Justin Simpson

Justin Simpson

Last updated on 9 November 2020

Justin Simpson is the Managing Director of Artefactual Systems.

Digital preservation can be a hard sell. Institutions may recognize the need. Many do not adequately prioritise the work.  The return on investment for digital preservation efforts is difficult to quantify, and not achievable in a short time span.  

We will not convince the world of the importance of this work in financial terms alone.  While the practice of digital preservation can be understood as a business practice, I believe a more profitable framing is to consider the work of preserving and providing access to cultural memory as a practice of care.

Bernice Fisher and Joan Tronto describe caring as ‘… a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible.’ [1]

This definition describes the work of caring for cultural memory just as well as it describes healthcare, or childcare, or the many other forms of caregiving.  The work of caring, of all kinds, is generally undervalued, and often invisible.  Our conversations about how to provide, for example, healthcare, are often restricted to purely financial concerns. Caring is then turned into a commodity for profit making, at the expense of the real value that caregiving creates.

Digital preservation practitioners are attentive to the need for preservation and choose to take on responsibility to attend to that need. Their labour, like the labour of most caregivers, is undervalued. The work itself is often invisible, not conceived of by producers of digital records, and not seen by those that will eventually benefit from access to trustworthy evidence of the past. 

Regardless, these practitioners have and continue to do extraordinary work. The problem would be much worse otherwise.  They are aware of the predicament, but that does not stop them from trying, and to a wonderful degree, succeeding.  I believe the most fundamental reason that practitioners can succeed, indeed that they continue at all in the face of such trying times and circumstances, is because they care.

Caring produces conditions of possibility, to paraphrase Clémence Pinel [2].  We do not know what a child will go on to do, when they are old enough to care for themselves. We do not make a business case for the return on investment, at the time we provide care. We want only to make sure they have choices, that they have potential to act in the future.  

Similarly, it is impossible to predict exactly what use a future researcher or citizen will make of preserved records. We only need to understand that the future potential far outweighs the current cost of providing that care.

Carrie Friese asserts that “… care is a potentializing practice.  Indeed, the everyday idiom of potential denotes the idea that a kernel of ability or talent must be nurtured, or cared for, if it is to be actualized in practice”. [3]

Seen in this way, it is easier to understand that caring is not just an economic issue.  We can innovate to find new ways of practicing care that are more productive. We can use technology to greatly enhance care work. We cannot, however, build a machine to raise our children for us, with no effort or thought from the parents. Trust me, as the father of four, the thought has crossed my mind.

Caring is an ethical concern.  Tronto also points out that every person is both a giver and a receiver of care [4].  We all need to be cared for, and we all need to provide care, to have a meaningful life of any kind. The relationship between care giver and care receiver does not need to be reciprocal, but it is a relationship, nonetheless. 

Caring for cultural memory is necessary to maintain, continue, and repair our cultures, our societies.  It makes possible better futures.  Even when the work of caring for digital records is invisible, it is valuable. 

By recognizing this work on World Digital Preservation Day, we make it more visible. This is what I will be celebrating today.  To all of you who care for cultural memory in our digital age, thank you, for your work, and for the example of caring you set. The world needs both, now more than ever. 


[1] Fisher, Bernice, and Joan C. Tronto. Toward a Feminist Theory of Care. In Circles of Care: Work and Identity in Women’s Lives, edited by Emily K. Abel and Margaret K. Nelson. State University of New York Press, 1990.

[2] Pinel C, Prainsack B, McKevitt C. Caring for data: Value creation in a data-intensive research laboratory. Social Studies of Science. 2020;50(2):175-197. doi:10.1177/0306312720906567

[3] Friese, Carrie Realizing Potential in Translational Medicine: The Uncanny Emergence of Care as Science. Current Anthropology. 2013;54(7):129–138 doi:10.1086/670805

[4] The Minnesota Broadcasters Association. A Discussion of Care. Access Minnesota: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-utAjZ_obc

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