Matthew Addis

Matthew Addis

Last updated on 18 October 2022

Matthew Addis is Chief Technology Officer at Arkivum.

One area that stood out for me at iPRES this year was the thread of climate change and environmental sustainability that weaved its way through several parts of the conference.

In the panel session called ‘”IT'S ALL IMPORTANT OF COURSE, BUT…”, which hotly debated the question of what is the most important challenge in digital preservation (costs, advocacy, and people all came high up the list, and rightly so), I think it was Keith Pendergrass, one of the authors of a seminal report on the environmental sustainability of digital preservation, who made the observation from the audience that “how to ensure content is sustained through climate collapse is perhaps the biggest challenge for preservation”.    This struck me as particularly relevant given other sessions at iPRES had talked about grass-roots collecting and archives, including in local communities and in developing countries.  It won’t be content in the national libraries that will be lost, but content in small archives like these that are hit with increasingly extreme climate events that literally destroy their very existence.  

The thread of climate change also tied in nicely with a great session on the environment that included papers from Virginia Tech (“Green Goes with Anything: Decreasing Environmental Impact of Digital Libraries at Virginia Tech”), Penn State University Libraries (“Seeking Sustainability: Developing a Modern Distributed Digital Preservation System”), and Sound and Vision (“The C02 Emissions of Storage and use of Digital Objects and Data. Exploring Climate Actions”).   Each of these looked at reducing the carbon footprint of digital preservation.  This was also the subject of my lightning talk (“Carbon Footprint of Digital Preservation”).  In the space of a day, we went from almost no published data on the quantified carbon footprint of digital preservation to having reports from multiple organisations on the subject!   It was fantastic to see Virgina Tech go on to win best paper at the conference and Sound and Vision win best poster.  

Ways to reduce carbon-footprint also popped up in several of the more technical sessions at iPRES.  For example, Euan Cochrane’s talk (“Useable Software Forever.  The Emulation as a Service Infrastructure (EaaSI) Program of Work”) on the amazing work done by the EaaSI project, where he suggested that emulation techniques have the potential to avoid the carbon footprint that comes from using computers to migrate data between formats.  Likewise, the panel I was on about using DNA for data storage (“Will DNA Form The Fabric Of Our Digital Preservation Storage? DNA Data Storage: A Panel Discussion”) also identified the potential for the low-energy requirements of DNA being a way to reduce the carbon footprint of long-term data storage. 

The theme of digital preservation and environmental sustainability of the cloud came through strongly in the excellent closing keynote by Steven Gonzalez Monserrate (“After the Cloud: Rethinking Data Ecologies through Anthropology & Speculative Fiction”) that considered the tensions between the high availability of cloud services on which we now all depend, the energy and water costs of keeping them cool, and the environmental impact that they cause including the electronic waste they generate and the carbon footprint they create.  Or, to use Steven’s more eloquent and succinct language, the Cloud is a Carbonivore!  If you get chance to watch the recording of his keynote, then it is well worth it and a highlight of the conference.  I’ve blogged before about environmental sustainability of digital preservation, including in the cloud.  I disagree that cloud is always as bad as some make out, but that still only elevates it to a lesser of all evils and the cloud remains far from an ideal solution.   The inexorable shift to doing digital preservation in the cloud means it is ever more important to develop new approaches that can help reduce the corresponding carbon footprint.  

From panels to presentations, and from posters to prizes, iPRES 2022 revealed the rapid growth and widening awareness of the issues of environmental sustainability of digital preservation.  There was lots of discussion through various lenses, including practical ways forward so everyone can do their bit.  Environmental issues are now well and truely  part of the psyche of those creating or using digital preservation technologies, services and solutions.  It would also be remiss of me not to mention that the iPRES conference itself had, for the first time, a policy on sustainability too.   Great progress on all fronts!

The carbon footprint of digital preservation is the flip-side of the climate change coin.  On the one side, climate change is a threat to digital preservation as Keith Pendergrass so rightly pointed out.  On the other side, it is beholden on those who preserve content to do so in an environmentally sustainable way.  Or, to put it more bluntly, digital preservation should not strive to keep digital content alive for future generations but at the same time destroy the very environment in which these generations will live! 

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