Jun 052011

Digital preservation used to be the affair of a few geeky keepers who recognized the value of lonely, obscure data.  But as information technology has spread across our culture, we are developing an intense, long-term relationship with digital content.

I Love Data" She Wept, by bixentro, on Flickr

"I Love Data" She Wept, by bixentro, on Flickr

Cyberspace When You’re Dead is a good example.  “Suppose that just after you finish reading this article,” begins The New York Times Magazine article, “you keel over, dead.  …what happens to [the] version of you that you’ve built with bits? Who will have access to which parts of it, and for how long?”

As ledes go, that’s sexy as hell.  It nimbly couples our mortality with our digital legacy.  Both are highly personal, endlessly fascinating and elude easy answers.

Digital legacy refers to things like your Facebook page and Twitter account, as well as the collective cultural mass on (and off) the internet.  It’s digital photographs, health records, government data and every other kind of documentation that you can think of.  The legacy keeps growing because it serves a host of compelling personal and community purposes. Yet as our digital commitment deepens, so do questions about the relationship.  Lots of average people now worry about things that used to only give archivists and librarians pangs: what pieces of the legacy should be kept?  How do we do it?  Who gets to look at it?

Angst is boiling up all over the place.  How Important Is It To Preserve Our Digital Heritage? recently asked Techdirt.  The story details the grassroots labor of love to preserve the content of Google Video, now that the Googleplex has decided to get out of that business, and similar efforts to rescue content from Friendster and GeoCities, two other defunct sites.

self-portrait: a house is not a home (2), by Marie-II, on Flickr

self-portrait: a house is not a home (2), by Marie-II, on Flickr

The people involved in these efforts are passionate amateurs–their collective nom de web is “the archive team”–who donate their time because they believe it’s the right thing to do.  But passion only takes one so far.  The article lists some of the many issues that remain in the relationship between the team and their rescued content, such as how to deploy the right technology and how to to deal with obsolete software and file formats.   Techdirt aslo asks a reasonable question: if the relationship is worth saving, why not seek professional help: “should we have, maybe even one on each continent or in each country, a modern Library of Alexandria?”

Like other issues associated with our digital preservation engagement, this question evades a simple answer.  And I’m not even talking about the fact that much of the current thought in library and archival circles is that digital preservation is best approached in a distributed manner based on collaboration among many institutions.  As the comments posted on Techdirt indicate, the big concern is trust.  Many people worry that government–the presumed benefactor of “a modern Library of Alexandria”–may not be an honest broker in terms of what is selected and how it is kept.

“I really don’t care how much is preserved as long as it’s done by private organizations as opposed to government mandate,” proclaims one commentAnother commenter states that “A third party might have a mandate to preserve as much as possible, regardless of PoV or source, whereas a government entity might be tempted to archive predominantly artifacts showing them in a favourable or neutral light.”  As of this writing there are no comments about fears of government using preserved information to violate personal rights, but that concern ripples across the minds of many people as well.

I feel safe making two predictions about the pas de deux between us and our digital legacy.  First, public attraction and attention to digital preservation will continue to expand, along with number of gigabytes we keep–and are kept about us.

Second, successfully coping with the issues attendant to the relationship between people and data will turn on communication and trust: we need additional  authorities to help plot the way forward.  Personally, I would like to see a new high-profile effort, adequately supported with public and private funds, take this on.  It would be just the ticket to strengthen a bond of faith between us and our digital content.