Every year, the international digital preservation community meets for the iPRES conference, an opportunity for practitioners to exchange knowledge and showcase the latest developments in the field. With the 2020 conference unable to take place due to the global pandemic, digital preservation professionals instead gathered online for #WeMissiPRES to ensure that the global community remained connected. Our graduate trainee digital archivist Simon Mackley attended the first day of the event; in this blog post he reflects on some of the highlights of the talks and what they tell us about the state of the field.
How do you keep the global digital preservation community connected when international conferences are not possible? This was the challenge faced by the organisers of #WeMissIPres, a three-day online event hosted by the Digital Preservation Coalition. Conceived as a festival of digital preservation, the aim was not to try and replicate the regular iPRES conference in an online format, but instead to serve as a bridge for the digital preservation community, connecting the efforts of 2019 with the plans for 2021.
As might be expected, the impact of the pandemic loomed large in many of the talks. Caylin Smith (Cambridge University Library) and Sara Day Thomson (University of Edinburgh) for instance gave a fascinating paper on the challenge of rapidly collecting institutional responses to coronavirus, focusing on the development of new workflows and streamlined processes. The difficulties of working from home, the requirements of remote access to resources, and the need to move training online likewise proved to be recurrent themes throughout the day. As someone whose own experience of digital preservation has been heavily shaped by the pandemic (I began my traineeship at the start of lockdown!) it was really useful to hear how colleagues in other institutions have risen to these challenges.
I was also struck by the different ways in which responses to the crisis have strengthened digital preservation efforts. Lynn Bruce and Eve Wright (National Records of Scotland) noted for instance that the experience of the pandemic has led to increased appreciation of the value of web-archiving from stakeholders, as the need to capture rapidly-changing content has become more apparent. Similarly, Natalie Harrower (Digital Repository of Ireland) made the excellent point that the crisis had not only highlighted the urgent need for the sharing of medical research data, but also the need to preserve it: Coronavirus data may one day prove essential to fighting a future pandemic, and so there is therefore a moral imperative for us to ensure that it is preserved.
As our keynote speaker Geert Lovink (Institute of Network Cultures) reminded us, the events of the past year have been momentous quite apart from the pandemic, with issues such as the distorting impacts of social media on society, the climate emergency, and global demands for racial justice all having risen to the forefront of society. It was great therefore to see the role of digital preservation in these challenges being addressed in many of the panel sessions. A personal highlight for me was the presentation by Daniel Steinmeier (KB National Library of the Netherlands) on diversity and digital preservation. Steinmeier stressed that in order for diversity efforts to be successful, institutions needed to commit to continuing programmes of inclusion rather than one-off actions, with the communities concerned actively included in the archiving process.
So what challenges can we expect from the year ahead? Perhaps more than ever, this year this has been a difficult question to answer. Nonetheless, a key theme that struck me from many of the discussions was that the growing challenge of archiving social media platforms was matched only by the increasing need to preserve the content hosted on them. As Zefi Kavvadia (International Institute of Social History) noted, many social media platforms actively resist archiving; even when preservation is possible, curators are faced with a dilemma between capturing user experiences and capturing platform data. Navigating this challenge will surely be a major priority for the profession going forward.
While perhaps no substitute for meeting in person, #WeMissiPRES nonetheless succeeded in bringing the international digital preservation community together in a shared celebration of the progress being made in the field, successfully bridging the gap between 2019 and 2021, and laying the foundations for next year’s conference.
#WeMissiPRES was held online from 22nd-24th September 2020. For more information, and for recordings of the talks and panel sessions, see the event page on the DPC website.