Digital preservation is for everyone (on World Digital Preservation Day and everyday)

By Elliott Bledsoe, Co-lead

A hand illustration showing anthropomorphised digital file formats and media types wearing paper crowns such as CD ROM, floppy disks, HTML code, film and DOC files. Around them are colourful balloons and streamers. The CD ROM character on the left holds a flagpole on which  is a flag mid-flight that reads, ‘Happy World Digital Preservation Day’.
The illustration graphic of cartoon CD ROMs, floppy disks, HTML code, film and DOC files for World Digital Preservation Day (WDPD) 2023. Credit: Digital Preservation Coalition.

Today is World Digital Preservation Day. Friday last week (27 October) was World Day for Audiovisual Heritage. Here at Creative Commons Australia we know the many artefacts, artworks, manuscripts, books, newspapers, ephemera, digital files, archival records, historical documents and other cultural heritage held in the collections of galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM) is instrumental to a thriving knowledge and cultural commons where ethical, inclusive, and purposeful sharing that serves the public interest is the norm. Digital preservation gets important cultural heritage off hard drives and out of archive boxes, and onto the internet.

While the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC) is focused on digital material, preservation of born-digital and digitisation of analogue content are equally important. Both share problems such as complicated copyright and material being orphaned, digital heritage such as video games and other digital formats have additional concerns deriving from a lack of interoperability, obsolescence, emulation and similar issues. Here we are talking about both.

Sometimes digital preservation is dismissed as a ‘libraries and archives thing’, but at CC Australia we recognise that ensuring ongoing access to digital content and digitising cultural collections and making them available online contributes to a diverse range of industries in many ways. Here’s some ways that happens in education, the arts, research, government and other sectors, and how digital preservation supports communities, cultural identity, cultural participation and cohesion.

Education & learning

Digitised historical materials are widely used in education to enhance the learning experience for students, lifelong learners and the general public. They educate people about the past and promote cultural understanding. Whether cultural materials are incorporated in presentations, educational resources or online learning tools, digital preservation makes our rich cultural heritage more discoverable and searchable for teachers, lecturers and instructors across the country and the world.

Arts & creativity

Historical material can play muse to all kinds of creative pursuits. Digital archives are a vibrant resource for the arts and creative industries to draw on when creating compelling narratives and storytelling. Filmmakers, game developers, writers and other creators regularly draw inspiration from cultural heritage materials of all kinds. Writers of historical fiction and nonfiction, family and community historians, documentarians and producers of other factual content are just some of the types of creators that incorporate historical sources into their creative projects. Access to digital content and digital versions of cultural collections inspires new stories told in new ways, engaging audiences with history and culture in new and innovative ways. Digital preservation also helps to promote the work of artists and creators to wider audiences.

Research & data

Digital preservation and digitisation can also be the inspiration for research. Academics and researchers rely extensively on historical material for myriad journal articles and other research outputs. What is in digital archives (or not in them!) can establish new fields of research inquiry and facilitate new research collaborations.

Less formally, private research is often tied to historic materials and digital access is also invaluable to the diversity of history societies, reenactors, family history and genealogy groups and other local and community history groups.

Cultural collections are also a source of data. Once in a digital form, collections can be analysed, interpreted, curated and presented in many different ways. Plus, cataloguing digital and digitised materials make them searchable, increasing discoverability and retrieval for academics, students, history buffs and the public at large.

Government information

Significant volumes of government information are housed in libraries and archives in digital and analogue formats. Materials related to the function of governments, to legislative process and to the development and deployment of public policies are just some of what is held in collections. Retaining access to digital files and digitising government records and making them available to the public contributes to Open Government by ensuring transparency, accountability and historical accuracy of government material.

Cultural identity & community cohesion

Digitisation sees communities connect and reconnect with each other and their culture through cultural heritage. These items help them maintain their cultural identity, fostering a sense of pride and belonging. At the same time, they celebrate diversity, promoting understanding and appreciation of different cultures. Access to digital and digitised historical materials is also fundamentally linked to the exercise of the human right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts.

This is not to diminish the sometimes ugly truths that can become memorialised in cultural collections. It is true that digital preservation can reveal inequities and exclusion from the past. When cultural heritage is managed respectfully, with sensitivity and in consultation with the communities they relate to, collections can become a catalyst for much needed change.

Other industries

Even further afield, digital preservation can contribute to many other pursuits: journalism and news reporting, cultural tourism, health and ageing and so many other fields.

Cultural heritage

Of course, digital preservation contributes immeasurably to GLAM organisations themselves. For cultural heritage the value of digitisation is huge. It preserves artefacts, artworks, manuscripts, books, newspapers, ephemera, archival records, historical documents and other cultural heritage in any format. Likewise, making that material available online it frees them from the limitations of physical proximity to the host institution. Cataloging and metadata makes the material searchable and discoverable, presents them to a wider audience. Preserving digital material and digitising analogue content also protects rare and fragile items from degradation, damage or loss by reducing physical handling.

Digitisation projects also create ways for GLAM institutions to engage new audiences through crowdsourcing efforts such as text-correction of optical character recognition (OCR).

Advancing Open Culture

To truly unleash the power of open access to cultural heritage, barriers hindering digitisation efforts must be addressed. GLAM and other cultural, educational and scientific bodies are key stakeholders of and participants in a thriving knowledge and cultural commons. One piece to that puzzle is a Recommendation on Open Culture – “a positive, affirmative and influential international normative instrument (a “recommendation”) enshrining the values, objectives, and mechanisms for open culture to flourish.” Another is copyright law reform advocacy locally and internationally calling for strong copyright exceptions and limitations that enable access to GLAM collections for sharing and reuse.

This World Digital Preservation Day, the CC Australia community wants to know how digital preservation of cultural heritage is contributing to your industry?

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