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Why Does Digital Preservation Matter?

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In conversations with professional colleagues, I find we rarely talk about “the why” of digital preservation. We take it as an article of faith that what we do is important, so much so that we worry that we should be doing more, saving more.

Why? by Myles! on Flickr
Why? by Myles! on Flickr

Sadness arises when we hear about loss, such as when a 1990s video game company executive says “all the source code for our games has disappeared along with all the e-mail and a lot of the design documentation.” Our collective mood swings to joy when we hear about successful efforts. When the British Library captures a large batch of websites documenting the 2012 Olympics and Paralympic games, for example, happiness reigns.

Strong as our personal and professional commitment is to preservation and stewardship, we need to remember that people outside our circle can have trouble appreciating–or even understanding–our efforts. Someone I work with has a short answer to the what-do-you-do question: “I archive the internet!” she happily declares. That’s a better response than I can usually muster, tending as I do to talk about “how digital content is replacing hard copy and we need to make sure new media is kept available in the same way that books are….” (eyes glaze, smile turns too polite).

But even the snappiest answer still has trouble conveying the sense of importance and passion that most digital stewards bring to their work. This is a problem that goes beyond feeling awkward at parties. As I’ve written before, for digital stewardship to thrive as an undertaking, we need to do better in how we convey the message about its importance.

The answer has two basic parts. The first is tying into the deep reverence our culture has for books, learning and libraries. During the Library’s recent National Book Festival, I was struck by the outpouring of positive emotion. “There are so many good authors here. I don’t know why everyone in America doesn’t come,” said one grandmother. I dream of grandmothers gushing about digital preservation.

The second part is dryer but just as important. This is the need for an evidence-based business case. The 2011 Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access urged preserving institutions to articulate a compelling value proposition, stating that “without well articulated demand for preserved information, there will be no future supply.” I’m glad to say this idea is moving forward through efforts such as Measuring the Impact of Digital Resources: The Balanced Value Impact Model, which outlines a method to prove how digital resources help people.

I’m confident we can make persuasive progress as long as we can keep a broad audience in mind. Personally, I’m always sharpening my digital preservation cocktail chatter and trying to change things one party at a time.

Comments (2)

  1. Interesting topic, Bill.

    For the first part of the justification, though I agree that *good* ought to be preserved, I wonder if that value is good enough to be preserved for ever, let alone be paid for.
    I know you might point to the fact it links to the second issue, that of business case or economics of preservation. And here, I think the profession is now asking a fundamental question. Preserve what for whom will need it when and will be willing to see the value, and hopefully, pay for it? It could be argued that the “whom” is not yet here, and the proper answer to its characteristics and desire requires predictive approach. Heck, are we even asking the current users what matters to them before we process records. Do we tackle records finds based on users preference of hierarchy? If beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, should users be constrained to see beauty through the eyes of the records managers?

  2. I appreciate what people like you, Bill, do just to preserve knowledge, facts and information. As they say, there is great treasure in knowledge and books. Though I guess it must be really difficult to really know whether it would be worth it all in the long run because we don’t know which gets used or read again or not. There must be some parameters as to which gets preserved or not.


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