Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Is the Cloud aware that it has 'the future of digital archiving in its hands'?

As anyone in the audience at the ECA conference in Geneva earlier this year will be aware, one of issues which I’ve been mulling over in recent months relates to roles and responsibilities in ‘the cloud’. The question I was asked to address in Switzerland was ‘in whose hands does the future of digital preservation lie?’ and my succinct response was: ‘Google's’. This was (for reasons evident in the paper I gave) meant both literally – given their increasing dominance of the cloud space but also metaphorically, as an encapsulation of all cloud service providers.

And certainly when my colleague, Doug Belshaw, pointed me in the direction of this post regarding Facebook’s archiving policy it became clear that I’m not the only one thinking about the (unintended?) consequences for all parties of where this might lead us.

Its tempting to see things only from our (by that I mean the archival community) side of the fence – to lament the inevitable decline in our future professional role that the handing over of content to commercial external service providers for its long term preservation will entail and to worry about what it may mean for the archives (and their users) of the future.

But maybe we should also pause to reflect on what it may mean for these service providers themselves and whether they actually have as much concern about the implications of this new found responsibility on their side as we do on ours.

For as I concluded my paper in Geneva:

"Perhaps we should actually stop to ask Google and their peers whether they are indeed aware of the fact that the future of digital preservation lies in their hands and the responsibilities which comes with it and whether this is a role they are happy to fulfil. For perhaps just as we are in danger of sleepwalking our way into a situation where we have let this responsibility slip through our fingers, so they might be equally guilty of unwittingly finding it has landed in theirs.

If so, might this provide the opportunity for dialogue between the archival professions and cloud based service providers and in doing so, the opportunity for us to influence (and perhaps even still directly manage) the preservation of digital archives long into the future".

To again quote from the conclusion of my paper:

"Maybe the interconnection of content creation and use and its long term preservation need not be as indivisible within the cloud as it might first appear. Yes Google’s appetite for content might appear insatiable, but that does not necessarily mean that they wish to hold it all themselves – after all, their core business of search does not require them to hold themselves every web page they index, merely to have the means to crawl it and to return the results to the user. Might we be able to persuade them that the same logic should also apply to the contents of Google Apps, Blogger, YouTube and the like? If so, might the door be open for us, the archival community through the publicly funded purse to create and maintain our own meta-repository within which online content can be transferred, or just copied, for controlled, managed long term storage whilst continuing to provide access to it to the services and companies from which it originated?

That way they get to continue to accrue the benefit of allowing their users to access and manipulate digital content in ways which benefit their bottom line, the user continues to enjoy the services they have grown accustomed to and the archival community can sleep soundly, safe in the knowledge that whilst service providers are free to do what they want with live content, its long term preservation and safety continues to lie in our own experienced and trusted hands".

I wonder if such dialogue is already occurring between Google, Facebook et al and the likes of NARA, NAA and TNA. Lets hope so…