Memory organizations Challenges in Securing the Digital Heritage

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Libraries, archives and museums must preserve a growing number and wide range of digital objects. This puts these memory organizations before considerable challenges.

In contrast to classical conservation that preserves a physical object, the goal of long-term digital archiving is the preservation not of a data carrier but of the digital information and digital performance. The particular difficulty arises from the fact that digital information is accessible only with the appropriate hard and software. These, however, are subject to constant and rapid change.

Technical challenges

For memory organizations, long-term digital archiving therefore means that they must be in the position to continually create all over again the conditions needed for the use of their digital holdings. The capacity to preserve unchanged the digital stream of zeros and ones, the bit stream, is thereby only the foundation. The interpretability of the data must also be preserved. This results in roughly two strategies. On the one hand, digital objects can be adapted to the current technical environment; here the data are migrated into new formats. On the other hand, old technical conditions can be emulated on a current system that provides the unaltered data with the environment they need to be used. Both approaches require effort and afford sources of error.

The problem of selection

Ideally, memory institutions should preserve the digital information that is needed now or will be needed in future. But how can they estimate today what will be of interest tomorrow? This is an old problem, but the digital world poses it again with a new sharpness. In contrast to the physical world, omissions here are hard to correct later. Information that is not secured soon after its appearance can easily become irrevocably lost, even if we later realize that its preservation would have been useful. There will be no digital equivalent of the accidental find in the attic.

Continuing their activities in the analogue realm, memory institutions also make a selection in accordance with their specific missions and possibilities in the digital domain. Yet in what does our digital cultural, scientific and administrative heritage really consist, and how can it be preserved? Given the rapid change of forms, the enormous increase in the amount of digital information and its transience, it is of great importance to open an overarching social discussion of this question. The mandate of classical memory institutions now covers only a small area of this field.

Costs, funding and qualified staff

One of the key challenges is the creation and establishment of a broad and solid funding base. In long-term digital archiving, an undertaking of long duration, many institutions are paradoxically dependent on mainly temporary project financing. Closely related to the issue of sustainable funding is the question to what extent suitable staff is available for emerging new tasks and how they can be employed in the long-term beyond the time-frame of a project.

Actors and structures

So far, numerous memory institutions have come up against their limits simply by continuing their existing tasks in digital space. Many, especially smaller organizations, are quite overwhelmed. In view of the slow development characteristic of state institutions, the role of private initiatives, as for example “Internet Archive”, cannot be overestimated. Of fundamental importance is the realization that long-term digital archiving can be carried out economically only if it can include the creators of digital information in the efforts to ensure its preservation.

Since many institutions are confronted by the same problems, collaboration is essential to find solutions. In Germany, this cooperation is organized above all by Nestor, the German competence network for long-term digital archiving. In addition to facilitating exchange among colleagues, Nestor also provides a place for subject-specific publications, organizes events, trains staff and sets and monitors standards.

Unsuitable legal framework

Particularly severe restrictions on memory institutions’ scope of action arise because of prevailing copyright laws. Reproductions and processing are necessary for preservation. But they count as copyright-related measures and must be approved by the copyright holder. A statutory exception would provide practical relief here, yet this has been called for in vain for many years. As a consequence, the current legal framework forces memory institutions into digital “amnesia” or else the acceptance of copyright infringement for the sake of digital preservation.

Broad debate about the cultural heritage

A majority of German memory organizations is actively engaged in transferring their frameworks of action for carrying out the social mission of securing of the cultural, scientific and administrative heritage to the digital world. At the same time, donors still fail to see this effort as a core task of memory organizations equal to others. Moreover, a national strategy for long-term digital archiving is lacking. And the current legal framework hampers memory institutions from carrying on their mission in the digital domain.

Memory organizations cannot redefine their position and create the required new conditions by themselves. Needed is a broad public debate throughout society on the digital cultural heritage.

This article is a slightly edited version of: Tobias Beinert/Armin Straube: “Aktuelle Herausforderungen der digitalen Langzeitarchivierung” (i.e., Current Challenges in Long-Term Digital Archiving), in Paul Klimpel and Jürgen Keiper (eds.): Was bleibt? Nachhaltigkeit der Kultur in der digitalen Welt (i.e., What Remains? The Sustainability of Culture in the Digital World). Berlin: 2013