The problem of selection in digital heritage

At the World Library and Information Congress in Lyon last summer, the UNESCO session was spent on the problem of selection in digital heritage. It is one of the challenging subjects within the PERSIST project, an initiative of UNESCO, ICA, IFLA and other partners, that tries to enhance the sustainability of digital heritage.

Before the advent of the internet, national libraries had a relatively clear cut task: to collect the national output of books, journals and newspapers. Nowadays, a lot of information is made available through the internet, and traditional selection criteria have become much more difficult to apply. A lot of libraries have started to ingest digital documents and websites, and wrestle to keep this growing amount of digital contents available in good shape so that future investigators can find and use the information it contains and can experience to a certain extent how the internet looked and felt in the past. The explosion of digital content however forces libraries and other heritage institutions to select what they want to keep. Not every individual tweet and web-posting deserves to be kept for all eternity, but how can we sift something that has lasting value from the ephemeral?

First step towards guidelines

Ingrid Parent, librarian of the University of British Columbia and within the PERSIST steering committee responsible for the work of the ‘content task force’ expressed the view that the Lyon meeting is a first step towards the writing of selection guidelines for digital heritage. The report of the meeting points to three roads that the task force could take in its further activities to this goal:

  • Further elaboration of the questions raised and the suggestions put forward by the article of Titia and Bram van der Werf, e.g.:
    - How can heritage institutions in practice select on the basis of use (the bits about the bits) instead of on the basis of content (the bits).
    - How can governments influence users to change their on-line behavior in directions that are conducive towards digital preservation?
  • Stimulate the sharing of experiences and the division of labour between heritage institutions:
    - Which lessons can be learnt from the experiences that have been made with web harvesting by institutions like the BnF and the New Zealand National Library?
    - What parts of the digital domain will remain uncollected if current practices are not changed, and how serious would be the losses?
  • The ethical-political dimensions of archiving:
    - How can UNESCO support countries and institutions with the development of good archival laws and – even more important – with the compliance to these laws?
    - Is it possible to adopt ethical-political guidelines for international cooperation between archives, or for the selection of heritage in other countries? These could encompass both digitisation projects and the harvesting on born-digital heritage from the non-national domain. 

Digital information is difficult to preserve over longer periods of time. Carriers like hard disks have a short life span, and even if one manages to keep the bits and bytes, the risk that current hard- and software is unable to process the old data is very real. Archives, museums and libraries are acutely aware of these problems, yet they cannot find solutions on their own. The UNESCO PERSIST Project stimulates the debate between these institutions, government and the ICT-industry in order to promote digital sustainability. In its first phase PERSIST was coordinated by the Netherlands National Commission for UNESCO.

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