Jenny Mitcham

Jenny Mitcham

Last updated on 6 April 2020

On Friday last week the DPC hosted a webinar on ‘Enacting Environmentally Sustainable Preservation’. We were delighted to be able to get all four authors of a recent article in American Archivist in the (virtual) room together with our Members to discuss this important topic.

The article is available here and I’d urge digital preservation people everywhere to read it if you haven’t already. I joked within the webinar last week that I wished I’d written it myself...but I should also note that if I had it wouldn’t be nearly so thorough or well referenced!

In the paper, the authors (Keith Pendergrass, Walker Sampson, Tim Walsh and Laura Alagna) call for a paradigm shift to create environmentally sustainable digital preservation. They focus in particular on three key areas, asking us to consider how we view and enact appraisal, permanence, and the availability of digital content. They encourage us to make sustainable choices by integrating environmental sustainability into existing decision-making criteria and follow with detailed discussion and a framework for helping us more effectively consider our choices.

A lot of this isn’t new to those of us working in digital archives. We already frequently settle for ‘good enough’ approaches, doing what we can on the basis of limited funds or staff capacity. For many of us, adding in a consideration of environmentally sustainable practices will not be such a big leap, but will just give us alternative ways of thinking about how we choose to spend the resources and time that we have, and perhaps help provide justification for why we are not doing ‘all of the things’ and why we are not all striving to reach ISO16363.

In the webinar, the authors introduced some of the key points from the article and followed up with discussion about the steps they are putting in place at their own institutions in order to try to address these issues. Practical steps included a classification system for digital archives (on the basis that not all digital material needs to be treated with same gold standard of care), altered perceptions of what acceptable levels of loss might look like, and file format migration policies. It was interesting to be able to move on from theoretical principles to the practical real-world case studies, and provide food for thought for the attendees who were also encouraged to think about their own practices.

I’d strongly advise you to read the paper as I can’t do it full justice here. DPC Members can also watch the webinar back (available from the events page if you login). In this blog I won’t relay the content of both but will make some observations that sprung to mind as I reflected on the paper and webinar last week.

  1. Digital preservation doesn’t exist in isolation. As ever, we need to balance what we do with the perceived risks, the resources and priorities of our organization and with the value of the digital content we are charged with preserving. We should also add into this list the environmental impact of our actions. A recent paper at the International Digital Curation Conference by Micah Altman and Richard Landau described some research to establish exactly how many copies are required in order to ensure data isn’t lost . The answer is 8 (read all about it here). ...But rather than all rushing out and ensuring we all have 8 copies of our valued digital archives of course we must recognise that this isn’t purely a technical problem with a technical solution. Our decisions on number of copies will balance this information with all the other variables we need to consider - environmental sustainability is an important factor to build into our thinking.
  2. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to digital preservation. I think we all knew that already didn’t we, but this is now further embedded in my mind. We shouldn’t use our ‘gold standard’ digital preservation approaches for all the digital content that we are preserving. Instead we should save more resource intensive storage and processes for the high value content. Does a digital collection of lower value really require the same belt and braces digital preservation approach to your most important content or would fewer copies, less frequent fixity checking suffice?
  3. Digital preservation is about finding the right balance based on resourcing, risk and value. Again, this is really nothing new, but the environmental considerations add an extra dimension. There is no one right answer to questions such as ‘how should I preserve this content?’. It is important to make an informed decision taking all variables into account and being able to justify the approach you have taken. Environmental factors are absolutely in scope when making these decisions.
  4. Perfection isn’t always a realistic goal. Although we all want to preserve digital content as best we can (isn’t this essentially why we are here?) we don’t always need to strive for ‘best practice’. ‘Good enough’ practice is indeed often good enough! There is sometimes an assumption that everyone should aim for the top, but this is certainly not the case. Blindly following a particular model or certification standard and assuming that you need to score the highest marks for everything is not helpful. With DPC RAM we actively encourage organizations to set their own goals and target levels based on their unique situation and the needs of their collections. Many other models and frameworks may also be used in this way.
  5. Consider a ‘just in time’ approach to digital preservation rather than ‘just in case’. As mentioned by Tim Walsh in the webinar, if we migrate everything on ingest then this creates additional quantities of digital content to manage and preserve (assuming we also keep the originals). If everyone works in this way, think of the impact on the planet of storing all of this additional content (much of it larger in file size in its migrated form than the original). A ‘just in time’ approach would have us migrating content only when needed (for example if someone requests access) or in response to a perceived threat or risk.
  6. Coming to terms with acceptable levels of loss may take a while! The biggest paradigm shift for me I think would be accepting a level of loss of digital content. My instinctive reaction is to push back at this. It makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Over the years as a digital archivist the idea of keeping certain things in perpetuity is ingrained, and any loss of content feels like personal failure. However perhaps this isn’t such a leap. We already know that file migrations are mostly imperfect. Don’t we accept some level of loss every time we migrate a file from one format to another? I also remember a conversation I once had with one of the conservators at the Borthwick Institute for Archives when I worked there. She mentioned that for physical archives they don’t strive to keep everything in perfect condition forever, instead they strive to “manage the change”, accepting that the physical materials will alter over time and that they will do the best they can to mitigate, manage and document this. This idea popped back into my head in the context of acceptable loss.
  7. We need to avoid doing things just 'because we can'. This was a key takeaway point for me. We already think quite hard about what we are doing and why, but we need to do this more when we take environmental sustainability into account. Whether we are planning how much to digitise, how many copies of digital content to keep, how often integrity checking is carried out or what our migration policy is, we should have an awareness of the wider impact of our actions.

It was good to be able to discuss this topic with DPC Members and heartening to see the session so well attended and a high level of engagement. Several attendees went away with ideas for how they could do things differently in their own workplaces and others were primed to have further discussions on this topic with colleagues. I think we could have very easily filled a longer time slot or indeed run a fuller workshop on this subject.

I’d be really interested to see how the ideas raised by our speakers can be incorporated into future digital preservation projects and initiatives going forward. Perhaps we should all be doing more to ensure that the environmental impact of digital preservation is considered as a matter of course.

Of course this is not the first time that the DPC has helped to amplify some of these issues. As early as 2010 William Kilbride was part of a ‘Green Digital Preservation’ panel session at the iPres conference in Vienna and he writes about it here. We also hope that this won’t be the last time we visit this topic. Please do let us know if you would like us to facilitate more discussion (or other events/outputs) on environmentally sustainable digital preservation.*

 

 

* Note that you can do this in a formal way via our Connecting the Bits unconference, by commenting on this blog post or by continuing the #DPCeco conversation on Twitter.


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