Diplomatics of born digital documents

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Rogers Corinne (School of Library, Archives, and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia, Canada)

The term “digital diplomatics” can be interpreted in several ways. One applies to the increased capacity for analysis and comparison of traditional documents beyond anything imaginable in the analog world that results from the easy reproduction through digitization of medieval charters and other ancient texts. Digital diplomatics, in this instance, is the application of classic diplomatics to traditional documents made digital, and its theoretical advancement that is being made possible by the affordances of digital technology.
In another interpretation of “digital diplomatics,” diplomatic theory and concepts are engaged to analyze born digital genres of communication. In this instance the use of the term digital “text” or digital “document” may initially mislead the researcher, as these terms carry many assumptions from analog scholarship. It is, however, possible to talk about born digital “records”, where the term “record” is deconstructed to its essential characteristics that transcend technological medium. In the digital environment, these characteristics are represented and instantiated in ways that differ from and defy traditional analog expectations. How can we map the essential concepts of “record” from our analog past to the digital present?
The practice and science of diplomatics is investigative in nature. The diplomatist is tasked with analyzing a document, deconstructing that document and locating elements that reveal its provenance, reliability, and authenticity. If we agree that the focus of diplomatics is the record, and the building blocks of modern diplomatics are the contexts in which the record exists, the act or transaction in which it participates, the persons (or non-human actors) who concur in its creation, the procedures and documentary forms governing its creation, and the relationships that connect it to other records, then we can understand diplomatic analysis as a process of abstraction and systematization.
So too is digital forensics an investigative science. The forensics investigator searches a hard drive or other digital storage device for discrete pieces of information that have, or may have, probative value, in order to reconstruct events. Digital forensics has been defined as “[T]he application of science and engineering to the legal problem of digital evidence” (Pollitt, 1995), and “The use of scientifically derived and proven methods toward the preservation, collection, validation, identification, analysis, interpretation, documentation and presentation of digital evidence” (Palmer, 2001).
This paper explores a new model of “record” that maps traditional attributes of a record onto a technical decomposition of digital records. It compares the core characteristics necessary to call a digital object a “record” in terms of diplomatics, or “evidence” in terms of digital forensics. It then isolates three layers of abstraction: the conceptual, the logical, and the physical. By identifying the essential elements of a record at each layer of abstraction, a diplomatics of digital records can be proposed.

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