JensTweetIn my last blog I briefly discussed how digital preservation came of age in turbulent times.  There was a lot going on in that post as I tried to make a link between economics and digital preservation, proposing a vital, necessary intervention that the digital preservation community should be making in some thorny but important matters of public policy. But it wasn’t an easy read.  Jenny Mitcham washed down an entire bowl of soup as I mangled three decades of economic history.  With all that going on I didn’t dare add a further digression about our values and how these have been affected by the way the digital preservation community has developed.  But I promised to return to the theme while the topic was still in my mind.  

Here’s a game almost everyone in digital preservation can play: when people ask you what you do, what do you say?  If I want to impress people I tell them I am an archaeologist working in data science. If I want to go beneath the radar I say I work in IT.  Both are true and both are a polite fiction.  We don’t have a coherent answer for who we are: we don’t even have a word of our own.  There are a lot of archivists, librarians and records managers in our tent but by no means a majority.  Few of us made a conscious career choice to work in digital preservation. So it’s a fun question to ask people how they ended up here.  I have met historians, engineers, computing scientists, engineers, accountants, neuroscientists, particle physicists, astronomers, conservators, photographers, broadcasters and lawyers.  I have it on good authority that one leading light of the digital preservation community was once a stage magician.  

This diversity is an obvious strength given the width of the digital preservation challenge but I sometimes wonder if it might come at the price of coherence. What happens when we start looking for shared values, and what should we do if we feel those values threatened?  To answer this, I need to take a detour into our collective history because I think this will help understand not only the values we bring but also the pressures we face and the need for some kind of consensus that will help us absorb these pressures.

The End of Prehistory?

Although the origins are older, practical and concerted digital preservation really began in the late 1990s, coinciding therefore with an unprecedented period of economic boom.  It was such a long boom that economists and bankers congratulated themselves that this was the new norm.  They were wrong. The rage, ridicule and reproach subsequently heaped on them seems deserved, not least because they don’t seem to have learned very much from the experience.  It has been argued that the ‘crisis of capitalism’ spawned a sort of ‘capitalism of crisis’: a newly rapacious form of asset- stripping masked in diversionary politics.  We may criticise the plutocrats for returning to their ancient swindle as though nothing had changed: but before we get all self-righteous I wonder if we’re missing something.  Did we learn anything from the crisis ourselves?  Did casually unsustainable assumptions embed themselves into our plans for digital preservation in the early 2000’s? And if so, what are we doing to address them? Are we content to be victims of history or are we ambitious enough to be agents of change?

The point came into sharp relief for me in April at the annual gathering of the Chartered Institute for Archaeology at which I chaired a session on digital preservation for the historic environment. I am one of a surprisingly large number of digital preservation-ists who started in archaeology (see also Neil Beagrie, Adrian Brown, Catherine Hardman, Jette Junge, Jen Mitcham, Marcel Ras, Seamus Ross and others) before getting a warm dry job indoors looking after data. The IFA conference (sic) used to be a regular feature for me and it was lovely, if a little frightening, to be back.  

If the last decade has been unkind to most, it has been cataclysmic for professional archaeology.  The sector enjoyed a real boom in the early 1990s when abstract statements about ‘polluter pays’ environmental policy towards ‘non-renewable assets’ were formalised to make protection of the historic environment a material consideration in the planning process. An entire profession of development control archaeologists was born, ensuring that sites and monuments were properly understood and if necessary mitigated (i.e. excavated) in advance of any major construction works.  A flood of contracts followed with unprecedented opportunities for research. I owe significant parts of my early career to three of these: the extension of the M74 motorway (which funded a lot of archaeology jobs in Glasgow), the extension of the M3 motorway (the synthesis of the resulting archaeology contributing to my PhD) and the digital archive of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (the first major commercial archive deposited at the Archaeology Data Service).

That stopped in 2008 when the bottom fell out of the construction sector.  Since then archaeology in the UK and Ireland has suffered powerful, at times fatal, withdrawal symptoms as it became apparent that what had been assumed as normal was in fact a bubble fuelled by speculation, lavish capital expenditure, and cheap finance.  In the decade since I last attended the IFA conference around 80% of the profession has been laid off.  

