William Kilbride

William Kilbride

Last updated on 3 November 2021

It’s my pleasure to announce the official start of World Digital Preservation Day.

It’s both welcome and surprising to realise that we’re now onto our fifth annual event.  In the first couple of years, the simple purpose of connecting people and raising awareness about our work was sufficient.  Even that seemed ludicrously ambitious in 2017.  This year’s theme – Breaking Down Barriers – represents a new confidence, and perhaps a new urgency too. It’s a call to action. It’s a challenge to do something with those connections and insights that we’ve gained in the last four years.  We’ve connected with colleagues around the world and formed those relationships and in 2021 we move forward together.

There’s no shortage of ambition here, but let’s be honest, there’s a need for ambition. There are enough barriers to be broken down.  We’re used to thinking about digital preservation as the intersection of technology, resources and organization. There are barriers to all three of these, and the scale of the challenge only seems to grow.

Now, almost twenty years on from the workshops that established the DPC, too many institutions and too many Chief Technology Officers have still to wrap their heads around the idea that there’s more to preservation than storage. Even those who get the point are mostly still thinking in terms of files, while enthusiastically migrating their line of business systems to the cloud, where canonical software releases and self-contained bitstreams are a chimera.  The continuing evolution of new technologies mean that the technology part of the digital preservation puzzle is never really fixed; Or, if it is fixed, it doesn’t stay fixed for very long.  If this were a movie franchise it might be The Godfather trilogy: that ‘just when you thought it was sorted, the technology companies pull you back in.’

Digital preservation is a socio-technical problem and if all we bring to it is technology then our solutions will never be sufficient. Arguably organizational readiness and willingness are the key to real progress. 

The DPC’s main contribution to World Digital Preservation Day this year is the 3rd Edition of The BitList: The Global List of Digitally Endangered Species. This will be released at 1200 UK time, so I don’t want to give too many spoilers ahead of time: but it’s a useful tool to think about the barriers to digital preservation. As often as not, at risk content finds its way onto the list not because of the technology but because there’s uncertainty around a mandate, or the agencies who should be looking after the content are not geared up to the challenge.  A number of entries will move down the list this year because the technology to enable preservation is more robust, and a few entries will move up the list which we do know how to preserve but simply lack the coherent policy framework or dedicated staff necessary to deploy those tools.  One of the frustrating aspects of digital preservation is that, in truth most of it is solvable and mostly solved somewhere already. To summarize: digital preservation isn’t an app, it’s a commitment, and the failure to make the commitment is perhaps the biggest barrier we face.

There are also barriers we set ourselves.  Digital preservation is ready-made for collaboration which in turn encourages us to challenge organizational and professional boundaries as well as international ones.  The DPC has long recognized that digital preservation is a global challenge, so building a coalition scaled to the challenge means breaking out of the UK and Ireland where we were founded, learning from best practice around the world, and amplifying to every corner.  There’s no UK solution to digital preservation, but nor is there an ‘archive’, ‘library’, ‘record manager’ or ‘computing science’ solution: all of these and more need to work together.  And no one institution is equipped to solve digital preservation without reference to the rest of the world: shared infrastructure, distributed storage, registries of tools and services emerge as obvious loci for institutional interdependence.  So the programme of World Digital Preservation Day challenges us to look beyond our own familiar domains and recognize the subtle, often self-imposed barriers to learning and co-operation

Grappling with Obsolescence

World Digital Preservation Day this year occurs in the context of a major effort to recalibrate and intensify efforts to address climate change. A mile or so down the road from me here in Glasgow world leaders at COP26 are working through the cause and consequences of the climate crisis, and debating plans, if there are any, to avert the ensuing human calamity.  It’s hard to imagine anything more important and I sincerely hope that delegates there have no shortage of ambition.  It may seem strange to be talking about digital preservation while such great matters are at stake, but the roots of our challenge are tangled with the roots of the bigger one. 

Although you can certainly find earlier examples, digital preservation really emerged in the mid-1990s in response to the widespread move from analogue to digital, brought about by the home computer and then the Internet.  Although we spend a lot of time resolving issues of technology and meaning-making, the origins and causes of digital preservation are really entwined with the social and economic forces that have propelled the digital shift.  Digital preservation is symptomatic of the accelerating cycles of innovation, adoption and disruption which have characterized information technology in the last fifty years. Market forces mean we are locked – we have locked ourselves - into short lifecycles of technology, where obsolescence is taken for granted and infrastructures are disposable. One might be tempted to call this obsolescence as a service; it’s just not clear whom the obsolescence serves. I sometimes think of digital preservation as an insurgency against the deeply embedded economic forces which sit behind technology: a kind of obsolescence rebellion against non-renewable consumption.  A pivot to sustainable long-term business models in the technology sector could alter that in favour of the future.  As with digital preservation, so with the climate crisis: short term thinking serves no one in the long term. The best long-term answer, the only one which will ultimately succeed, will be to make obsolescence obsolete.

Onward into light

From sunrise in Kiribati to sunset in Samoa, these few hours of World Digital Preservation Day give us an opportunity to showcase and extend global efforts in this necessary, overdue, and shared task. A very warm welcome, therefore, to World Digital Preservation Day 2021 wherever you are; a word of encouragement; and a promise of vocal support as together we break down the barriers to digital preservation.

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