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The news where you are: digital preservation and the digital dark ages

(Image c/o Pierre-Louis FERRER on Flickr.)

The following article was contributed by William Kilbride, Executive Director of the Digital Preservation Coalition

That’s all from us, now the news where you are….

This awkward cliché, repeated at the end of every BBC news report, signals a crude shift in gear. It seems that ‘The News’ has two parts: ‘the news where we are’ (London-centred politics, war, economics, English premiership football); and ‘the news where you are’  (local and parochial oddities that may entertain the yeomanry but which won’t deflect the ship of state from its mighty  progress).  Ruthlessly and deservedly lampooned during last year’s independence debate, the phrase came to mind last week as Vint Cerf shared his fears on the evanescence of digital memory and the need to take collective action to counter the pernicious and ubiquitous impact of obsolescence.  Reported by the BBC, the Independent, the Guardian and others (mostly from San Jose CA) it would seem that a digital black hole is set to initiate a digital dark age sometime soon.  There’s a choice of metaphors but none of them good.

The news where I am (The Digital Preservation Coalition) is surprisingly different from the news where they are.

First thing’s first: I don’t have a copy of Vint Cerf’s original remarks so my observations are really only about the reportage.  In fact almost anything he might choose to say would have been welcome.  It’s undoubtedly true that preserving digital content through technological change is a real and sometimes daunting challenge.  Our generation has invested as never before in digital content and it is frankly horrifying when you consider what rapid changes in technology could do to that investment.  Vint, as one of the architects of the modern world, is exceptionally well placed to help us raise the issue among the engineers and technologists that need to understand the problem.

We do desperately need to raise awareness about the challenge of digital preservation so that solutions can be found and implemented.  Politicians and decision makers are consistently under-informed or unaware of the problem.  In fact awareness raising was one of the reasons that the DPC was founded. Since 2002 DPC has been at the forefront of joint activity on the topic in the UK and Ireland, supporting specialist training, helping to develop practical solutions, promoting good practice and building relationships.  A parliamentarian recently asked me which department of government will be best supported by all this work (presumably in an attempt to decide which budget should pay for it).  I answered ‘all of them’.  I am not sure if the question or the answer was more naïve: it’s hard to imagine an area of public and private life that isn’t improved by having the right data available in the right format to the right people at the right time; or conversely frustrated by its absence.  Digital preservation is a concern for everyone.

But that’s not the same as saying that a digital black hole is imminent. It might have been in 2002 but since then there’s been rather a lot to celebrate in the collective actions of the digital preservation community globally (and especially here in the UK and Ireland) where agencies and individuals are beginning to wake up to the problem in large numbers.  These days we’re seeing real interest from across the spectrum of industry and commerce. Put simply the market is ripe for large scale solutions.  It’s easy to focus on the issue of loss, but we can also talk confidently now about the creative potential of digital content over an extended lifecycle.

In January this year the DPC welcomed its 50th organisational member: the Bank of England.  It’s a household name but nor is it particularly a memory institution with a core mission to preserve.  Other new members in the last year include HSBC, NATO and the Royal Institution of British Architects.  They all depend on data and they all need to ensure the integrity of their processes, but they are not memory institutions with a mission to preserve.  Any organisation that depends on data beyond the short life spans of current technology – we’re all data driven decision makers now – needs to put digital preservation on its agenda.

If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that we face a social and cultural challenge as well as a technical one.  We certainly need better tools, smarter processes and enhanced capacity which is ultimately what Vince’s suggestion for Digital Vellum is about (though others dispute the detail of his proposal).  But this won’t solve the problem alone. We also need competent and responsive workforces ready to address the challenges of digital preservation.  Time and again surveys of the digital preservation community show that the skills are lacking and where they exist they are themselves subject to rapid obsolescence.  We know that digital skills are crucially short in the UK economy: at the same time as Vint was arguing for Digital Vellum the Chief Constable of Police Scotland had to apologise for having misled parliament because statistics about draconian stop-and-search powers were inadvertently deleted.  The nation’s most senior policeman could lose his job because his organisation lacked digital preservation skills.  Arguably the lack of skills is a bigger challenge than obsolescence.

Moreover a political and institutional climate responsive to the need for digital preservation would allow us to make sense of the peculiarities of copyright.  Those who argue for the right to be forgotten ingenuously assume an infrastructure where you will be remembered: a somewhat populist rush for data protection and cybersecurity is tending to stifle reasonable calls for data retention.  This is pretty raw stuff.  At the same time as the technology commentators were worrying about technical obsolescence a senior politician was caught deleting content of his own containing comments that now seem ill-judged. The machinations of those who want us to forget might well be a bigger threat to our collected memories than digital obsolescence.

DPC was founded to ensure closer and more productive collaboration by its members.  I grant you that some of this has involved the slow grind of hard problems: a standard here, a training programme there, a research project peering into the future, a policy review, a procedures manual.  All of it is worth celebrating and we’ve been doing so for years now. I have no idea why journalists haven’t noticed this: we’ve been trying to get their attention for years.

San Jose is lovely in early spring. But there’s a better story about digital preservation where we are.


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