From February 12-14, I attended the PASIG Conference where 150 individuals from 12 countries gathered to share experiences and insights on organizational, technical, social, business, and political aspects of digital preservation and archiving. Digital preservation involves the management and endurance of digital objects to ensure the authenticity, accessibility, and usability of content over time in the face of technological and organizational changes. Since 2007, the Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group (PASIG) has aimed to advance digital preservation and archiving by bringing together practitioners, industry experts, and researchers to share practical experience. With its rich history and vibrant culture, Mexico City provided an excellent venue for the conference, and the simultaneous translation during presentations provided a bridge between the English and Spanish-speaking attendees.

Conference Site and Host El Colegio de México, Mexico City

The program was rich and diverse–providing examples of challenges and opportunities in this program area and presenting regional perspectives from the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America, North America, and South America. The entire program was inspiring and thought provoking, and I provide a few key takeaways below.

Digital Preservation: The Big Tent

The scholarly record and the primary sources necessary to inform tomorrow’s scholarship are growing increasingly more diverse and distributed. When organizations such as the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) started archiving data in the early 1960s, their primary responsibilities were creating backup copies and capturing sufficient metadata and documentation. With the advancement of technologies, the scope of their preservation activities has broadened significantly in order to manage a range of vulnerabilities and threats spanning from technical malfunctions to media obsolescence, organizational failures to copyright restrictions. Also, the objects of preservation have evolved significantly, now including scholarly publications, images, audiovisual materials, websites, social media, virtual reality, and software. And the responsibility for digital preservation belongs to a widening group of professionals–the conference program included presentations from a range of specialists from libraries, archives, and museums.

Vibrant Preservation Community

The meeting provides yet more evidence of the deep expertise of the digital preservation community and its continuing robust exchange of best practices, standards, services, tools, training programs, and assessment tools. As I reflect on the conference, what impressed me the most was the generosity of the participants in sharing their knowledge and perspectives and their deep recognition that the grand challenges that we are dealing with require joining force, and building coalitions. Amy Rudersdorf from AVP demonstrated the use of the NDSA Levels of Digital Preservation (which is currently going through a revision) as a lightweight self-assessment tool to help organizations think through preservation issues, such as file formats, metadata, storage, data integrity and security. Ben Fino-Radin from Small Data Industries stressed the importance of using managerial strategies in preservation planning and introduced the Objectives and Key Results as a tool to set to communicate and monitor quarterly goals and results in organizations. Alex Chassanoff from the Educopia Institute highlighted the importance of supporting community projects and cited the Community Cultivation Field Guide as a tool for developing, managing, and sustaining community projects and programs.

Diversity, Inclusivity, and Social Justice

Several inspiring presentations drew attention to the value-based aspects of preservation and archiving and the importance of viewing curation efforts through the lens of inclusivity, diversity, and social justice. Mexican filmmaker Carlos Martínez Suárez’s keynote talk about documenting the lives of indigenous communities in Mexico put into perspective the the role of the El Colegio de México Library in collaborating with him to digitize and make the cultural testimonies accessible and enduring. It was gratifying to see examples of how archives can be reimagined as active sites of knowledge production and venues for community building, especially by engaging underrepresented and marginalized groups. Nancy Godoy (Arizona State University) and Veronica Reyes-Escudero (University of Arizona, author of Latinos in Libraries, Museums, and Archives) provided insights based on their work on documenting marginalized communities and curating community-driven archival collections. It was compelling to hear about the role of relationship building and trust, highlighting the importance of cultural competency as an essential curatorial skill. As digital content expands and programs get more heterogeneous and sophisticated, there is an increasing risk of inequality as many organizations, especially from developing countries, might not have access to adequate resources and preservation infrastructures.

Calculating and Conveying Risks and Value

Digital preservation programs are expensive and complicated to build and sustain, especially at an institutional level, relative to the demonstrated value they provide. Therefore, there were introductions to various preservation and archiving services, tools, and assessment metrics to help institutions identify their requirements and evaluate their organizational capacity and resources.  One of the questions that kept on coming up was, “What are the measurable and demonstrable benefits of digital preservation to help position it as a priority area?” On a related matter, there were lively exchanges about the cost of inaction, i.e., consequences of *not* preserving digital data. As exemplified by the cost of inaction calculator specifically developed for AV collections, such information might be instrumental for communicating the risks to stakeholders (especially at the leadership level) in order to promote preservation as an important strategic priority and a worthy investment.

Sustainability of Preservation Programs

The challenge of sustaining services and projects was highlighted throughout the presentations and Q&A sessions. There was strong acknowledgement that the preservation community has energy and enthusiasm for engaging in new partnerships and initiating programs. However, participants repeatedly reflected on organizational readiness and capacity, especially the sustainability challenges faced by institutions with limited resources for setting up and maintaining preservation and archiving programs. Many organizations continue to rely on start-up funds and one-time grants to develop and maintain services, which makes it complicated to transition them from project- to program-mode. Mark Phillips (University of North Texas) described his team’s efforts to move the Texas Digital Newspaper Program from a mainly externally-funded initiative to a model with diversified funding sources and an endowment to broadly support curation, preservation, and and educational programs. It provided an excellent example of how endowments or escrows can be used to factor in ongoing maintenance and preservation costs beyond the initial acquisition process. Miguel Ángel Márdero Arellano (Cariniana Network) presented a capacity building case study by describing how LOCKSS technology and the Global LOCKSS Network enabled the establishment of a collaborative architecture for preserving Brazilian open access scientific publications.

User Communities

Digital preservation has always been about access and ensuring content is usable. With the growing dependence on software and interactive and customizable interfaces, it is increasingly difficult to plan for the user experience without taking into consideration various contextual issues such as the software required to make sense of preserved data or an application needed to experience a new media art work. The key to digital  preservation is sustaining interactivity and variability to support future uses.

Common Themes

The digital preservation community constantly needs to navigate technical complexities and financial barriers. However, throughout the conference, one of the prominent themes was the potential disconnect between administrators and the teams who work on the ground regarding the importance of investing in preservation and archiving programs and resource needs. On a related matter, several presenters highlighted the importance of facilitating closer collaboration among teams with technology know-how and the individuals who have content and user-community expertise. If I were to form a word cloud with the most frequently mentioned issues, the prominent ones would be “storage is not archiving,” “preservation is not an end but a process,” “greatest challenges are organizational,” “digital preservation is an iterative process,” “it’s about managing risks,” and “preservation is about people.”

Suggested Topics for the Next PASIG

The program featured several valuable case studies and accounts from vendors (both commercial and open source) and customers of preservation and digital asset management services. In future PASIG events, it would be helpful to discuss how the existing services fit together (or provide alternative options) as we envision a complementary ecosystem. Also, are there any service gaps and where do we need to continue investing in tool development and testing?  The next PASIG could also examine the preservation status of published materials, which often entail complex rights management issues. Ensuring enduring access to scholarly publications such as ejournals and ebooks continues to be an important priority area, especially in the light of the burgeoning body of open access publications, some vulnerable due to the diverse range of publishing arrangements.

Thanks to the PASIG 2019 organizers and speakers for putting together such an informative and energizing conference!