Emily Clarke

Emily Clarke

Last updated on 31 October 2023

Emily Clarke is Digitisation Lead at Monash University Library. She attended the iPRES 2023 Conference with support from the DPC Career Development Fund, which is funded by DPC Supporters.

As a first-time attendee to iPRES, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I don’t have a background in the technical aspects of digital preservation. I am not a digital preservationist. What was waiting for me in Champaign, Illinois? My concerns that I would be overwhelmed by technical jargon, foreign concepts, and subtle specificity were not to be met. In this blog, I reflect on some of what I learned from the iPRES 2023 conference, particularly how it connects to this year’s WDPD theme of ‘A Concerted Effort’: The importance of a holistic view of digital preservation, and what are we actually doing it for?

The conference program had a range of focuses for the beginner to the advanced, so all were well catered for. But what stood out for me most was a strong theme throughout that everyone working in preservation spaces could benefit from hearing. The theme of iPRES this year was ‘Digital Preservation in Disruptive Times’, but the addressing of this in conference wasn’t that of what life-jacket or tool is needed but rather a broader question of what are we preserving for?

Each keynote speaker at this year's conference was focused on the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’ - the significance of a big picture overview. Sherry Williams, Founder and President of the Bronzeville / Black Chicagoan Historical Society spoke on the importance of involving community organisations, Ricardo Punzalan, of the University of Michigan followed on decolonising archives and reparative actions, and Quinn Dombrowski shone a light on the collective grass-roots effort of the Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO) project.  Because what can be truly disruptive to our cultural heritage is losing sight of purpose and ignoring important voices.

It is fundamental to the core of humanity to want to preserve something of ourselves. At this point in time we are facing multiple crises of wholesale destruction of culture worldwide, and worse, mass loss of human life.

I’m sure most people when faced with a burning Louvre would first save people over the Mona Lisa. What would be the point of saving something that is a symbol of human artistic expression and reception for there to be no-one to view it?

Are we pursuing preservation for some imagined post-apocalyptic future? Of course it is a comforting feeling to think of future versions of ourselves connecting to (our/their) heritage and perhaps being comforted by it. But preservation is a now-task. We must view preservation as achieving both long and short-term goals.

Again, no one is going to lock up the Mona Lisa for a 100 years to ensure it will be enjoyed in the future, it is to be enjoyed now and its preservation focuses on it being accessible now to everyone. Why shouldn’t our own collections be treated the same?

This is all the more important for collections that belong to people who have been traditionally excluded from their own heritage in the traditional ‘institutions of learning’ of museums, libraries, galleries, and universities. Heritage held within is often through a lens of conquest, exoticism, or that of patronising scientific curiosity.

The importance of an immediate and active role in cultural heritage really hit home for me after the iPres conference, in the wake of the No vote on Australia’s Indigenous Voice referendum.

Amongst many emotions, it felt like a betrayal of recognition of Indigenous people and their struggles, the importance of their identity, a rejection of their cultural heritage as immediately fundamental to Australia. It’s as if a museum took their Indigenous display, stuffed it in a box, and put it out of sight, because they don’t want to deal with it now - or possibly ever.

So we as cultural institutions must be active, no longer responsive. We must not only acknowledge, but formalise that our cultural collections are not curios, but instead belong to Community.

If we aren’t returning ownership we must make them accessible to the people they truly belong to, if we hold on to them it is on their behalf, with their consent, anything less is appropriation.

I’m brought to mind of how The Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative defines a 3Cs rule for “ethical engagement in co-design and collaborations with Indigenous people and local communities’.

The 3Cs stand for: Consent (Free, Prior and Informed Consent of the craftsperson, indigenous or local community), Credit (acknowledgement of the source community and inspiration) and Compensation (monetary or non-monetary). Those are three steps any institution can take to address the appropriative legacy and ongoing practice of heritage collections.

We must practise affirmative access. In the simplest, practical terms we must remove any barriers from a community to their cultural collections. Consult with your represented communities, ensure that you are giving them an active role in the archive. Remove pay barriers, ensure people can contribute to active collections, address the language of archives, and other harmful practices that have not only existed in the past but are happening now. Ask for permission, give credit, and give back.

If you listen no one is asking for your guilt, or your platitudes. Simply listen and do what is asked of you. We must all remember that If you take pride in the past you must also take responsibility.


The Career Development Fund is sponsored by the DPC’s Supporters who recognize the benefit and seek to support a connected and trained digital preservation workforce. We gratefully acknowledge their financial support to this programme and ask applicants to acknowledge that support in any communications that result. At the time of writing, the Career Development Fund is supported by Arkivum, Artefactual Systems Inc., AVP, boxxe, Ex Libris, Iron Mountain, Libnova, Max Communications, Preservica, Simon P Wilson, and Twist Bioscience. A full list of supporters is online here.

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