Hostages of the Ephemeral: A Preservationist View of Electronic Literature


Throughout history, stewards of cultural heritage collections have advocated for technologies of external memory based on their proven ability to endure into the future. Despite studies that demonstrate how zeros and ones inscribed on digital media often stand up well to the ravages of time, the long-term preservation of the content they encode—particularly in the field of electronic literature—has proven to be a challenge. This is because the accessibility of electronic literature depends as much on the preservation of bit-streams as on the long-term viability of specialized computing environments and their constituent hardware and software components, thereby placing works of electronic literature at considerably greater risk of disappearance than their analog predecessors. Although authors of electronic literature have cultivated a growing awareness of best practices in digital preservation, they still lack tools designed with the posterity of their creations in mind. This paper explores these issues, as well as the question of ephemerality for electronic literature, by assessing contemporary digital formats within the broader history of preservation technologies.