This project set out to take a physical collection of archival objects into a digital environment and make it accessible. It set out to discover:
For the last three years the digital surrogates of the physical collection have joined electronically generated objects to become an on-line documentary known as The Flight of Ducks . Versions of this work run on the servers of RMIT University, Cinemedia and The National Library of Australia.
- How to provide long-term access to this collection.
- How to provide an accessible narrative structure that would link it together.
- What forms of restricted access could be used to accommodate the cultural sensitivities of Australian Aborigines.
There are six tangible outcomes of this research project which should be noted:
- Formal, and public, archiving by the National Library of Australia.
After being identified as a work of national significance, a collaborative development of a preservation infrastructure resulted in The Flight of Ducks being the first [on-line] work of its kind to be archived by a national library. It is now possible to access captured versions of the site from July 1997 (as well as to refer to the live work). As a member of one of the W3C working groups The Flight of Ducks has also been a pilot for one of the most extensive deployments of Dublin Core type metadata (see source code [on-line]).
The development of this infrastructure continues. The current focus is to work out an agreement (concerning password protection and responsibilities) that will permit the capture of the password protected area. Technical difficulties with the capture software and the sensitive nature of the material contained in this area of the site has so far kept it outside the capture program.
- A description of an infrastructure framework to support digital preservation at Cinemedia.
Parallel to the work with the National Library of Australia has been the development of an infrastructure capable of supporting the live site at Cinemedia. The current strategy is to build this management infrastructure into the fabric of the new Cinemedia Centre (to be completed in 2001 at Federation Square). The issues raised by the evolution of The Flight of Ducks have provided insights into what such an infrastructure would look like.
The current focus is to develop a Guide to Good Practice that will enable other developers to address the need for long-term access at the point of creation.
- An Award winning on-line (and on-going) documentary, The Flight of Ducks .
During the course of this research The Flight of Ducks has broken new ground as an [on-line] documentary. As well has attracting over 4,000 individuals each week for the last 2 years it has also been the winner of:
- 1997 John Bird Award for Excellence On-line.
- 1996 ATOM Award Best Australian On-line Production
- 1996 Premiers Gold Award for Best Australian Multimedia Product
- The development of an on-line architecture for the handling of Aboriginal cultural sensitivities.
During the development of the The Flight of Ducks four levels of [on-line] cultural accommodation were employed:
- Appropriate metadata or content description.
- The use of `warning screens'.
- The implementation of the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS).
- The development of a secure password protected `keeping place'.
- Draft Protocols for the submission, storage and examination of on-line projects at the University of RMIT.
This will be the first on-line Ph.D. (or on-line postgraduate project) that the University of RMIT has been required to archive. The infrastructure is being built in collaboration with the RMIT University Library and The Higher Degrees Committee. Many of the issues have profound implications on the presentation of research. The Flight of Ducks goes beyond the submission of a conventional thesis as a PDF file and explores how the medium can be used in an academic environment. Unfortunately, the limits of administrative understanding at RMIT mean that this submission will be a single archived version rather than a live work with a version history.
- University censorship of an approved research project.
At the conclusion of this research project. The RMIT Human Research Ethics Committee had the The Flight of Ducks removed from the University server because they suspected that the research might offend Aboriginal cultural sensitivities. This action effectively froze all examination procedures for six months.
This action was a reflection of the current political climate in Australia. It was also due (in part) to my own failure to successfully negotiate more extensive Aboriginal involvement in this project. It is to be regretted that levels of restriction used to accommodate Aboriginal cultural sensitivities - though technically adequate - have not evolved from a supportive cultural base (inside and outside the University). As a result, these strategies are destined to languish unused. They may have to be re-invented when the issues are less politically clouded. Without the participation of an Aboriginal on-line community there is little that can be achieved.
It is ironic that an area built to house restricted Aboriginal cultural material should end up (at the conclusion of this part of the project) containing confidential messages from non-aboriginal people about difficulties with Aboriginal involvement. It is also a poor reflection on our academic environment that constructive inter-cultural dialogue is being subverted to the politics of control.
The pace of change over three years has meant there are many areas of The Flight of Ducks that no longer demonstrate the `current' capacities of this medium. This is inevitable with any on-going digital work. The `poetics' of the work are very much an archive of a 1996 approach to web development. Already the technology (dynamic HTML) has moved to the point where the display of variant views of digital resources can be improved through cascading style sheets and layered texts.
As the initial (university) stage of The Flight of Ducks concludes, some of the Federal Government CD-ROM projects (Australia on CD) begun at the same time, are being launched. Many of these also deal with historical resources. However, they are characterised by a lack of creative focus. This is largely because their large budgets have been based on convergent relationships between different groups with differing interests. As a result they are often tedious. They are also highly platform dependent and unable to accommodate upgrade and technological change. The Flight of Ducks , on the other hand, has shown itself to be resilient and quite capable of accommodating change.
In writing for this medium, the movement has been towards simplicity. The skills for effective on-line writing have been found to be the skills which have always distinguished good from bad writing. Hypertext imposes even greater restrictions on narrative structure than text on paper. The most effective uses of hypertext, as a means of dramatic writing, appear in what I call the `line' of narrative; the one way street of personal exploration. A form of writing almost poetic in style if not in content. As the contextual universe of the web expands there may be an even greater need for writers to create and support their own worlds or spaces. A poetic based on forms of recorded journeys still seems an entirely appropriate form of writing when both the writer and the reader are compelled travel through these worlds.
If there is an overall conclusion to be drawn at this point, then it must be that infrastructure development (to support and maintain these datascapes) currently involves an on-going process of negotiation with people who have little understanding of any digital medium. Effective long-term access to digital material is dependent on these negotiations and to a large extent on personal advocacy. In the closed world of traditional media there is always the possibility of discovering a prescient mind - long after its decline. In the digital domain, the preservation of important work is much more vulnerable to political challenge, fashion or (like most truly original work) to being disconnected from a supportive community.