A Reflection: Community Engagement in Digital Preservation

A Reflection: Community Engagement in Digital Preservation

A year and a half ago I started at the Open Preservation Foundation as their new Community Officer. I had big shoes to fill, and a lot of questions. My background wasn’t related to digital preservation, but coming from archiving and research I thought I knew what it entailed. Quickly, I realised I knew absolutely nothing; however, I learned I was most unaware of how passionate, dedicated and ridiculously clever this community is. As we continue to grow and overcome incomprehensible digital preservation challenges, I am always astounded at what there is to learn. 

The task of preserving our digital heritage is enormous and extends beyond the reach of our institutions and experts. It’s a collective responsibility that involves engaging the wider community in the preservation of our digital history, culture, and knowledge. A more fascinating and recent development has been a noticeable move towards public participation in these important preservation activities. This has promoted a cooperative strategy for preserving our digital past and providing a more accessible and welcoming approach to the community landscape. 

Today I am celebrating the main things I’ve learned about the relationship between community engagement and the advancement of digital preservation since donning my Community Officer hat. As obvious as they may be to many of you, these considerations are worth championing. 

Community Engagement

It’s pretty democratic! 

I had always considered that digital preservation was traditionally under the wing of specialised organisations, libraries, and archives; however, it is clear to me now that with the rise of digital platforms, collective knowledge and public resources have become integral in ensuring the long-term accessibility of digital content. Participation from the community democratises the preservation process by allowing for a variety of viewpoints and contributions to the landscape.

The community involvement, guidance, and education that I’m aware of have always broadened the tangible accessibility of digital content or increased the discussions that lead to this. Obviously, in an archive, volunteers and contributors help digitise, transcribe, and catalogue materials, making previously inaccessible or undiscovered content available to researchers, educators, and the general public. In its simplest argument, our job as preservationists does not exist without their efforts and direction. Their work directly impacts ours. To my knowledge, these exchange is mostly very levelheaded. 

There are diverse perspectives

Again , involving the community guarantees a more inclusive portrayal of history and culture. Local communities have access to information and resources that are often not included in larger archives. Empowering these communities to preserve their histories increases the overall diversity of our collective heritage. As a sector, we are lucky to have so many people willing to preserve underrepresented or marginalised voices. By encouraging contributions from diverse communities, digital preservation efforts become more comprehensive and reflective of varied experiences and narratives.

We have seen this tangibly in the diversity of the keynote speeches at iPRES in recent years – 2022s ‘Video Killed the Radio Star: preserving a nation’s Memory’ by Amina Shah, Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty’s ‘Digital Ties That Bind: Effectively Engaging With Communities For Equitable Digital Preservation Ecosystems’, and Sherry William’s response to the latter in 2023, ‘A Conversation with Sherry Williams about Community-focused Digital Preservation to name a few. These encourage us to embrace new perspectives. 

The educational opportunities 

Participation in preservation activities and initiatives educates and raises awareness about the importance of preserving our digital heritage. It provides an opportunity for people to gain a greater understanding of the difficulties involved in preservation and the significance of archive documents.

For International Women’s Day, I posted ‘DigitALL Inclusion this International Women’s Day’ inan attempt to suggest an edit-athon to increase the percentage of female editors and contribute to Wikipedia’s wider female-oriented documentation. While this wasn’t a successful endeavour, it was still a great opportunity to raise awareness about female participation in contributing to the digital, historical sector and has remained on my mind since. 

There’s great local knowledge

Community engagement allows us to utilise local knowledge and expertise. As mentioned earlier, communities often hold specialised knowledge about their history, traditions, or events that might not be documented elsewhere. Involving them in preservation efforts ensures the retention and distribution of information.

Community involvement often leads to the discovery of hidden or overlooked materials. Individuals might possess historical documents, photographs, or records of significance that, when shared or contributed to preservation projects, enrich the overall repository of digital content.

Increased public support has led to networking and awareness

I’ve come to realise that when the public is actively involved in preservation, it encourages a sense of ownership and responsibility. I’ve seen increased public support – or at least, vocalised support you then become aware of – and advocacy for preservation initiatives. This has resulted in more resources and attention. 

Take our International Comparison of Recommended File Formats; more people and organisations who have joined, considered and added to our efforts have increased the conversation around file formats. The meetings we host have provided a safe and educational space to advocate for changes and developments. The product of this work is developed by community submissions, which fosters a sense of public responsibility for its contents and upkeep. 

This community engagement has created a network where people can share skills, knowledge, and resources. The resulting increase in transparency and trust has allowed individuals to take responsibility for preservation processes and has ensured that their contributions are valued and utilised.

Quick musings

I was unable to attend iPRES this year, but kept up to date with what I could through social media and online papers. Through social media, I came across a discussion thread that was taking place following a presentation from Leo Konstantelos’s ‘Prioritizing Storage Media for Digital Archiving and Preservation’, “our directors – they are lovely people, but they don’t care about these things. they expect us to care.” We are in a fortunate – and I’m coming to realise, rare – position in which our Board of Directors do care. In this role, we are led by the voices of our community – in a neatly wrapped present where you tell us what you want, and we do our best to ensure it happens. 

There are constant questions I’m asking in my role, which is both a credit to how dedicated and advanced our community is, and a constant nuisance for my ability to manage my time. 

  • Are there more resources you need to more appropriately participate in digital preservation projects?
  • What partnerships would you like to see between organisations to enhance digital preservation efforts?
  • What process and workflows of digital preservation are you wanting to see in your institutions?
  • What do you see as the biggest challenges in preserving digital history? 

These questions have both immediate and long-term consequences, and the answers are rarely easy. Questions such as these always spark more conversation and discussion than they settle. Please feel free to share your thoughts on these in the comments. 

Involving the community in digital preservation endeavours is pivotal for preserving our shared digital heritage. Through collaborative efforts, we can ensure that invaluable digital content remains accessible, diverse, and safeguarded for future generations to explore and learn from.


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