That goes some way to explain why the assembly seemed older and smaller than I remember.  It also seemed a lot more male.  That is just an impression – one day at one conference is a poor sample – but it jarred that the panel for a thought-provoking and informed session on professional ethics should be all male.  Now Twitter is sadly littered with examples of the ‘all male panel’ (aka manel) syndrome at conferences, so you might just shrug off another depressing example.  But the archaeology which I remember was assertively progressive. Almost hilariously so.  It was marginally but distinctly a majority-female endeavour, especially in the early and middle ranks of the profession that I haunted.  The tough message that I took home is that, professional and intellectual attitudes notwithstanding, when the chips are down older, less appealing hierarchies assert themselves. Even the most inclusive, dynamic and reflexive context can fall victim to a value-free regression.

I want to be clear that this is impressionistic and I hope my instinct is misplaced and I crave corrections posted to the comments box below.  It’s also quite hard to write because it describes the modern configuration of my intellectual and professional homeland.  There’s no disguising my sense that the collapse of the sector has revealed some troubling structural inadequacies.

The Value Stack

I think there’s a lesson here for digital preservation, about our values and our expectations. I work on the assumption of a (perhaps strange) hierarchy of ideas that go from procedure to policy to strategy to values.  If you look really closely it’s how we structure daily life at the DPC.  If I don’t know what procedure to follow, I can derive it by reference to policy; and if I don’t know what policy to follow then I can look at our strategy for a policy-building answer; and if I can’t resolve a question based on strategy I can turn to our values.  And if I don’t recognize these values or can’t act accordingly then I am in real trouble.  

Well-founded organizations don’t need to access this stack frequently because policy and procedure are mature.  But digital preservation has two unusual requirements which mean this interaction of policy and values matters more than usual. Digital preservation is new and we often operate in a sort of liminal zone where policy and procedures are emergent.  That means we ought to be talking about organizational strategy more than we do.  By and large we can’t because organizational strategies are opaque with respect to digital preservation. If strategy is opaque there should be a lot more discussion about values to guide us through uncertainty.  But I don’t see much evidence of that.  

Moreover, I get the impression that a lot of agencies face increasing dissonance between evolving expectations and existing assumptions. It’s most obvious in the rise of new dialectics of brutality and manipulation which seem to have supplanted thoughtfulness and honesty in public discourse. Call it ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-fact’, but respect to the candour of BBC economics editor Evan Davies who simply calls it ‘peak bullshit’. Digital preservation is more needed than ever in an unsought conflict over authenticity and transparency.

So where is the discussion about values in digital preservation? This seems increasingly urgent, especially as I reflect on my experience at the Chartered Institute for Archaeology in the spring.

Digital preservation, more or less

Now it seems to me that digital preservation is a passive voice kind of place.  Submission information packages ‘are ingested’; archival information packages ‘are stored’; designated communities ‘are monitored’.  Occasionally we get dangerously close to human beings but we quickly turn them into functions of the system.  We are relaxed with sentences like ‘The Generate Descriptive Information function extracts Descriptive Information from the AIPs and collects Descriptive Information from other sources to provide to ‘Coordinate Updates’, and ultimately ‘Data Management’.’  (I used to think that an out of body experience would be a good thing but now realise that being disembodied does terrible things to the language of Shakespeare.)

Abstraction is necessary, jargon unavoidable and I am not above reproach: just ask any DPC Board member about DPC Board Papers.  But it’s perhaps not surprising that lunch is consistently most popular part of any DPC Briefing Day.  That’s not a comment on the catering: I am pretty sure it’s because, for an hour or so, we stop exchanging abstract symbols and start exchanging stories.  And when we get back to the abstractions we do it with greater enthusiasm and warmth.  Our standards, our tools, and our policies, however abstract, are about humans doing things to or for other humans.  

