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Brown overalls and buckets of sawdust? Caretaking and the age of digital

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International Digital Preservation Day
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution

I’ve been fortunate enough in the course of my digital preservation career to attend a fair few conferences on the topic and while I invariably find something to stimulate ideas and reboot enthusiasm, if I’m honest, the effects are sometimes temporary. At the end of last year this situation changed as I listened to a keynote talk at the PERICLES : Acting On Change conference hosted by the Welcome Trust in December 2016. Yes, 2016 and I’m still thinking about it! 

The portents weren’t great with a title from Kara Van Malssen (AV Preserve) of ‘Seeing the forest for the trees: A look outside the OAIS reference model’ but the presentation soon took a turn for the better.  

I’m someone who is, in her home life, a bit of a ‘make do and mender’ (I admit it may be a manifestation of innate thriftiness); my phone is officially vintage rather than retro; I use a notebook rather than an ipad; I know how to darn. So my interest was piqued by the question posed by Kara; ‘Has our culture’s obsession with innovation led us to neglect the fact that things also need to be taken care of?’ She considered two things in particular, our cultural obsession with innovation and the relatively slow pace of lasting change. For those of us in the world of digital preservation these are both our bete noire and our salvation. We’re tasked with keeping old digital things available, stable, citable, re-usable in a world where ‘shiny things’ get all the attention, priority and resource.  

The podcast ‘In praise of maintenance’ (Freakonomics Radio 19 October 2016 ) champions the work of the maintainers, those individuals whose work keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things. A brief reflection demonstrates that the vast majority of human labour… is of this type: upkeep. So why is it different in the digital world?  



Perhaps it is simply about the pace of change. J P Kotter had, according to Kara some interesting thought on the topic; 

“The most general lesson to be learned…is that the change process goes through a series of phases that, in total, usually require a considerable length of time.” 

Ref: Kotter JP, Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail, Harvard Business Review, (January 2007), and 

“The central issue is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems…But the core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people.“ 

Ref: Kotter JP, The Heart of Change, (2002) 

So far so thoughtful, but what does this actually mean for us in Parliament where the Digital Service valiantly work to create an digital environment that it current and relevant for all users in a fast changing technological environment, and at the same time we, in the Archives, are probably seen as the party-poopers with an eye to a long term, well longer than 3 years, and lots of ‘what if’ questions. In reality the Archives want to have their cake and eat it (literally as well as metaphorically). We want to ‘maintain’ our content, but we also want to harness all the opportunities afforded by new technologies to access, search, understand, reuse our archives. I wonder if our bête noire and our salvation could make good companions? (starts at 9.30 mins) 


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