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Raising Digital Preservation Awareness to Combat Complacency and Fear

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This post is adapted from remarks I gave to the judging panel for the 2012 Digital Preservation Award on behalf of The Signal. We were honored to be among the finalists for the award, which was subsequently won by The Digital Preservation Training Programme, University of London Computing Centre (to whom we offer hearty congratulations!).

It is my great pleasure to appear before you today. On behalf of the entire team behind The Signal, let me say that we are immensely pleased to be a finalist for this award. We’re also happy the blog has drawn your attention—because drawing attention is exactly what it’s meant to do!

Pay Attention While Walking!, by Superk8nyc, on Flickr
Pay Attention While Walking!, by Superk8nyc, on Flickr

“We are the first generation to exploit the opportunities of digital data. These opportunities cannot be taken for granted.” I like this quote, which I borrow from the Digital Preservation Coalition. The words perfectly sum up a modern dilemma: we rely on data to capture history as it unfolds, extend knowledge in every area, and save lives in advance of natural disasters. But digital frailty can easily undermine these essential purposes. Files get corrupted, format migration goes awry and data gets lost.

This is not a secret. It is well-known that large amounts of data are at risk.

If digital content is so incredibly valuable, yet so terribly fragile, why is preserving it such a challenge? The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access considered the social issues behind this question. It found that two of the major reasons are complacency that the problem is not urgent and fear that the problem is too big to take on. While these look to be opposites, both complacency and fear are the result of insufficient understanding. People may even know about a problem intellectually but haven’t received the right messages to get them motivated.

The Blue Ribbon Task Force came up with a number of recommendations for helping to ensure that valuable digital assets remain available for future use. Among other things, they called for building preservation-aware communities and raising awareness in general. A big part of the solution as they saw it lies in getting the right information to practitioners, students, funders and, crucially, the public as a whole. People need to hear the right message in order to do the right thing.

The recommendations to raise awareness and push out training are perfectly sensible. There’s just one thing: we live in an age of constant partial attention. Everyone is bombarded with far more information than they can possibly absorb. It’s a buyer’s market for messages. People expect relevant information to come to them and to resonate with their needs. We are so drawn in by effective information that we are liable to walk into each other and perhaps into traffic while entranced by a Smartphone screen. Information consumption is now very highly selective and the digital preservation community needs to act on this reality.

When we launched The Signal in 2011, we wanted to tell appealing, accessible stories that had a reasonable chance to make it though the info-clutter and reach our preservation partners as well as many others. We wanted the stories to connect in a way that made people react. We wanted comments, and beyond that, we wanted to influence how people think about digital preservation, ideally to the point where they take positive action. And when I say ‘people’ I mean the broadest audience possible: students, skilled practitioners, staff looking to upgrade skills, as well as policy makers, educators and the public overall. It’s our belief that a key to establishing a sustainable basis for digital preservation is through raising awareness on much larger scale than we have managed in the past.

Save the Bits!, by Wlef70, on Flickr
Save the Bits!, by Wlef70, on Flickr

So, how well have done in meeting these objectives for The Signal? It’s a tricky business trying measure things like public engagement and our other intentions, but we can cobble together a few preliminary measures that I think demonstrate some success.

Let me start with some qualitative evidence that our work to get attention has paid off. The Signal was recently named as among the Best of the Federal Blogosphere, and is broadly cited as a training resource; the Cambridge PrePARE Project and Don’t Panic project of the West Yorkshire Archive Service are examples from the UK. I’m particularly happy to say that references to the blog appear across an array of communities, including art, genealogy, libraries, archives, museums, video games and more. It’s fair to say that The Signal reaches the broadest and most diverse audience of any digital preservation information resource.

There are some impressive numbers to indicate our reach. We’ve averaged one post a day and just recently passed 400 in total. Our intent to engage has borne fruit, with over 18,000 subscribers and 950 reader comments. There are some fascinating conversations here about everything from metadata, to personal digital archiving, to different approaches to training and education. I pleased with one other set of numbers: the dozens guest bloggers we have recruited, along with the many interviews we have had with our preservation partners and other thought leaders from around the world. We’ve solicited a broad sweep of perspectives from preservation experts, artists, teachers, curators and policy makers. This is in keeping with our objective to engage as many audiences as possible to highlight the importance of digital preservation.

Looking into some Twitter data, I found that tweets that refer to the term “digital preservation” have been regularly trending upward since The Signal launched in May 2011. Compared to that point, there are now almost three times as many mentions per week, and many of these refer directly to post from The Signal. In terms of geographic distribution, Tweets the reference our blog posts have come from dozens of countries around the world. I think it’s fair to say that we have had some success in broadly promoting awareness of and knowledge about digital preservation.

Thank you very much for your consideration today, and, we hope, your continuing attention into the future!

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