Earlier this year, staff members from the Archives and Special Collections Centre (ASCC), Elisabeth Thurlow and Erin Liu, ran an online training session for our volunteer team on digital preservation. Two of our volunteers who attended the session have written this blog, sharing some thoughts and reflections on their experience for World Digital Preservation Day.
I found topics discussed in the digital preservation session both illuminating and, in some ways, foreboding.
I learnt how fragile digital information is compared to its analogue counterpart; how digital preservation hinges on numerous factors such as software and hardware obsolescence, file and storage corruption, even the slightest human error in accidentally deleting a folder containing thousands of files, or a computer failure, thus the loss of one’s personal digital life.
Apart from the processes involved in digital preservation, a lingering thought I have is how digital preservation can keep up with all the data the world continually produces. Such a task of preserving the world’s digital information makes me wonder what digital preservation on such a grand scale will have on the climate crisis we are currently facing – since a person’s yearly email usage amounts to over 130kg added to their carbon footprint. How much more to preserve the world’s social media information year after year?
I was reminded of the importance of digital preservation when I later encountered a BBC Radio 4 programme called “Burning the Books” which discussed the shifting landscape of information in an ever-increasing digital world. The programme discussed how public archiving initiatives through the power of digital preservation challenged political disinformation, such as the Vote Leave’s campaign pledges which had been deleted from their official website to save face. The campaign’s disinformation was only captured by public archiving initiatives who saved and preserved snapshots of the website before key information was deleted. Then there’s the disastrous handling and destruction of the Windrush landing cards by the government.
It is because of issues such as these which remind me of the importance of records and archives in our lives which everyone could easily relate to, but also the need for preservation in our digital world.
Due to the Covid-19 lockdown, it has been very difficult for archivists as much of our work is done on-site. UAL therefore ran a digital curation session for volunteers unable to attend the archives. As I will be starting an Archive MA at UCL later this year, training such as this is much appreciated.
We discussed topics such as the history of digital curation, 3D imaging, where the Born Digital Artworks Project was brought up, digital collecting and digital preservation.
Of particular interest was how to prevent the loss of information, which could be considered a main purpose of archiving. Nowadays, all important information should be stored digitally. We discussed losses, such as someone accidentally taping over a video. Issues I had not considered before were raised, such as how computers effectively speak different languages and the difficulties in making them communicate in order to transfer information.
Finally, the session mentioned how digital preservation needed to become standard and embedded into archive practice. A user interface is being developed at UAL, which would enable more widespread sharing of materials, enabling further teaching and research, and inspire new artworks.
Those managing the session emailed their notes and the Powerpoint around later that day, which was helpful in reminding us of the topics and points raised.
The session was beneficial in addressing many issues raised in the constantly advancing world of digital archiving. It would have been useful if there was more on what to do for those not particularly tech-savvy, as many people struggle here. I would certainly hope that more sessions could be run in addressing these matters.