Digital archive study aims to create permanence from the web

Issue date: 01 March 2010

Faculty of Creative Arts How can we curate and make permanent the narratives and transient experiences we share daily on the web? Can we preserve a player's participation in an Alternate Reality Game that spans continents and platforms, or in reading a story that disappears from the world once its last page is turned?

Dr Tom Abba of the University of the West of England is investigating this – he has just been awarded an early career research grant to identify strategies for archiving new and existing digital works. These works or narratives are 'born-digital' – story forms created on the web, but echoing the shapes of novels, films, poems, and other media. His research into how to classify and curate these digital narratives will strengthen UWE's emerging reputation for research into new and interactive media, focused through the University's
Digital Cultures Research Centre

Originally trained as an illustrator, Tom is now established as a practitioner and theorist in new media. This latest project was largely inspired by three experiences: the first was encountering an early digital poem, Agrippa, dating from the very earliest days of the web in 1992. Appropriately, the subject matter of the 305-line work by William Gibson is the impermanence of memory. It is a trans-generational memory poem about Gibson's father and his own youth, which can run just once before encrypting itself into oblivion. Another inspiration is the web-native novel, 253, by Geoff Ryman, exploring the connections between each of the passengers and driver on a full Tube train.

Tom says, “The transitory nature of the web, and the speed at which things emerge and quickly vanish, causes all sorts of problems for scholars looking to understand new forms of story. The third insight for my research was recognising that there was an opportunity to take hold of some of those curatorial questions, and try to determine what was worth holding onto for future generations and why.

“This research funding means that I can explore the academic and practical issues involved in setting up and curating such an archive on an ongoing basis, taking into account the fact that technology and the use that practitioners put it to is constantly evolving.”

In all, 21 UWE staff were awarded early career research grants worth £300,000 in 2009/10 to get their research careers off to a flying start.

Professor Paul Gough, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise), said, “The emphasis of this scheme is on supporting emerging researchers such as Tom and his excellent work in this innovative area. We were delighted with the range and quality of projects and are already planning to run the scheme again in 2010.”

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