UNESCO PERSIST: A Global Exchange on Digital Preservation

This is a guest post by Robert R. Buckley, Technical Adviser at the National Archives of the UAE in Abu Dhabi and the Coordinator for the PERSIST Policy Working Group.

Photo of meeting.

UNESCO PERSIST meeting in Abu Dhabi. Photo courtesy of National Archives of the UAE.

Readers of this blog would have first seen mention of the UNESCO PERSIST project in The Signal last January. It occurred in a guest post on intellectual property rights related to software emulation. Dealing with IP rights is one of the known challenges of digital preservation. Dealing with the volume of digital content being generated is another, requiring decisions on what content to select and preserve for the benefit of society. These and other digital preservation activities typically depend on policies that influence decision-making and planning processes with a view to enabling sustainability. All these issues fall within the scope for the PERSISTproject and were addressed at its recent meeting held March 14-16 in Abu Dhabi.

The meeting was hosted by Dr. Abdulla El Reyes, Director General of the National Archives of the UAE and Chair of the UNESCO Memory of the World Program. PERSIST is part of the Memory of the World Program and a partnership between UNESCO, the International Council of Archives and the International Federation of Libraries Associations and Institutions. (If it were an acronym, PERSIST would stand for Platform to Enhance and Reinforce the Sustainability of the Information Society Trans-globally.) It is a response to the UNESCO/UBC Vancouver Declaration, adopted at the 2012 Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation in Vancouver, where conference participants agreed on the pressing need to establish a road map proposing solutions, agreements and policies for implementation by all stakeholders, in particular governments and industry.

The focus of the PERSIST project is on providing these stakeholders, as well as heritage institutions, with resources to address the challenges of long-term digital preservation and the risks of losing access to part of our digital heritage through technology obsolescence. Fostering a high-level dialogue and joint action on digital preservation issues among all relevant stakeholders is a core objective of PERSIST. For example, during the UNESCO General Conference last November in Paris, PERSIST hosted an event that included Microsoft, Google and the ACM. This is the kind of thing UNESCO is well positioned to do and where it can add value on a global scale in the very active and fertile field of digital preservation.

The Abu Dhabi meeting was attended by over 30 experts, representing heritage institutions, universities and governmental, non-governmental and commercial organizations from a dozen countries spread across five continents. The meeting had an ambitious agenda that included formulating an operating plan for 2016-2017. The major outcomes of the meeting were organized around the work of the three task forces into which PERSIST was divided: Content, Technology and Policy.

Photo session at a meeting

Official launch of the UNESCO/PERSIST Selection Guidelines. Photo courtesy of National Archives of the UAE

First was the launch of the UNESCO/PERSIST Guidelines for the selection of digital heritage for long-term preservation, drafted by the Content Task Force. The selection process, in the form of a decision tree, takes a risk-assessment approach to evaluating significance, assessing sustainability and considering availability in dealing with the overwhelming volume of digital information now being created and shared. Written by a team of seven experts from the library, archives, and museum community, the Guidelines aim to provide an overarching starting point for heritage institutions when drafting their own policies on the selection of digital heritage for long-term sustainable digital preservation.

Second was the progress by the Technology Task Force on defining the PERSIST technology strategy and finding an organizational home that would maintain, manage and make available the legacy software platform for future access to digital heritage at risk due to software obsolescence. (PERSIST is in contact with the Software Preservation Network and will be presenting at the SPN Forum in August.)

The diagram illustrates the role of the UNESCO PERSIST project in the digital preservation ecosystem, including access to legacy software licenses. The organizational home, which we have been calling the UNESCO PERSIST Organization or UPO, would complement the work of the UNESCO PERSIST project. It would be a non-profit that would be able to enter into legal agreements with software vendors—a significant capability. Conversations are underway with a candidate organization about hosting the UPO.


Role of UNESCO PERSIST in the Digital Preservation Ecosystem. Diagram by Natasa Milic-Frayling. CLICK TO ENLARGE

Third was the formal creation of the Policy Task Force. In one way or another its initial outputs are all related to the Recommendation concerning the preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage including in digital form, which was approved at the UNESCO General Conference in November 2015 and which requires action by UNESCO Member States. Besides contributing directly to the guidelines for implementing the digital part of the Recommendation, the task force also plans to take a community-based approach to develop supporting tools such as a Model National Digital Preservation Strategy and a Starter’s Guide for policymakers. Already the Selection guidelines provide a tool for the identification of documentary heritage called for by the Recommendation. The Policy team will also work with the other task forces on strategic policy questions.

From here, there is still much to be done in disseminating the selection guidelines that would make the challenges of digital preservation more manageable, in developing and putting on a firm foundation the software technology platform that would enable access to legacy documents, and in establishing policy guidelines that would provide institutional and national frameworks where they are most needed for the preservation of digital documentary heritage.

You can hear more about PERSIST at the IFLA WLIC 2016 and the SPN Forum in August, the ICA Congress in September and iPRES 2016 in October. You can also read about PERSIST online, watch an introductory video and follow it on Twitter at #unescopersist.

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