What next for Digital Preservation? 3 Takeaways from iPres 2022

In September, delegates from across the globe travelled to Glasgow for the 2022 iPres conference on digital preservation. Thanks to the generous support of the Digital Preservation Coalition, our Assistant Archivist Simon Mackley was able to attend the conference and find out more about the latest developments in the field. In this blog post, Simon discusses some of his personal takeaways from the conference, and reflects on what challenges and opportunities may lie ahead for digital preservation.

We live in an era in which records and information are increasingly ‘born digital’ – they are created as digital files, are shared across networks and systems, and may never exist as physical objects. But digital objects are inherently fragile: they may become corrupted, accidentally modified or deleted, or even simply lost and forgotten about. For this reason, modern archives are concerned with the practice of digital preservation – essentially, how we go about caring for digital archives to the same extent as we manage our traditional, physical collections.

It was to find out more about the latest trends in digital preservation that I attended the 2022 iPres conference in Glasgow. It was a fantastic event, bringing together digital preservation experts, archivists, developers, librarians and curators from across the world to share ideas and knowledge. It would be impossible for me to sum up the entire event in just one blog post, so presented here instead are three of my personal takeaways from iPres:

#1 – Environmental Impacts

My first takeaway is the need to seriously consider the environmental impacts of digital preservation. This was a major theme of the conference, with a range of papers discussing the carbon footprints of different storage options and the energy consumption of digital preservation activities such as fixity checking (where digital archives are routinely checked to make sure that they haven’t been modified).

These issues were also the central theme of a fascinating keynote address by the anthropologist Steven Gonzalez Monserrate (@cloudanthro on Twitter). Steven’s lecture explored both the environmental and human costs of our current reliance on cloud computing. Fundamentally, he argued, what is needed is a shift in our relationship with digital information, from ‘cloud consumption’ to ‘data gardening’. From a digital preservation perspective, we therefore need to think carefully about what we should be preserving, and whether digital archives should be available on demand (relying on energy-consuming ‘hot’ storage) or if ‘cold’ storage options might be more sustainable.

Photograph of lecture theatre, with Steven Gonzalez Monserrate presenting at the front. A projection screen displays the lecture title 'After the Cloud'.
Steven Gonzalez Monserrate presenting at iPres 2022. (Photograph copyright Simon Mackley. Some rights reserved – may be reused under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license).

#2 – Less is More

Digital preservation can be a challenging and often time-consuming process, especially when it involves complex or unusual digital objects. In particular, heavily interventionist approaches that are focused on preserving digital objects for the very long term can be difficult to replicate at scale – or indeed, beyond the capacity of smaller organisations altogether.

I therefore found it really useful to see the workshops and discussions at iPres explore other approaches, such as the Minimum Viable Preservation model outlined by Matthew Addis. An MVP approach typically focuses on an initial timeframe of 5-10 years (rather than longer-term/indefinite timeframes of other preservation models) and emphasises the stabilisation of digital objects as opposed to more comprehensive interventions. Although digital preservation can never be a one-size-fits-all activity, I think that the MVP model has a lot of potential to offer – especially for organisations just starting out on their digital preservation journeys.

#3 – We Need to Talk about Equity

My third and final takeaway from iPres is that there is an urgent need for curators to think critically about the digital preservation work they do. In her powerful keynote, Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty (@evangelestia on Twitter) drew upon examples from her career to emphasise that digital preservation is not a neutral activity, but instead risks perpetuating and reinforcing the inequities of our societies. Even well-intentioned efforts to diversify collections can do more harm than good, Tamar warned, describing cases where ‘curatorial blackface’, ‘helicopter digital preservation outreach’ and ‘curatorial ghosting’ have actively damaged relationships between collecting institutions and community groups.

Photograph of lecture theatre, with Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty presenting at the front. A projection screen displays a photograph and biography of Tamar.
Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty presenting at iPres 2022. (Photograph copyright Simon Mackley. Some rights reserved – may be reused under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license).

As a profession, we must ensure that our work to preserve digital archives for future generations does not result in communities losing meaningful access and control over the collections that they have created and cared for – even if that means questioning some of our own assumptions about archival custody and the purposes of preservation. Above all, we need to engage with community curators as equal partners in our digital preservation efforts.

Addressing these issues will not be easy – but it is vital that we do so. It is only through collaboration that we will be able to save our shared digital heritage for the future, and so it is incumbent upon all of us working in the profession to develop and improve our outreach efforts – and to make sure that we do it right.  

Simon Mackley

iPres 2022 was held at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, and online from 12th-16th September 2022. The proceedings of the conference have now been published and are free to download. Further details of papers and sessions can be found on the iPres 2022 website.

Visit the Digital Preservation Coalition website for further information and resources on digital preservation.

Note: this post was updated on 3 Nov 2022 following the publication of the conference proceedings.

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