Where book history & digital preservation meet: the importance of users in meaning making

Where book history & digital preservation meet: the importance of users in meaning making

Book history and digital preservation

Book historians and digital preservationists have certain things in common. Both seek to preserve cultural heritage and information; both work to provide access to objects and materials for the future; and both are concerned with authenticity, interpretation, context, provenance, and physicality (or intangibility) of the materials they work with and study. In this post, I examine the connection between book history and digital preservation that lies in meaning making and interpretations of information and objects. Scholars of book history have long debated the importance of individuals-not-the-author (such as readers) that influence the interpretation/reception of a text, and digital preservationists are still discussing the value for users of providing contextual metadata with digital objects.

On meaning making

The meanings of objects change over time and across distance, with cultural differences, age differences, and individual world views. As Edwina Taborsky (1990) states, the meaning of an object remains stable and communicable within a certain spatial and temporal area. This reliance on social context and the user’s reception of an object (digital or print) determines that the user’s meaning will not be the same as the original intended meaning. Robert Darnton (1982), a well-known historian of the book, agreed that texts work on the sensibilities of readers in different ways, using as examples a 17th century London burgher and a 20th century American professor. Similarly, digital content is used and reused in different ways in different contexts (Beaudoin 2012). The greater the temporal and spatial difference between the original context of the content and that of the user, the greater the difference in the interpretation or meaning of the content. Therefore, the digital preservationist (or museum exhibit curator, or rare book librarian) has a professional obligation to surround digital and historical objects with contextual information to recreate the original cultural meaning of the object as closely as possible.

For this reason, I believe in the importance of meaning making through metadata. Providing historical and cultural contextual metadata (as well as technical and other metadata) is key to improving the ability of future users to understand a digital object. If there are two separate research camps in the study of contextual metadata, as Faniel and Yakel (2011) state, then I’ll raise my tent with the reuse folks, who examine meaning making through metadata. The other camp, of digital curation, focuses its attention on technical metadata (Beaudoin 2012).

One concern

One concern (of many) that has been raised is the ability to predict future uses of digital materials.  Similarly, reading has changed over time, and future reading practices, intertwined as they are with emerging and evolving technologies, are difficult to predict.

If the history of reading “will have to take account of the ways that texts constrain readers as well as the ways that readers take liberties with texts,” as Darnton (1982) asserts, then similarly, studies of the ways that digital objects and users work on each other will be vital to the prediction of future uses. Studies such as these will help to inform what metadata would be best included in descriptions of digital objects. However, even as reading habits have changed over the millennia, so no doubt will the uses of digital objects. Providing as much contextual metadata as possible may be the answer to this question of future use.

The importance of users

Ultimately, for me, the value in digital preservation lies in being able to understand the object or material through contextual metadata. I believe in a user-centric approach to digital preservation. The goal is to preserve as closely as possible the original, intended meaning of the digital object, taking into account that perceptions and interpretations will change as a matter of course. These changes make it essential that contextual metadata that improves current and future users’ understanding of digital objects is captured. As Beaudoin (2012) writes, “In order for digital materials to remain accessible, preservation efforts must ensure that the requirements of users, present and future, are met,” to the extent that it is possible to predict them.


Beaudoin, J. E. 2012. Context and its role in the digital preservation of cultural objects. D-Lib Magazine, 18(11/12).

Darnton, R. 1982. What is the history of books? Daedalus, 1(3), 65-83.

Jones, A. 2010. Piratas de la America – Pirates of America – Antique Book in General Archive of the Indies – Seville – Spain. Image.

Taborsky, E. 1990. The discursive object. In Susan Pearce (Ed.) Objects of Knowledge, 50-77.


One thought on “Where book history & digital preservation meet: the importance of users in meaning making

  1. Pingback: From the perspective of an archivist | Cultural Heritage & Information

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