World digital preservation day (4 November) aims to create greater awareness of digital preservation that will translate into a wider understanding which permeates all aspects of society – business, policy making, personal good practice.
The release of the current edition of the Digital Preservation Coalition's bit list of digitally endangered species prompted some thoughts on digital content.
There's so much digital content sloshing around in the world; estimates vary, but 79 zetabytes appears to be a reasonably accurate estimate of the volume of data or information created, captured, copied, and consumed worldwide in 2021.
Why does digital preservation matter?
So what does it matter if we lose a bit here or a byte there? Well, on the whole, it doesn't. For any given genre or period there's generally enough representative digital content to at least provide a good exemplification of whatever it is we're studying, especially given the volume of data we're currently producing.
However, it does matter if the genre you're dealing with is rare. It matters if the content is unique, personal. It matters if the tools and techniques to release the information contained with those bits and bytes is rapidly disappearing. It matters even more when it comes to older digital formats that are quite literally disappearing.
Surely this is the same old problem information consumers have faced for ever. Why is digital different?
It is generally accepted that that the span of recorded history is roughly 5,000 years, from about 2,600 BC onwards. What changed 5,000 years ago that allows us to "see" even that far back? It was the emergence of preservation formats. Formats that have, quite literally, stood the test of time. Amongst other things: clay tablets, stone carving, papyrus, and books—one of the oldest recognisable books extant today is nearly 2,700 years old (an unthinkable retention period for modern digital formats).
These information systems didn't emerge fully-formed from nothing. There was an evolution of processes and ideas that led up to them. Oral history, marks on wood, knots in string and the like undoubtedly existed well before 2,600 BC but they've all but disappeared, or at least the information they were storing has disappeared. The "technology" became obsolete, broke, got lost and wasn't replaced or migrated. Those pre-preservation formats failed.
So, what has this got to do with the bit list? A lot. We're now at the same point with digital as those ancient civilisations were 5,000 years ago with analogue. We're on the cusp of the move from pre-preservation formats to preservation formats. And digital is different because it changes so rapidly! Velum to paper took hundreds of years. Eight inch floppy to no floppy at all took less than 30 years.
We have a short window of opportunity to recognise that some of the earlier formats and data stores will not survive, but, if we act NOW, we can make sure that at least some of that information makes it past the great extinction. Look at the bit list. Think what's missing. See how it affects you. Use it as an advocacy tool. Shout about data disappearing from the rooftops.
We can make sure that 5,000 years from now scholars won't be speculating about how to play Flappy Bird or what Flash based web sites looked like and how they functioned. If we act now, they'll be able to see for themselves.
What does this mean for members?
How many of your systems and processes are dependent on one (or more) of the technologies at risk featured in the bit list? At the very least you should read the bit list and ask yourself the following questions:
- Do we use this technology?
- Is it mission-critical in our organisation?
- Is there an alternative?
- How can we mitigate the risk?
Jisc can help with any such review. Contact your account manager today to get the ball rolling.
It’s important to start thinking about what data your own institutions have and what policies there are around retention and preservation. It’s worth knowing that Jisc not only supply a digital preservation system, we can help assess institutions’ needs and what steps they need to take.
Read about the importance of preservation and the benefits of using Jisc’s digital preservation service for Kirsten Hyland, records manager of St George’s University of London.
Time is running out.