This was claimed to demonstrate that microfilm copies suffice to ‘capture the essence’ of the records (Wilson 2005, p.24; Wilson and Platzer 2004), and these assertions were used to justify a decision that the originals need not be preserved after microfilming. Yet, as with many essentialist claims, what is represented as a brute fact (X is significant, Y is not; X is of the essence, Y is not) is merely a construction: built, in this case, on assumptions that few users will be interested in, for example, the types of paper or ink issued to census enumerators, or that such users do not matter very much. Whatever we think an ‘essence’ might be, it is not to be equated with ‘predominant use’.

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Acknowledgments

I am grateful to Laura Millar and to Elizabeth Shepherd, Andrew Flinn and other members of the ICARUS research seminar group at University College London, who kindly commented on an earlier draft of this paper. I am also grateful to Elaine Penn for drawing my attention to the references to ‘value’ in the works of Margaret Cross Norton.

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Yeo, G. ‘Nothing is the same as something else’: significant properties and notions of identity and originality. Arch Sci 10, 85–116 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-010-9119-9

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Keywords

  • Significant properties
  • Identity
  • Originality
  • Value