William Kilbride

William Kilbride

Last updated on 5 November 2021

I had the happy task of opening World Digital Preservation Day about 40 hours ago: but I get the fuzzy end of the lollipop too. Today I have to encourage you back to work. Those Excel spreadsheets aren’t going to screw up the date columns on their own. Oh hang on…

The original idea for World Digital Preservation Day was very simple: to help our far-flung community connect, and to raise awareness about our work. In 2021 we added a theme – we didn’t have themes in the early years – about Breaking Down Barriers to Digital Preservation.  Linguists will spot a verb in there, and it’s in the active voice too. So, at least thematically, 2021 has been the most ambitious World Digital Preservation Day yet, with action at its core. There’s a renewed urgency and confidence represented by this theme, growing partly from the many connections and case studies (not to mention cakes and crafts) which have come before.

Urgency and confidence are needed. This last year might be remembered as the year of the great deletion; as the year of obfuscation, misinformation and denial. As technology has become more and more critical to our lives so it has become the means and theatre of division, exploitation and harm.  The fragility of digital media has given cover to those who would hide their actions, and misdirection to the gullible who think data loss is inevitable, perhaps even reasonable.

As Richard Ovenden has argued, it’s time to Undelete the Government. My only qualification: not just the UK and not just the government. If I can mix my metaphors, we started World Digital Preservation Day with the idea of breaking down barriers, but perhaps we need to end it by taking to the barricades.

Data loss may seem like a small issue considering the many challenges ahead but rest unassured: corruption, maladministration, disaffection, and incompetence are the inevitable consequences of an entirely avoidable digital dark age.

This blog is the last act of World Digital Preservation Day 2021 so should include a reflection on the many highlights and contributions. The problem is that it takes a while to get all the numbers crunched. Here’s me battering on about long-term thinking and at the same time trying to give you an instant hot take on a massive global effort.

Some factoids for you to consider … In the last 40 hours or so we have published 72 blogs by authors from 22 different countries and 6 continents. That’s not counting all the other blogs not published through the DPC. We released the BitList of Digitally Endangered Species, and translations of the Digital Preservation Handbook into Italian and French. I spotted 7 cakes (and you could probably double that count when you consider Angela Beking’s multi-purpose contribution) and one new song and a whole new File Format Karaoke game which deserves to be made a reality at some conference or other.  Speaking of conferences, it’s just wonderful that colleagues in NDSA matched their own annual DigiPres Conference with WDPD this year, including their awards (and a shout out to all the winners!). World Digital Preservation Day is truly a global event. I gave my first ever presentation in the Caribbean courtesy of colleagues in Jamaica and watched tweets from all corners of the world - Thailand, Jordan, Finland, German, Switzerland, The Netherlands, South Africa, France, Spain, Brazil, Luxembourg, Portugal, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, Senegal, Cuba, Mexico, Japan, Denmark, Belgium, Botswana, Chile.... apparently, there were 2971 tweets on the hashtag at last count. Although I can’t be sure I was really struck by the many voices in languages other than English. And for all the fun, games and bonhomie, if you didn’t also watch the interview with Angeline Takawira and Ishumael Zinyegere of the UNIRMCT then you’d miss the point that digital preservation is deadly serious.

This post must also include a vote of thanks, especially to the DPC staff team – Sharon McMeekin, Michael Popham, Jen Mitcham, Paul Wheatley and Jaye Weatherburn.  Amy Currie has taken a huge weight off my shoulders by taking on the biennial review of the BitList, not just making it happen but making it better. Let me thank particularly Sarah Middleton and John McMillan who have co-ordinated and delivered so much of the work behind WDPD 2021. Close friends of the DPC will be aware that Alyson Campbell, our Business Manager retired earlier in the year (we miss you Alyson!) and, although we’re about to welcome two new team members (it may take more than two people to replace you Alyson), we’ve not had the luxury of dropping things in the meantime. So, I have little doubt that the work ethic, good humour and creativity of the DPC team is a wonder of the modern world.  I have said before that I am amazed and proud of what this tiny little team achieves each year. And if this year has been ambitious, remember that next year is our 20th anniversary so we hope we’ll see you here in Glasgow as we mark and celebrate twenty years together. The best is yet to come.

To posterity and beyond

For my part I cannot get beyond the connections between climate crisis and digital preservation this year. That other big Glasgow Conference, COP26, has brought it home to me.

Digital preservation consumes energy. We can do a lot more to understand the sources of that energy and the uses we make of it. We should at least promote digital preservation as permission to dispose of things we no longer need an a basis for understanding the data we need. We need to work out how many copies we need, how often we need to check them and how much validation is enough. Perhaps we could stop thinking of preservation as a binary state. Some things should be preserved, and some things should be discarded: but graceful decay is an option too.

There’s a lot we can do to understand and reduce the carbon we consume. But digital preservation is on the right side of history. Here are a few sentences which you can try out, and which work as well for digital preservation as for the science of the climate crisis:

  • We know we need to act now, and we know that the benefit of our actions will be deferred, perhaps for many years.

  • We know that outcomes will be hard to predict and that loss (perhaps too much loss) is already baked in.

  • We are surrounded by experts, but there are nuances and emphases to the research which mean the path is not entirely clear.

  • There are things we really want to save; there are things we know we need to save so we can save them; and there are things we don’t even know that are going to turn out to be essential.

  • We think there might be new technology around the corner, but we know also that new technology has been one of the root causes of the mess.

  • We have some ideas about what will work but it’s a one time, path-dependent non-repeatable experiment so we won’t get a second chance.

  • The pivot to long term thinking is long, long overdue.

As with climate action, so with digital preservation, we have a relatively simple choice: to act in earnest with courage now or throw our hands in the air and hope that something arises.

To be an ancestor or be a good ancestor. I think that’s an easy choice.

Scroll to top