Object-Oriented Diplomatics: A New Computer Programming Paradigm

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Jansen Adam (University of British Columbia)
As technology changes at a pace faster than our ability to make sense of its by-products, the issue of what is a record in the digital environment and its authenticity is becoming of increasing importance from a business, legal, social and research point of view. Questions around the authenticity of documents have been around as long as records have existed. During the Bella Diplomatica (i.e. disputes about records; literally, “Diplomatic Wars”) of the 17th century, the newly developed science of diplomatics was used to determine the authenticity of documents through the analysis of their genesis, their relationship with the act/activity in which they participated, the persons involved in their creation (i.e. author, addressee, writer), the procedures from which they resulted, and the administrative and juridical context in which they were created.

The diplomatics process of decomposing documents into their constituent components and analyzing each component independently of the document’s content in order to determine the trustworthiness of the whole is as applicable to today’s digital records as it was to medieval documents. Archival diplomatics is the integration of traditional diplomatics concepts and methods with modern archival theory for the purpose of creating reliable and accurate digital records and preserving them authentic for as long as they are needed. Its rigor can be applied to computer programming paradigms to demonstrate, over the long term and through system and technical migrations, the continuing authenticity of the digital records that are produced in the myriad of computer systems.

Object-oriented programming (OOP), one of the most commonly used programming language models, represents informational constructs as “objects” that possess attributes and associated procedures of behavior called “functions”. Objects, therefore, are designed as ideal abstracts of the desired output and then the attributes these objects possess are given data, or meaning, to produce an instantiation of that object in the form of a record. In computer science, object-oriented programming utilizes objects to describe the components of an object within a system in the same way in which diplomatics breaks down a record in discrete parts. Where archival diplomatics decomposes digital records into an ideal form based on the attributes the record possesses and the procedures that were used to produce the record, OOP starts with an ideal form of a record and defines the procedures that will be used to create the record.

This paper presents the diplomatics concept of Object-Oriented Diplomatics. The author posits that the concepts and methods of archival diplomatics and the IT development practices of OOP into a can be integrated in order to assist in the documentation of a record’s authenticity by embedding the record’s elements, attributes, processes and components into the software design level at the point of the record’s creation. Building upon the research conducted at the University of British Columbia during the InterPARES project (see www.interpares.org), this paper will illustrate this concept through software code examples and discussion of a separate case study at an American State Archives.

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