Ross Harvey

Ross Harvey

Last updated on 29 November 2017

Ross Harvey is Professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

Preparing a new edition of Preserving Digital Materials with Jaye Weatherburn (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) has provided the opportunity to reflect on a large body of material about digital preservation. What I have observed suggests strongly that in the future, 2017 will be considered as a watershed year for digital preservation.

Sometimes the progress of digital preservation seems to resemble a tortoise inching along. Solid foundations are in place, and the need for action is better understood, but these only brush the surface of the many, varied, and evolving challenges. Four challenges seem particularly resistant to change: managing digital preservation, especially its lack of integration into mainstream practice; funding digital preservation – there’s never enough; peopling digital preservation, there being a lack of skilled people; and making digital preservation fit—lack of scalability of digital preservation activities.

But there are positive signs. One I think is highly significant is that more people are engaging with digital preservation. New stakeholders are entering the fray: William Kilbride notes in his foreword to the new edition of Preserving Digital Materials ‘that brave but growing [group] who take upon themselves—whether by choice, statute or business need—the delivery of digital preservation on a practical basis … The digital preservation community continues to grow in diversity and in geographical range.’ This should not surprise us. As digital increasingly becomes the norm, ‘digital preservation needs to become a mainstream activity’ (William Kilbride again). In 2017 we aren’t there yet, but the signs are that we are on the way.

Some of the positive signs Jaye and I identified when writing the third edition of Preserving Digital Material (available in March 2018) are:

  • Increasing public awareness of the challenges. Even blockbuster movies, such as Rogue One in the Star Wars series, show an awareness of digital preservation – albeit imperfect, as Jon Tilbury points out.
  • The increased range of shareholders engaged with digital preservation. Since the first edition of Preserving Digital Materials was published in 2005, a much larger number of stakeholders are participating in digital preservation, including individuals who are realising that their personal digital assets need attention if they are to be accessible in future years.
  • The active participation of new stakeholders. An example is the response of scientists and other individuals not normally involved with web archiving to the increasing concern that the political and social memory is being falsified through forging or deleting websites. This has been very obvious with the advent of the Trump administration in the U.S. at the start of 2017, where the fears of widespread deletion of websites that presented research counter to the new administration’s beliefs have been realised. Another example is the growth of community-based participatory archiving, such as the Black Lives Matter
  • For the first time, we have a choice of viable commercial digital preservation systems.
  • There is increasing corporate awareness about the threats posed by digital preservation.

Chapter 10 of each edition of Preserving Digital Material (2005, 2012, 2018) has the title ‘Challenges for the Future’. Comparing the 2005 and 2012 of challenges shows there are many in common, but there are also differences that indicate how our understandings and experience have developed, and suggest how our concerns have shifted. Four challenges appear to be intractable and continue into the 2018 list:

  • Managing digital preservation, especially its lack of integration into mainstream practice
  • Funding digital preservation, noting the need for sustainability, lack of firm costing data, and research activity into costings
  • Peopling digital preservation, noting the ongoing lack of expertise in digital preservation, efforts to identify appropriate skill sets, and education opportunities
  • Making digital preservation fit, noting the lack of scalability of digital preservation activities from large well-resourced institutions down to small organisations and

But despite the many challenges, some apparently intransigent, digital preservation is still urgent, pressing, demanding new approaches and new ways of addressing its challenges. We need to consider different pathways so that digital preservation is embedded into business as usual. I am optimistic, more so than in any year I can recall since 2005, that in 2017 there are now a significant mass of people with the need and the energy to address digital preservation, and the tools to make a real difference.

Jaye and I have sought to contribute to the discussion about digital preservation by taking a look at the situation in 2017, synthesising what we found, and writing a book about it. We hope you take a look at the third edition of Preserving Digital Materials, out in March 2018.

Scroll to top