Digital preservation hits the headlines

It is not often that stories directly related to my profession make front page news, so it was with mixed feelings that I read following headline on the front of the Guardian this weekend:

"Digital is decaying. The future may have to be print"

While I agree with one of those statements, I strongly disagree with the other. Having worked in digital preservation for 12 years now, the idea of  a 'digital dark age' caused by obsolescence of the rapidly evolving hardware and software landscape is not a new one. Digital will decay if it is not properly looked after, and that is ultimately why there is a profession and practice that has built up in this area.

I would however disagree with the idea that the future may have to be print. At the Borthwick Institute for Archives we are now encouraging depositors to give us their archives in their original form. If the files are born digital we would like to receive and archive the digital files. Printouts lack the richness, accessibility and flexibility of the digital originals, which can often tell us far more about a file and the process of creation than a hard copy and can be used in a variety of different ways.

This headline was of course prompted by a BBC interview with Vint Cerf (VC of Google) on Friday in which he makes some very valid points. Digital preservation isn't just about preserving the physical bits, it is also about what they mean. We need to capture and preserve information about the digital environment as well as the data itself in order to enable future re-use. Again this is not new, but it is good to see story this hitting the headlines. Raising general awareness of the issues us digital archivists think about on a daily basis can only be a good thing in my mind. What the coverage misses though is the huge amount of work that has been going on in this area already...

The Jisc Research at Risk workshop at IDCC15 in the
fabulous surroundings of 30 Euston Square, London
Last week I spent several days at the International Digital Curation Conference (IDCC) in London. Surprisingly, this was my first IDCC (I'm not sure how I had managed to miss it until now), but this was a landmark birthday for the conference, celebrating a decade of bringing people together to talk about digital curation.

The theme of the conference was "Ten years back, ten years forward: achievements, lessons and the future for digital curation", consequently, many of the papers focused on how far we had come in the last ten years and on next steps. In ten years, we have clearly achieved much but the digital preservation problem is not yet solved. Progress is not always as fast as we would like, but enacting a culture change in the way we manage our digital assets is was never going to be a quick win, and this is sometimes not helped by the fact that as we solve one element of the problem, we adjust our expectations on what we consider to be a success. This is a constantly evolving field and we take on new challenges all the time.

It is great that public awareness about obsolescence and the fragility of digital data has been raised in the mainstream media, but it is also important for people to know that there is already a huge amount of work going on in this area and many of us who think about these issues all the time.

Jenny Mitcham, Digital Archivist


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