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Shaping the culture and practice of digital preservation

Saturday morning, and I picked up an unread copy of the week’s Guardian g2 section where I chanced on a piece by Mark Lawson about some lost British television drama from the 1950s and 1960s that had resurfaced in the USA at the Library of Congress (LoC). I quickly tweeted four extracts (, enough presumably to exasperate Twitter followers. Yet in spite of Twitter’s length prejudices, there is much more to this article than even I tweeted. I finished by suggesting, even though this is a ‘mere’ newspaper article, that it might serve as a set text for digital preservation. Here’s why.

Sean Connery and Dorothy Tutin in the 1960 BBC adaptation of Colombe, one of the television dramas recovered by the Library of Congress

Sean Connery and Dorothy Tutin in the 1960 BBC adaptation of Colombe, one of the television dramas recovered by the Library of Congress

You won’t learn anything about technical preservation, clearly, but you will learn about what shapes culture, content and, crucially for preservation, selection, all within the context of a timespan – 50 years – and evolution of a medium – television – that most people today can understand from experience.

One short section I didn’t tweet an extract from was towards the end of the article, looking forward, and this part is perhaps even more important because that is where we have to project our role today.

First, one myth to be demolished is that there was a golden age of preservation pre-digital. To be fair, the purpose of such spin is fund raising, to emphasise comparatively a digital ‘black hole’ that may be looming unless we invest more in preserving digital content. Recently I tweeted a quote from the Economist: “the world has a better record of beginning of the 20C than of beginning of the 21C”. How is that measured? Chris Rusbridge’s tweeted reply used a blunt, part-asterisked word but made the point clear.

Just as we learn that luck has determined the fate of the TV drama recovered from the LoC

  • that the final part of the Romeo and Juliet is missing emphasises how dependent on luck our record of television of the past is

any visit to a local museum of social history, for example, will reveal mostly a random collection of artefacts that have, hopefully, been collated by a skilled curator to reflect stories of the area but which mostly owe their continuing existence to chance.

Where we do better in terms of more comprehensive and systematic preservation is for objects long established as having cultural significance, largely because of the processes that have created them: printed literature, books and, in the academic world, journals fall into this category. These processes feed directly into preservation in our major libraries, through mechanisms such as legal deposit. We don’t have to think about it: if it’s published and in print, it is worth preserving. It’s self-selecting and funded.

That isn’t where we are now with born-digital content and preservation, and Lawson shows us that is not where we were with television in its early years. Television today remains a medium infected with cultural elitism, in the UK ranging from Saturday night ITV to BBC4 and Sky television. So we can understand how this might have been worse in the 1960s, when TV was new and little understood in media terms.

What might concern us here is is how this affects selection for preservation. This is where I tweeted most extensively from Lawson. Here is the full paragraph:

“in terms of content and scheduling, these plays reflect a lost time. But the fact that these were the examples of British TV chosen to be stored in an American library reflects another bias. Several were screened in the US by the National Educational TV network, while the Romeo and Juliet was part of schools’ programming. Their admission to the Library of Congress may have been helped by their categorisation as theatre, literature or education, rather than as mere TV. As a result, this trove is limited to genres that executives regarded as good for viewers, rather than those viewers regarded as good: key sitcoms, quiz and chat shows of the same era will have vanished for ever, because no Washington librarian would have thought them worth keeping.”

Phrases that leap out here – categorisation, ‘mere TV’, executive selection, regarded as good, worth keeping – begin to explain what happened to this and other TV content of the time, and why.

Now apply that to digital content on the Web today. It is not hard to anticipate repeating these mistakes. Except, things have changed already. This is the critical and perhaps most revealing part of the article. Lawson starts to project forward to 2060, but his main point applies now:

“The final thought prompted by this discovery is that there is no risk of viewers in 2060 being invited to view lost treasures from today’s schedules. Detractors will jibe that this is because there is little worth conserving (even though these tapes do little to advance the case that the 1950s and 60s were a golden age of drama). No, the real difference between then and now lies in technology. Contemporary TV is indestructible. In a digital age, storage is not an issue: most transmissions are kept – even embarrassments that broadcasters might prefer to disappear are archived on file-sharing sites.”

Two things have happened here. Whereas the visual medium, especially television, may have been viewed by cultural archivists as largely ephemeral, visual content dominates on the Web, much of it created for or derived from television, or at least for small screen presentation. Technology, creativity and imagination are sweeping aside legal and cultural barriers. Second, there is also the idea that this choice – of what to watch and therefore what gets copied and hence ‘archived, however legitimately – has been democratised by access to digital content through the Web – overturning the perceived wisdom of the past, reference contents ‘regarded as good for viewers, rather than those viewers regarded as good’.

YouTube screenshot, catch-up tv

More recent example of television selection and 'archiving"

Except there is still a distinction between professional and personal archiving, and selection criteria and preservation processes will reflect that. The critical factor that differentiates digital from analogue content is volume, of production and consumption (Rosenthal expands the defining factors of digital preservation to include costs and rights as well as scale). That requires new ways of archiving, especially selection. Lawson points to the wisdom of the crowd becoming the mechanism of archiving on file-sharing sites.

It’s not clear that the timorous professional archiving community has yet recognised or understood the impact of the crowdsourced approach that massive digital content growth demands, or more particularly how it can apply this, because crowdsourcing requires that professionals relinquish at least a degree of control over selection. That’s the path of discovery that we are on now, and it starts with a recognition of the cultural shifts that are forcing the pace of change and shaping the selection criteria for preservation. That’s why Lawson’s text is a better starting point for this journey than many other formal texts on digital preservation.

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