William Kilbride

William Kilbride

Last updated on 8 November 2019

The Sun has now set on another World Digital Preservation Day: it’s been down for a while already and this post is really a late echo. But universal laws of motion tell me that the Sun doesn’t rise or set. It’s the Earth that rises.

2019 is, of course, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 (and the less celebrated but altogether more joyous Apollo 12), travelling ‘in peace for all mankind’. For a moment people in every continent cheered as a man called Armstrong walked upon the moon. At one point in lunar orbit, Michael Collins could look back towards the Earth (as Dick Gordon could do a few months later) and hold in a single view the entire human family. It’s the ringside seat of all time: to spectate as our tiny planet spins through the blackness of space, sustaining the entire freight of human history.

There are some familiar digital preservation stories from those early years of space exploration: whether the loss of the raw slow scan television and telemetry data from Apollo 11 – the high resolution original from which the grainy TV pictures were derived – or the failure of the colour TV camera on Apollo 12 which Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean burnt out by inadvertently pointing it directly at the sun. In fact, a lot of the digital preservation practice on display in the last few hours originates in data management for space exploration. It’s perhaps not surprising that so much of our digital preservation vocabulary sounds so odd when compared to more familiar language of libraries and archives. It is quite literally alien: it needs brought down to Earth. And that’s what we’ve all be doing in the last thirty-six hours.

This year we gave World Digital Preservation Day a special theme focussing on ‘At Risk Digital Materials’. Goodness only knows we have no shortage of that. A rousing round of applause is owed to our colleagues in Australia who showcased what we need to do to look after the ‘Bits and Bytes’ and our hope that bitrot ain’t contagious.

The reasons for World Digital Preservation Day remain the same as they were when we established it: to connect the global digital preservation community and to raise awareness about our work. I am going to put a large tick in each box, even if it’s too early for me to report in detail. We have counted six thousand tweets, a hundred or more blog posts and dozens of events. The logo is in 31 languages now and there have been activities in and blogs from 25 countries that we know of. We have identified ten cakes, four songs, one choir, a playlist and a radio show. I am sure there will have been more. There was so much to enjoy that we’re already fielding calls to make World Digital Preservation Day into World Digital Preservation Week.

It’s invidious to pick out highlights too early, because there’s so much more I need to digest. But perhaps I can mention a few things that might not have been so obvious. I think this is first time that we heard from colleagues in Benin and I am thrilled that colleagues in South Dakota translated the logo into Lakota, one of language of the native American tribes represented in the state archives. I also am tremendously encouraged to hear that digital preservation featured prominently in a careers fair for teenagers in a high school not far from here. The DPC’s Advocacy and Community Engagement Sub-Committee asked us to establish World Digital Peservation Day as a way to extend our reach a little. We’ve gone a little further than 500 miles: I am not sure we quite understood what we were about to unleash upon the Earth.

What can we learn from this about digital preservation as a practice and community? One comment particularly struck home for me, from Millard Schisler who leads a digital preservation effort in Brazil: If you can’t start big, start small. I could not agree more. For sure there is a need for national and international programmes; for strategic investment and infrastructural development. No one is going to turn those down. But World Digital Preservation Day this year seems to have been about communities making their own digital spaces more robust and more sustainable. And that means a lot of small steps which, when taken together, represent a great movement. If you want to walk on the moon, first learn to walk.

Let’s take a moment to thank all of those who made it possible.

I am immensely grateful to the members of the DPC who encourage, support, direct and fund our work. It’s invidious to pick out individuals, but the Advocacy and Communications Sub-Committee deserve particular credit for shaping and guiding this work (Herve L’Hours, Edith Halvarsson, Paul Stokes, Kirsty Lingstadt, Matilda Knowler, Adam Harwood and Lee Hibberd, and chaired by Jane Winters). I am also grateful to our DPC Supporters who, through the DPC's Career Development Fund, invest so much in the next generation of digital preservation specialists and practitioners.

As ever we have been encouraged by our wonderful partners in Netwerk Digitaal Erfgoed as well as OPF, NDSA, nestor and IIPC without whom no DPC activity would be quite as much fun nor quite as impactful. There was a considerable amount of personal effort, not least from the many friends who generously translated our logo into so many languages as well as the bloggers, the bakers, the knitters, the dancers, the (would-be) singers and the (never-be) songwriters who used their talents to focus attention on vital but uncelebrated preservation efforts. These are too many to name, but you know who you are. For my part, I am honoured to be part of such a welcoming community which rightly takes pride in its work.

There's also the DPC's incredible staff team, growing in number but also in capability and stature each year. We focus our efforts on our members and supporters and in that way we work to ensure that real issues of digital preservation are at the heart of our work. In order to do that, we maintain a working principle that 'we are not the story'. But I hope you will indulge a brief and well-deserved moment in the spotlight. Alyson Campbell, Sharon McMeekin, Sarah Middleton, Jenny Mitcham, Sara Thomson and Paul Wheatley: I am privileged to work with you. Our Coalition – and the whole of our community - benefits from your energy, skill and generosity. They are the best colleagues one could hope for. And by the way, if you’re up for the challenge, we’re advertising for a new administrative officer just now.

To conclude, I am pretty sure Michael Collins would have seen World Digital Preservation Day from the other side of the Moon. Pete Conrad, the diminutive commander of Apollo 12 quipped when he stepped on the moon ‘that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me’. On WDPD+1 it doesn’t matter so much if you perceive your steps to be big or small or fast or slow. Be encouraged that all steps are welcome and every single one of them will be cheered by colleagues in every continent around the world.

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