Sunday, 2 May 2010

Is digital preservation now routine?

It’s been a while since I attended a conference specifically themed around digital preservation / electronic archiving and having spent a few days last week in Geneva at the excellent European Conference on Archiving I was struck by the change. Not many years ago such conferences were dominated by debate about the technical complexities it posed, about the relative merits of competing theoretical approaches such as emulation and migration and the risks we faced if and when we got it wrong. The fragility of digital media was stressed and compared unfavourably to the durability of their traditional counterparts (encapsulated by seemingly endless comparisons between the original Domesday Book and its 1980s electronic equivalent).

I heard none of this at ECA, at least not in the sessions I attended or the conversations I was party to. Instead there were plenty of case studies from around Europe of organisations who are quietly and successfully getting on with it. On the evidence of the past few days we seem to have found ourselves in the situation where our ability to actually preserve this stuff indefinitely and to continue to provide access to it seems, without much triumph or fanfare to now be taken as read. This is not, of course, the same as saying that no more problems or challenges exist, but they seem to be of a more prosaic, ‘routine’ nature revolving around the need to secure budgets and improve the user experience etc.

More interestingly still if a single concern dominating the conference can be identified it seemed to be one related to the volume of information being created and stored today and estimated to be created tomorrow. I lost count of the number of presentations which contained jaw-dropping predictions of the amount of data soon to be at our fingertips and the challenges this will pose in terms of resource discovery, legal discovery and overall management. But interestingly virtually never its preservation. So, based on the evidence of this conference alone, it seems as though within a few short years we have jumped from a situation where we used to worry obsessively that we were in danger of losing everything to one where we now stress about how to manage a world where we will lose nothing, with barely a pause for reflection on this change.

My other observation was that (my own meagre contribution to one side) there was little or no discussion about the growing impact of the web as a storage ‘repository’ as heralded by the rise of ‘the cloud’. The unspoken assumption behind most of the debate and the projects and initiatives they represented seemed to be that these organisations will always have physical control of the electronic information they wish to preserve both prior to and after its ingest into their electronic archive, but as I tried to stress in my paper, I wonder how safe an assumption that will prove to be?