That sounds charming but means digital preservation is not immune from the blunt trauma of the human condition: that digital preservation happens in times and places that are historically complex, endlessly dynamic and not universally benign.  Digital preservation guarantees persistent witness to the awful things have been done to innocent (and not so innocent) people. And during an unprecedented crisis of displacement, where personhood is denied to the millions who become separated from their identities, digital preservation offers hope for enduring dignity. If powerful people seek to disguise their private motivations then we can provide some small antidote to their wearisome obfuscations.  Let’s face it, anyone’s mailbox can quickly become a crime scene these days.  There’s a profound ethic in digital preservation.

If digital preservation came of age in the late 1990 and early 2000’s, then there’s an unexamined story about the implications of the crash for digital preservation as a practice and profession.  We set a high standard for digital preservation in 2002 with OAIS.  It has provided a shared language and some shared processes: but it is hardly a visionary document and certainly not an ethical treatise.  A slew of best practice expectations have followed from it: TDR 2002; PREMIS 2005 onwards; TRAC 2007; DRAMBORA 2009; European Framework 2010: and many more.  But these need to be read through the prism of what we might now call reasonable aspiration in 2000’s: there’s no explicit encounter with values or vision and too little expectation of changing context.  So we anticipated many of our difficulties but did not foresee the machinations that have eviscerated the public sector in the name of the public purse.  It’s not a surprise that after 2010 it became a lot more fashionable to talk about minimal effort ingest, parsimonious preservation and ‘Preserving digital Objects With Restricted Resources’.  This is not simply about lack of resource: it’s about competition for resources. And thus we need a better way to test the limits of reasonableness.

In the last decade, we’ve confirmed the earlier view that digital preservation is tricky.  We’ve got used to the idea that we don’t have all the resources we need to do all the things we thought we needed to do, and we certainly don’t have the resources now that we thought we would have in 2000. In many practical senses we are materially worse off now than when we started.  Nor do I find it easy to be optimistic that this will fall into our laps in the next decade. (Certainly not in ‘Global Britain’ or ‘Empire 2.0’ where the Institute of Directors reported breezily in May that 70% of UK companies were not currently planning to move to Ireland. Let that number sink in before you move to the next paragraph.)

I think there are five different responses to this challenge of resourcing:

  • We should argue passionately for investment to expand what we do - and believe me I have tried
  • We should pool resources to gain economies of scope - which is something we talk about a lot but do less
  • We should industrialize our processes to gain economies of scale - which we’ve had some success with, but unevenly and barely keeping pace with growing data volumes.
  • We should reduce our expectations of what is reasonable, either by cutting processes to the bone, hoping for solutions that will come, and/or transferring activity and cost burden to producers or consumers
  • We should accept that areas of our digital memory will be abandoned - that smaller institutions (and individuals) cannot do digital preservation so should not try

These responses are not equally welcome but I have heard all of them with my own ears from digital preservation experts that I respect, and all in the last twelve months. If you listen very hard, variations on these themes echo through almost every digital preservation project and initiative currently in progress. They offer different answers to the implied contradictions between digital preservation before and after 2010.  I struggle to know which to dismiss outright, and which to pursue ardently, in part because the procedure->policy->strategy->values stack is poorly constructed.  That worries me because I know challenges are coming, that our important work is situated in times and places which are dynamic and complex.  It worries me because we have the absurd luxury of debating digital preservation through an unprecedented crisis of displacement and inequality. We few ponder significant properties while those millions simply seek shelter.  Don’t get me started on how the community tackles implicit privilege or represents diversity.

True North

What are our values?  What are we for? What are we against? And how can a better understanding of these profound questions help us address the persistent challenges of resource and sufficiency? As usual, I confront the scale of the task before us. There is more to it than bits and bytes if we want to do digital preservation well and we want to do it right.  But the boat is so small and the oceans are so wide.  We reach in vain for a common ethic that will guide us safely through the troubled waters together: we each bring our own compass and not all point to the same north.  

Isn’t it time we made our values a little more explicit and a little more shared?  I, for one, am not content for someone else to hand them to us.


I am grateful to Sara Thomson who proofed and commented on this post before release.

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