William Kilbride

William Kilbride

Last updated on 4 November 2020

The theme for World Digital Preservation Day (5th November if you hadn’t noticed) is Digits: For Good.

I have improvised the punctuation in my title to look like the old DOS prompt, suggesting crudely that ‘Digits’ are the configured infrastructure which makes everything (anything) possible and ‘For Good’ is the routine we execute: ‘Digits’ as the universal virtual machine: ‘For Good’ our programmatic but achievable goal.

I like the theme this year, not just because it tells me that World Digital Preservation Day is mature and ambitious enough to carry a theme greater than the simple ‘connect and communicate’ of previous years. I like it because there’s a double meaning and both of them seem fitting: digits for ‘ever’ and digits for ‘better’.

It’s no surprise that the digital preservation community is interested in the ‘forever’ bit, even if we usually pivot to something shorter than forever. Mostly we don’t mean to keep digits for ever, and mostly we wouldn’t promise it either. It is perhaps less obvious that digital preservation is also for the common good and perhaps it’s time to put that right. This year’s theme reminds me that we don’t do digital preservation for the sake of the bits and bytes: it’s not ‘good for the digits’. We do it because of real world impacts we can have with the digits that we work for. That means we dive deep into file formats and fixity and storage and such, but you’d be wrong if you thought that was also our purpose. Here we are geeking out about representation information and all the while digital preservation helps deliver healthier, wealthier, safer, smarter, greener, more creative and more transparent agencies, communities and individuals: goals which we wouldn’t be able to achieve, or perhaps even imagine, without access to a trusted and secure digital legacy. This year’s theme encourages a reflection on human aspects of digital preservation: the labour that makes it possible and the aspiration that makes it desirable.

We’ve long known that there’s more than technology at play in digital preservation. Whether Nancy McGovern’s three-legged stool, or the Blue Ribbon Task Force or the DigCurV Framework or the Curation Costs Exchange – there is a continuing recognition that technology alone cannot save us. Digital preservation is a socio-technical problem: if all we can offer is a technological solution, we will never fully solve the problem.

So how do we make progress? We make progress by working together. That’s the vague answer to the equally vague question. But how? World Digital Preservation Day gives us a chance to share our successes, not least through the Digital Preservation Awards which will be announced shortly.

If you’ve not already seen the videos where the finalists present their work, then let me encourage you to set aside some time to do so. The Awards have been a wonderful feature of the DPC’s work since the first award in 2004. By the way, if you wonder why the photos from that ceremony look so grainy it’s not through the failure of any preservation system. Just remember how high-resolution digital photography has changed since 2004.

This year we had planned a wonderful ceremony hosted by colleagues at the Bibliotheque national de Luxembourg and of course those plans have been shelved in favour of an online presentation. I do enjoy the excitement of the ceremony, but I know that, at least from my perspective, the ceremony can obscure the real story of good practice which the awards are all about. Behind the razzmatazz there is understated but extraordinary progress against complex challenges with limited resources. This year, the paired down ceremony means we can focus much more deeply on the good practice; and we can all do that without the expenses and challenges of travel. There are no excuses for not getting involved in the celebration this year.

World Digital Preservation Day also allows us to articulate new and emerging challenges. Let’s face it 2020 has been a year more marked by responses to challenge than causes for celebration.

This is most obvious in the 2020 edition of the Global List of Digitally Endangered Species, also known as the BitList. The BitList is published on a two-year cycle that alternates between new edition and minor revision. 2020 sees minor revisions so there are no new entries this year, nor have any of the previous classifications or entries changed. Instead the DPC team has reviewed the list top to bottom and added some thoughts about trends of increasing or reducing risk. Several aspects of this review deserve attention.

Firstly, despite the heroic efforts of the digital preservation community, there is little or no discernible trend towards reduced risk in 2020; in fact the circumstances of the Covid19 Pandemic and the political and economic volatilities of the year have pushed seventeen items on the list towards greater risk. Only one entry is clearly trending towards reduced risk.

2020 made the community more precarious too. The economic impact of the pandemic as well as more localized political disruptions have introduced significant new levels of uncertainty across re-search, innovation, investment and procurement. Decisions have stalled and in many contexts funds diverted to crisis management. A number of institutions have introduced early release schemes meaning established digital experts are retiring while others face redundancy. At the same time, short-term contracts may not be renewed as institutional budgets are squeezed or expenditure deferred. We face rising challenges with less capacity.

Nonetheless, case studies of good practice continue to demonstrate what can be achieved when research and innovation are encouraged. Digital preservation is challenging but tractable. The pandemic has only served to underline the material, urgent and ubiquitous importance of preservation. This is most obvious in the context of those many agencies capturing the record of the pandemic, whether for scientific purposes or for cultural memory.

That importance also emerges from the long history of virology. How many times have we been told that we live in unprecedented times? It’s simply not true as anyone who survived the Spanish flu epidemic would testify. Pandemics are entirely precedented but they’re also at the very limit of living memory and have been marginalized in our discourse and experience. We’ve never needed more to foreground the history of resilience and healing in the face of widespread suffering. Let me expand that earlier comment: 2020 shows that digital preservation is challenging and tractable and essential.

Although the overall prognosis points to increased risk, there something to celebrate that the risks have not increased more. Despite the gloom there are solid grounds for optimism. There has been considerable investment and interest in skills and advocacy in 2020, as well as significant targeted research. Consequently, as the risks are increasing, so is the latent capability for preservation.

Not only has our capability expanded, but the digital preservation community has continued to grow in size and diversity through and in some cases because of the pandemic. For me this is most obvious in the growth of the DPC which crossed the milestone of one hundred members in March and crossed the equator too with a new office in Melbourne and new members in South Africa. But there are other measures of growth beyond my narrow horizons which will be evident today, such as the inclusion and enthusiasm evident in #WeMissIPres which saw over 100 short presentations over three different time zones and around 1500 registrations: and perhaps more importantly participation on a truly global scale.

In the final analysis, the BitList is about risks in our immediate future not a prophecy of predetermination. It matters less that the risks exists; it matter more what we choose to do about them.
That brings me back to the start. How do we measure our risks or successes? If we’re only concerned with risks to bits and bytes without some concern for how they will be used then we’re never going to succeed. Nor are our successes measured in terabytes or years but in real world impacts which would have been lost. Digital preservation is a global challenge and it is a human project.

World Digital Preservation Day implies looking up from our workflows and toolkits to put our efforts on a wider screen and a larger stage - quite literally in some cases. What messages are we sending to colleagues and peers the world over? Are we, once and for all, moving towards people and their real-world goals? Are our efforts oriented towards wellbeing, or transparency or insight or justice or the common good as much as they are to the future? And if not, how do we fix that? If not now, when?

For better or for worse, these digits should be for good.


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