Digital preservation and the future of history

Digital curation and preservation are important issues, and relevant to all of us.

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Who should decide what the archive of the future will consist of? Who should safeguard today's documentation for tomorrow's retrospection, reflection or indeed interrogation?

Should responsibility remain solely with memory institutions? What about a public-private partnership? Could cloud providers, who already store so much of our data, the Google or Amazons of the world, be responsible for safeguarding our digital heritage? What about funding bodies? They have a duty, do they not, to ensure long term access to research if funded by the public purse? And what about makers of technology; surely they have a responsibility to consider digital preservation for long term benefit, not just short term profit.

Legal framework

The existing legal framework does not reflect the digital age. Current law makes it difficult for memory institutions to capture and preserve digital material. Copyright and ownership is often unclear and so this hinders the digital preservation process.

Future of history

The meaningful preservation of digital information will determine the stories future historians will tell (or not), the information they will access (or not) and the knowledge available for future generations to build upon, (or not).

It seems clear that history is written in digital ink. If we take the recent uprising in the Middle East as an example it is the YouTube videos, Tweets and blogs that will be the future historian's primary source material.

Fortunately there are many initiatives including The Internet Archive Wayback Machine, and the Library of Congress' decision to archive Twitter that are capturing the records of the present, for the future. In the field of scholarly research, services like WebCite enable web material to remain available to readers in the future. I use this service in my own research, and encourage others to do the same. In my view this maintains professional standards; missing data is never a good look.

Future of your history...

Digital preservation (or the lack of) will not just impact the future of history. It will also impact the future of knowledge, culture, evidence, democracy, remembering and indeed the future of our own personal archives (photos, music, videos etc.)

Will your blog, website, dataset or database have long term value? Is it likely to be re-used? If so, you need to take mindful and determined action to help it survive. Unlike paper, it won't survive by chance in a dusty filing cabinet in the store cupboard.

Information professionals are in a privileged position to influence and indeed lead on key issues related to the long-term preservation of digital data. We need to demonstrate the issue is relevant to all. If you're not doing so already, I urge you to discuss these issues in your own organisations. It is a vitally important discussion.

Lena Roland has a Masters in Information Science from City University London. She has worked in Information Knowledge within the advertising industry for over 12 years. She currently works as a Consultant Information Specialist for the IPA, the trade body for the UK advertising industry. Her research, the 'Future of History' which investigates the challenge of preserving born digital materials, is in press and will be published in the Journal of Library and Information History, later this year. She is a guest lecturer in Digital Curation and Advertising Domain Analysis at City.

Twitter:           @rolandreckons


Image courtesy of Lin Pernille Photography via Flickr.

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