William Kilbride

William Kilbride

Last updated on 4 November 2021

There’s a paradox about World Digital Preservation Day this year.  2021 might well be marked as the year of the great deletion.  Barely a day has passed without a news story about some curious deletion or obfuscation which has inhibited prosecution, denied transparency, disrupted science or defeated accountability.  And yet, the digital preservation community has grown in number and in skills over this same period.  What’s going on?  How can both of these statements be true at the same time?  The BitList provides something of an answer: that capability is ahead of policy.

Digitally Endangered

The initial plan for the BitList was a biennial review alternating with the Digital Preservation Awards, and so it’s a pleasure to be able to share some thoughts about the most recent iteration of the list – the third complete edition since its initial publication in 2017. It builds on the work of previous BitList juries, in particular the comprehensive review in 2019 and the commentary added in 2020.

Perhaps more importantly, the list has had a dedicated member of staff working on it for the first time, meaning that greater focus and greater energy have been available than in any previous round. Much of the thanks and credit for the BitList are due to Dr Amy Currie who has been seconded to the BitList – one might even say chained to it – from the outset.

As usual, entries on The BitList 2021 were invited from the global digital preservation community and were assessed by a jury panel of experts drawn the DPC’s Advocacy and Community Engagement Sub-Committee, chaired by Paul Stokes. The review process took place from June to November 2021, and in one form or another, passed through seven stages of reflection and debate.  The result is a typically extensive but not exhaustive list of digital materials at risk.

New Entries

New entries are always eye-catching. Two new entries made it onto the list through the open online nomination process: ‘Virtual Reality Materials and Experiences’ was classified as Endangered and ‘Smart Phone Gaming’ as Critically Endangered. These new entries bring to attention their historical and cultural significance but, more importantly, the complexity and interconnectedness of their various technologies that make their preservation challenging, and the impact of loss to access to them for wide-ranging uses across many sectors.

Increasing Risk Trends and Classifications

The context for digital preservation – as for much else – has been dramatically disrupted by the Coronavirus Pandemic, social and political unrest, and changing global climate calls for action. The BitList 2020 report observed how, despite the heroic efforts of the digital preservation community, there was a noticeable trend towards increased risk in 2020. That trend has continued into 2021. Circumstances relating to the Covid pandemic and continued political and economic volatilities over the last year have impacted many entries. The Jury identified 36 items on The BitList 2021 where there is a trend towards greater risk—compared with 17 in 2020.  In 7 cases, the trend was so marked that the Jury was settled on a higher risk classification.

The most eye-catching change, and perhaps also the most long-anticipated, was the revision to ‘Adobe Flash Animations and Interactive Applets’ which changes from Critically Endangered to Practically Extinct. 

Flash represents a significant amount of the creativity of websites in the early 2000s including net-based art and cartoons.  It enabled the sophisticated interaction at low cost over the web but had a chequered history in terms of browser support and security. It was added to the BitList in 2019 based on Adobe’s announcement that it would withdraw support to Flash Animation. Support has since been withdrawn and so the panel has agreed to reclassify Flash as Practically Extinct.  It is a case study in how popular and widely used formats and applications can fade, taking content with them.

The other changes are no less important, even if the changes are more modest:

  • ‘Consumer Social Media Free at the Point of Use’ changed from Endangered to Critically Endangered

  • ‘Records of Quasi Non-Governmental Agencies’ changed from Endangered to Critically Endangered

  • ‘Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming Platforms and Experiences’ changed from Endangered to Critically Endangered

  • ‘Supporting Digital Materials for Museums’ (formerly ‘Digital Materials in Museums and Galleries’) changed from Endangered to Critically Endangered

  • ‘Content on Cloud Video Services Produced by the Service Provider’ changed from Vulnerable to Endangered

  • ‘Digital Recordings Published via Cloud-based Music Sharing Platforms’ changed from Vulnerable to Endangered

No Digital Dark Age

It’s not all bad news. One of the reasons behind the BitList was also to draw attention to successes as much as risks, and thus allow a more nuanced assessment of digital preservation risks, setting aside the overblown ‘Digital Dark Age’ rhetoric which does still grab attention but is often over-blown and ultimately also self-defeating.  So it’s pleasing to share good news: Eleven entries had a trend towards reduced risk (compared to one in 2020), with one changing to a Lower Risk classification.

One significant change for the good relates to the entry pertaining to Teletext.  This had been classified as Practically Extinct but in 2021 is designated as Critically Endangered. The jury was pleased to acknowledge a number of important developments in the field. A trend towards decreased risk was noted in 2020, based on live-capture of broadcast output at the BBC and British Film Institute, and teletext graphics characters were added to the Universal Coded Character Set, making it easier to transmit and archive teletext and legacy computer graphics for archiving and preservation. In light of these developments and active research and recovery efforts by hobbyist and professional groups, the Jury supported a change from the Practically Extinct to Critically Endangered classification.

This is only one good news story: there are ten further entries where the Jury noted a trend towards less risk.

Revisions in Scope and Clarity

One consequence of the greater attention to detail has been a reduction in the total number of entries which has dropped marginally from 73 compared to 74.

This is not to say there are fewer items at risk. Instead, more focussed editorial and assessment has refined entries. ‘Cloud-based Services and Communications Platforms’ was formed from two previous entries of ‘Consumer cloud-based utilities’ and ‘Premium or institutional social media services. The previous entry, ‘Born Digital Images Held Offline on Portable Storage Devices’, applied to any number of portable storage media devices and could easily be overlooked in that respect. Therefore, it was moved from a standalone entry in the list to become a case study of the risks of portable media.  Similarly, ‘Maritime Archaeological Archives’ and ‘Geomagnetic Data and Software,’ are now examples under the broader grouping of research outputs to better illustrate how research data is complex and has specific requirements for documentation that may only be known to subject matter experts.

Conversely, the Jury review resulted in the disaggregation of one entry into two subset entries. The 2019 ‘Proceedings and Evidence in Court,’ a single entry in 2020, is now represented by two entries: ‘Proceedings in Court’ and ‘Evidence in Court,’ which are related but have different risk profiles requiring similar but distinct preservation actions.

In a number of other cases, entries were reframed either to become broader or narrower in scope. The previous ‘Unpublished Research Data from US Govt Researchers’ broadened to include those in various national contexts (now titled ‘Unpublished Research Data from Government Researchers’); ‘Digital Materials in Museums and Galleries’ was narrowed in scope to emphasize supporting materials within Museums and Galleries with higher risk profiles (now titled ‘Supporting Digital Materials for Museums and Galleries,’); and 'Offline Gaming' has been revised to address aggravating conditions and higher risk profiles for offline games which are old or non-current (now titled 'Old or Non-current Offline Games and Gaming').

The hope is that these additions and revisions presented in The BitList 2021—both good and bad—better reflect the significance of content and impact of loss for the materials at the present time and prompt a further call to action for them to remain viable.

Breaking Down Barriers to Preservation

2021 might well be marked as the year of the great deletion.  Barely a day has passed without a news story about some curious deletion or obfuscation which has inhibited prosecution, denied transparency, disrupted science or defeated accountability.  A striking, if discouraging feature of the BitList has been that technology turns out not to be the most significant challenge we face.  It’s not that the technology is easy, but the issues of obsolescence, degradation and representation are at least tractable.  In far too many cases, the technology for preservation has overtaken the policy frameworks and institutional capacity that are needed.

As in previous years, The BitList 2021 is a call to arms, to address the real barriers which prevent digital preservation. If 2021 was the year of the great deletion, 2022 might yet be the year of the deletion rebellion.

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