Friday, September 7, 2012

Data Recovery: To Delete or Not?

By applying technology to works of art, historians are discovering previously unknown masterpieces. Beneath a Goya painting is a work that the artist painted over for political reasons. Van Gogh’s Patch of Grass hides an underlying masterpiece. Because so many artists painted over their canvases so as to reuse them, more discoveries will come. Turning to the world of manuscripts, digital imaging tools can reveal written-over text or words obliterated by stains. When the focus is the oeuvre of the Old Masters or the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, who would object? But what if the focus is modern writings--maybe even yours?

With born-digital materials, archivists have the opportunity to resurrect digital files deleted by their creators. One such route involves forensic tools and techniques, similar to those used by police, including analyzing computers that may hold evidence of criminal activity. Such forensic software is gaining currency among archivists. There’s an entire report called Digital Forensics and Born-Digital Content in Cultural Heritage Collections, and our colleagues at Stanford University Libraries use a Forensic Recovery of Evidence Devices (FRED) setup to process incoming digital collections.

Hoover’s processing workflow for born-digital materials closely follows the steps outlined by OCLC Research in its latest publication; indeed, Hoover was one of the models for it. We omit the forensic software layer for a leaner workflow that maximizes resources. But even without forensic technology, while processing the Jude Wanniski papers, we found ourselves in the position of those art historians: Should we recover the e-mail messages we found in Wanniski’s digital trash bin? If Wanniski deleted them--much like an artist who paints over his own work--is it appropriate for us to preserve and reveal them to researchers?