We are here to preserve civilization. There is no better proper definition of civilization that does not include the preservation of printed and digitally produced materials.
A large part of the world’s information is now produced digitally. Digital resources are all encompassing ranging from medical records to movie DVDs, from satellite surveillance data to websites presenting multimedia, art, from data on consumer behaviour collected by supermarket tills to a scientific database documenting the human genome, from new group archives to museum catalogues. The Vancouver conference (2012) alerted that this documentation which is the memory of human kind is under constant threat of disappearing forever.
The preservation of digital information is a complex undertaking and it is because of the complexity that the 32nd Session of the General Conference of UNESCO (2003) provided a Charter on the preservation of digital heritage. The Charter drew attention of the world to the great loss which digital heritage may suffer and enjoins UNESCO member states to take all legal, economic and technical measures to safeguard this heritage. I want to think that this is why we are all gathered here for this unique conference. Digital preservation according to the Association for Library Collections and Technical Services (ALCTS) combines policies, strategies and actions to ensure access to reformatted or born digital content regardless of the challenges of media failure and technological change.
A shorter definition of digital preservation is given by the Digital Preservation Coalition which defined it as: “all activities that are required to maintain and provide access to digital materials beyond the limits of media failure or technological change”. It is easy for the uninitiated to assume that those of us who cry out as UNESCO has done are alarmists. But wait a little, there are empirical evidences that our digital heritage is at risk everywhere. I provide two celebrated examples. The BBC Domesday project was a huge multimedia project undertaken in the UK in 1986 to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book. The project involved school children across the UK contributing images and video of locations, written pieces on specific localities, statistics and virtual tours. The project was compiled onto two 12inch video discs which were written in a language called BCPL and ran on BBC microcomputers widely deployed in the UK schools in the 1980’s. By 2002, the program, the hardware and the media were unreadable except in a few rare instances where the original machine survived. The irony of course is that the original Domesday Book is perfectly accessible over 900 years later.
Another example, is the 1960 USA census data written on tapes that were accessible by Unvacl, a technology that has now been obsolete for many decades. Similar stories of loss of digital content have been found in other countries for example in Australia petroleum data tapes of considerable commercial value from the 1960’s were only readable on two machines in the world-one located in Texas and the other in Japan.
Challenges for Preserving Digital Heritage
The challenges facing digital heritage preservation are many and here all I intend to do is to provide a general outline of these challenges. We may do well to paraphrase the conclusion of the UNESCO/Vancouver conference where it stated that digital information is being lost because of technical problems, because its value is underestimated, because of the absence of legal and institutional framework or because custodians lack the knowledge and skills and funding.
Let us take these challenges one by one. There is little doubt that digital technology offers huge advantages over its print counterpart, however digital technology and associated internet and web technologies are in a state of flux. They are characterized by new standards and protocols which are being defined on a regular basis for the file formats, compression techniques, hardware components, network interfaces, storage media and devices. Magnetic and optical discs are being re-engineered continuously to store more and more data. Specific challenges for preserving digital contents take a variety of forms.
First, there is the dynamic nature of digital contents. Preservation in the analogue world involves static objects like printed documents, manuscripts and other artefacts. Collecting and storing these paper-based documents is simple and straight forward. Difficulties in digital preservation come when we deal with interactive web pages, geographic information systems etc. For example, websites have links that not only change but point to dynamically changing sites. There is the problem of machine dependency. Digital contents are machine dependent. It may not be possible to access the information unless there is appropriate hardware and associated software which will make it understandable. Techno-obsolescence is considered the greater threat to digital contents.
There is the problem of the fragility of the media. The storage media used for storing digital contents are inherently unstable and fragile because the media deteriorate rapidly due to the elements(high temperature, high relative humidity, pollution etc) and even poor handling. Besides, unintentional corruption, digital contents are amenable to intentional corruption, manipulation and abuse. The ease with which digital contents can be altered and amended necessitates that digital preservation also addresses the issues associated with ensuring the continued integrity and authenticity of digital contents.
Lastly, there is the issue of technological obsolescence. Technological obsolescence can affect hardware (including storage media and devices to read them) software and file format. Computers are continuously being replaced by faster and more powerful versions. Even though the media may physically serve for years, the technology to read and interpret them may exist for only a brief period of time. Commercial software developers regularly release new versions of their software and associated file formats with added features and functionalities. A good example is the Word Star which reigned for some decades ago but which has now being long superseded.
On digital preservation, there are huge intellectual property right issues. These have substantial impact on digital preservation perhaps much more so than for books and other analogue materials. Long-term preservation and access may require migration of digital material onto new formats or through emulation and other methods which may require appropriate legal permission or authorization. Indeed, simply refreshing digital content to another medium may lead to infringement of intellectual property rights. Digitization of analogue materials faces the same challenges. The fact that digital content can be easily copied and distributed easily raises additional concern over access. Organizations involved in digital preservation must understand issues of access.
Our inability to adequately preserve our digital heritage may be attributed to knowledge and skills deficit. It may be argued that had we better knowledge and skills, the situation we find ourselves today would have been vastly different all other things being equal. There are a number of ways of improving this situation. The first is through formal education and training in library and archival schools. The second is through participation in workshops and conferences the type being organized at the moment and finally there is need for vigorous self-education through reading. Any and all of these avenues must be vigorously explored if we are to make up for the time we have lost and take us back from the brink of the digital dark age.
Happily enough, the International Council on Archives has recently established the Africa Programme which tries to promote co-ordinated support for archival development in Africa. A priority of this programme is education and training in which Digital Records Curation programme (DRCP) will feature prominently. The DRCP will last from 2018-2020 and has Anglophone and Francophone streams. Mr James Lowry and Alicia Chilcott are the main authors of the course handbook which is the outcome of this undertaking. The handbook consists of: a course handbook, lesson plans and preservation slides. When this becomes available in our library schools it certainly will go a long way in improving the level of knowledge and skill in digital preservation.
Lastly, the issue of and organizational support and funding must be confronted. These two issues are logically interconnected because once there is organizational support for digital preservation, funding may likely not pose a serious challenge. But there is the problem of convincing and persuading the top management of the organization of the need for digital preservation. Here, there should be proper co-ordination and synergy between information professionals and IT experts in the organization. The issue of funding formed a part of the discussion during the 2012 UNESCO/Vancouver conference on digitization and digital preservation. The long-term preservation and protection of digital content involves some cost which can be considerable depending on the size of the digital content. Start-up costs will certainly cover staff, hardware, electricity, domain registration, bandwith and software. In addition, ongoing maintenance service costs must be added pushing the overall cost much higher.
I am pleased to welcome all participants at this conference to Abuja to take part in this first ever national conference on digital preservation. I want to seize this opportunity to thank organizations that have supported this conference as well as paper presenters who have worked so hard to turn in their papers in good time. Finally, I wish to thank all members of PAC NLA who have make sacrifices financially and materially to ensure the success of this conference. Our thanks also go to the chairman and many other members of the working committee. It may be invidious to mention names but I need to thank Dr Abioye, Mrs Oyelude and Mrs Adeagbo for their indefatigability and commitment to the success of this conference.
Memory of the World in the Digital Age, Digitization and Preservation, September 26 to 29, 2012 Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
American Library Association for Collections and Technical Services, Research and Reformatting Section Working Group on Defining Digital Preservation, Washington DC, 2007.