Jon Tilbury

Jon Tilbury

Last updated on 3 November 2021

Jon Tilbury is Chief Innovation Officer at Preservica

Institutions and individuals working in Digital Preservation are rightly concerned about the long-term sustainability of the technology or service providers they trust to look after their material. However, the meaning of “sustainability” is much broader than often appreciated.

Having worked in Digital Preservation for over two decades and built a successful and growing Digital Preservation business, I felt it was useful to look back and review how sustainability was achieved and what it means to ensure it continues long into the future.

If you are new to Digital Preservation or have a long-established program here are four questions you might like to ask when thinking about long-term sustainability.

Four questions to ask when thinking about the long-term sustainability of your digital content:

1. Is the software sustainable?

The first thing that is often discussed when sustainability is raised is “is the software Open Source”. However, Open Source is only one way of ensuring long-term support and can create a false sense of security since there is much more to making a success of a digital preservation system than just getting a copy of the code. At Preservica we recognize this and have gone down the escrow route – i.e. the source code is deposited with professional escrow services and also selected national archives customers to ensure if we disappear the code is still available to those that want it. Both provide the comfort of knowing that if the panic button is hit the source code is available.

2. Is the data sustainable?

A more relevant challenge in Digital Preservation is data sustainability. If you wish to change providers for whatever reason can you get hold of all the digital files, descriptive metadata, structure, and audit trails that would enable the database to be rebuilt elsewhere? We have created our “Open Preservation Exchange” protocols to do just that – all information can be provided in its entirety in a way that is human and machine readable and transferred elsewhere. Any responsible Digital Preservation provider needs to be fully aware that they are only a custodian of their customers’ data.

3. Does your provider have a sustainable spread of skills and expertise?

Real sustainability has many more dimension than just software and data exchanges – and much of it is built on people. Many businesses achieve early growth through the intellectual abilities of a very few people on which the company’s success depends. True sustainability comes from recognising the risks of this situation and putting in place a wide-ranging team of experts that spreads and shares critical knowledge to ensure there is no single point of failure. From a personal perspective, this has been hard – like everybody I pride myself in thinking I can contribute all over the company - so it has been important for me to park my ego and ensure the team we have built at Preservica is able to contribute in new ways as well as continually develop their knowledge and experience in Digital Preservation.  It is even harder to acknowledge they can do it better than I did!  

4. Is your provider financially sustainable?

Perhaps the most important aspect of sustainability is the one rarely discussed. To be confident of delivering services into the future your chosen provider must also be sustainable. The sad end of the Digital Preservation Network (DPN) shows us that this isn’t just about abstract things like ownership models and source code, it’s about ensuring the provider has a long-term financially sustainable business model.

This may require initial investment commitments, whether grant-funded or from commercial investors, but most importantly it demands prudent financial risk management and a long-term revenue model. At Preservica we are very careful to balance investment and growth with long-term profitability. With over 1000 organisations now using the system, we are not subject to a few customers choosing to leave us and can be confident of being able to predict our future finances with a degree of confidence.

Having financial sustainability also allows a provider to re-invest in product and service enhancements. Preservica, for example, tries to have 75% of the business involved in product design, development and support which means customers can be confident in ever-improving digital preservation capabilities.

Having seen Preserivca formed from initial research projects and creating custom data stores into a successful and sustainable Digital Preservation company is a source of great pride to me.

It means more and more organisations can trust digital preservation as a future-proof sector that will continue to deliver long into the future - one that will outlive the contributions of some of the early pioneers, like myself.

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