William Kilbride

William Kilbride

Last updated on 22 November 2021

I was privileged to contribute to a panel on the fringes of the COP26 conference in Glasgow this morning convened by the UK National Archives with the title  'Archives Supporting Environmental Sustainability'  This short post is the text of my presentation which was the five minute provocation at the start of the session.


Ladies and gentlemen it’s a pleasure to be invited to speak to you this morning. I want to thank the organizers at the National Archives for their efforts in bringing us together for this timely – long overdue discussion.

I have 5 minutes so will attempt 5 themes in 5 minutes ...

I’m going to start on my own area of digital preservation. It’s “the series of managed activities necessary to ensure continued access to digital materials for as long as necessary.” There are bits to emphasize here which will frame some of what will follow.

It’s a series of things not an event; it fits within a policy framework; it’s about more than backup; and it’s for as long as necessary – not forever and certainly not everything.

Digital lifecycles are short so lots of agencies which are not archives in the traditional sense have a digital preservation problem. So it’s not just for archives.

On the face of it, digital preservation might sound like keeping lots of things and that sounds energy intensive. That would be true if you did it badly.

Digital preservation is also about keeping control over the digital estate and creating the permission to dispose – what to get rid of and when.

So I am saying that a digital preservation strategy provides an informed and sustainable basis for reducing an organization’s data footprint, and by extension carbon consumption too. Digital preservation is a green option.

As an aside, there are particular challenges associated with preserving climate data as well as long-range scientific data related to the climate crisis. Perhaps we can get into during the conversation.

Considering the large numbers involved, you might be tempted to think of data storage as the carbon intensive bits of digital preservation. It doesn’t have to be, especially if energy can be drawn from renewables. There are some good – and some very bad practices in the management of data centres. It mostly boils down to whether or not you trust the claims that cloud service providers make about their energy consumption.
Remember also that every touchpoint of a preservation workflow requires some energy – ingest, fixity check, migration and access for example. So as well as reducing the data volumes we need to ask how many times a file needs to checked for integrity. We need to question the assumption of large-scale format migration and normalization, and the carbon cost of storing and processing uncompressed files. We need to ask whether instant access – which means spinning disks – is always the best solution. Nearline or offline storage is less good for users but is much healthier for the planet.

I want to step back a little from the details of preservation and give something of an historical perspective too.

Digital preservation emerged in the mid-1990s in response to the widespread adoption of home computers and then the Internet. The social and economic forces that propelled that digital shift also created the climate crisis.

Our work is symptomatic of accelerating cycles of innovation and disruption that lock us into short lifecycle technologies and disposable infrastructures. One might call this obsolescence as a service. So, think of digital preservation as an insurgency against the deeply embedded forces which sit behind technology: a kind of obsolescence rebellion against non-renewable consumption.

A pivot to sustainable long-term thinking in the technology sector would transform the digital preservation challenge, and that would be no bad thing.

As with digital preservation, so with the climate crisis: short term thinking serves no one in the long term.

I am dithering: my point is that the climate crisis will impact almost every aspect of our lives. It’s possible – in fact we should take it for granted – that we have unsustainable assumptions embedded into our professional practice and our institutions. The climate crisis will challenge these, and we need to be ready for the disruption that will follow.

Finally, to the DPC. I will freely admit our own work on green issues has been too sketchy for too long. I spoke to a conference session about this in 2010, but it was an empty room: and it didn’t occur to us to include carbon costs into the cost models we have developed over the years. But we have now written environmental impacts into the Rapid Assessment Model and the DPC’s new strategic plan will explicitly commit us to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

I worry that we’ve yet come close to the seriousness of the crisis.

The news this morning from a mile or so down the road here in Glasgow is bleak. It is hinted that world leaders will need to meet again early next year because the COP process is failing to produce results. Analyses point to a deadly 2.7 degree increase in global temperatures, way above the 1.5 degrees proposed in Paris.

As with the climate crisis, so with digital preservation, we have a relatively simple choice: to act in earnest with courage now or throw our hands in the air and hope that something arises. To be an ancestor or be a good ancestor. That’s an easy choice.

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