20 Years of Digital Preservation


During the preparations for iPRES 2016 the Programme Committee discussed the fact that exactly 20 years ago Preserving Digital Information. Report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information was published. A landmark report by The Commission on Preservation and Access and The Research Libraries Group, published in May 1996. It describes a broad view on digital preservation and is often looked at as one of the first comprehensive reports on this topic.

It was interesting to read it again and I was wondering what the view on preservation was 20 years ago and how this relates to the topics presented at iPRES 2016?

No doubt in 20 years’ time much has changed. For a start, the  (American) view as reflected in the two main principles (p. 22) of the report have little relation with what the iPRES attendants experience. The first principle being

“Information creators/providers/owners have initial responsibility for archiving their digital information objects and thereby ensuring the longterm preservation of those objects”.

I don’t think we have achieved this.  All iPRES attendants were in Bern because this not reality.

The second principle relates to the first:

“Certified digital archives have the right and duty to exercise an aggressive rescue function as a fail-safe mechanism to preserve information objects that become endangered because the creator/provider/owner does not accept responsibility for the preservation function (…).”

This one is  also more complicated than stated in the document, as it now shows that without legal mandate (and even with that legal mandate) it is hard enough to get the digital information. But the amount of digital material has grown immensely since 1996.

The Preserving Digital Information report shows a “vision” on digital preservation. Some of the ingredients of this vision have changed, for example the emphasis that is laid on migration as a preservation strategy is nowadays accompanied by a similar importance for emulation as a strategy. Their concept of  “intellectual integrity” seems to have been incorporated in the OAIS standard.  The notion of “Certified archives” is within reach with WDS-DSA, nestor and ISO 16363 in place. Managing cost is still an issue (not at all discussed at iPRES this year!) other topics still need to be addressed like migration paths “as an integral part of the process or system that generates digital information”( p. 29).

Although there was no presentation on costs at iPRES  2016, there was a wealth of interesting talks about practical solutions related to different materials (emails, web archiving, publications and related materials, PIDs, geodata) , different organisations (expanding from libraries and archives to research data and organizations collecting digital art) and different steps in the preservation process (emulation, quality assurance, risk assessment).

What striked me is the fact that, compared to the 1996 vision, and looking at the individual and valuable contributions at iPRES 2016, we still talk in practical solutions for detailed problems. I don’t deny that a lot of problems need to be solved and that it is interesting to discuss the approaches with your peers at iPRES. But where is the broader view? Do we,  as a community have an updated vision on Digital Preservation in general?

Might it be that the limited funding of the EU for digital preservation programmes resulted into less research on a conceptual level in digital preservation? I’m convinced that the work that was done on emulation in the KEEP (see Internet Archive) project has led to a better acceptance of emulation in the world of digital preservation. The work done in SCAPE on Preservation Planning has improved our thoughts about this OAIS functional entity as well as to the introduction of the concept of Preservation Watch and the nuanced view on migration (“you lose more than you want to”). Of course I’m biased here because I have participated in these projects but I hope that people of for example the E-Ark project will say the same in a few years’ time.

Perhaps we need more occasions for a deliberate reflection on digital preservation. Where we can derive some patterns from the practical solutions, discuss the deviations that organisations made from existing standards and where we include the risks for collection building and preservation caused by the ongoing changes in digital materials.  Could not we use an iPRES conference where so many people with preservation knowledge are together, so that we can develop a vision for the 3rd decade of digital preservation?

This post was also published at http://digitalpreservation.nl/seeds/20-years-of-digital-preservation/

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