By coincidence I find myself working from home on the day a new US president is inaugurated. The coincidence: the last time an American president took office I was also working from home. Speeches and punditry burble through the kitchen radio as I hammer out a few more lines of something at the dining table. Same radio, same pundits, same table, very different presidents. A different William too I suppose, mostly the effect of acquiring two children and a dog but also the result of completing 8 years at the DPC. The DPC is very different, too, now. So I find myself in reflective mood, considering the distances travelled and the road to come.
I joined the DPC not long after Barrack Obama moved into the White House. I moved my few boxes into that tiny office in HATII on 23rd February 2009. It’s worth recalling the difference between DPC 2009 and DPC 2017. The most important change has been our membership, more-or-less doubling from 32 to 63. It’s a remarkable statistic in the tough fiscal environment, and even more so when you realise how many of our 2009 members simply no longer exist. Agencies like the Research Information Network, Museums Libraries and Archives Council, and the Centre for Digital Library Research didn’t so much leave the Coalition as expire. The number doesn’t tell you about our growing diversity: how our interaction with banks, manufacturers and architects has set a trend for expansion into the commercial world. And the numbers don’t tell you about how global the Coalition has become of late: the UN, NATO, UNHCR, the European Central Bank, the Academic Preservation Trust, The University of Berne, the International Criminal Tribunal have all joined in the last three years.
This growing membership means more for everyone – and if you’re not a member yet then it’s time to get on board. DPC is a practical example of the network effect which gets more productive the more links are established. More members means more briefings, more publications, more advice and more support. And more activity means more profile, more resource and more output. The staff complement has trebled – there are now 6 of us in the office – and the Board and its sub-committees has become increasingly active as we structure the governance to maximise our responsiveness without losing coherence. Our work is now neatly ordered into four distinct workstreams each of which has been mandated from the membership. The staff structure has been carefully constructed to match these needs and the back-office comprehensively re-modelled to accommodate the growth.
A New Mandate
It turns out that this is what the world needed in 2009. But, the babble from my kitchen is not about the past. The press has not gathered to review what Barrack Obama did; they are speculating about what Donald Trump is going to do next with his new mandate. The world – me included – waits with some trepidation. But with smaller horizons and aware of the many constraints and opportunities which surround me, I am invited to consider: what will the DPC do next? What does the world need now? How should the DPC respond?
Formally speaking the DPC has a strategic plan – a mandate from our members – which frames our activities. It is time-bound, running out on 31st December 2017. So it’s very clear what the DPC needs: we need a to renew and update our mandate with a new strategic plan. This is going to be a significant part of my work in the year ahead and is going to need all manner of wisdom and insight from our members and friends around the world. In some sense the DPC’s mandate affects everyone in the digital preservation community whether they are members or not.
Some parts of this come easily based on experience. For example, the DPC has previously enjoyed a three-year strategic planning cycle: long enough to do a little but not long enough to do much. Maggie Jones, who set up the DPC, has reminded me how bold that seemed and how the first board meeting anticipated the DPC’s mission being completed within 18 months. 15 years later it’s time to give ourselves the credit of existence and propose a plan which is two years more strategic.
Some parts need professional help. The Articles of Association – which is in effect our constitution – looks very dated these days. For example, until an amendment was adopted at the AGM in November 2016 we were limited to 22 full members: and in January 2017 we approved our 23rd full member. We’re registered as a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee, an antiquated and puzzling formulation which confuses procurement offices the world over. And we’re still legally registered in ‘England and Wales’. I am not sure why both and not one or other: but I know that most of our activity (and therefore tax) is paid in Scotland. And the benefits of registration in ‘England and Wales’ are becoming more uncertain for an outward looking agency that looks to build partnerships in Europe. These are important matters but I am an archaeologist working very hard to pretend that I am a digital preservation expert and I won’t pretend to be a corporate lawyer too. Help will be needed.
Some of it will come from introspection. I like the simplicity of the DPC’s fourfold mandate and how the staff structure and work plan follows it so neatly. DPC has 4 strategic objectives and offers 4 things to its members – advocacy and communications; workforce development; research and practice; and sustainability and partnerships. It’s a simple model which invites its elements to collide and overlap productively, and thus forces the staff to collaborate with each other. One might say that our work plan is an exercise in collaboration and coalition-building. But the 4 objectives are not of equal size. I mean ‘workforce development and skills’ is a clear enough topic but could consume the entire resource in a single strategic objective; communications and advocacy encompasses the whole world; the support and advice we could give under ‘research and practice’ grows exponentially with the membership; and sustainability is a full-time job without having to worrying about partnerships too. We can reflect this in the new plan. Perhaps ‘communications’ could become ‘community development’ and include the ‘partnership’ bit; perhaps sustainability should be a distinct ongoing objective; and perhaps the research and practice needs just more resources.
Other parts I am going to have to have to speculate on and I welcome the advice of members and friends around the world. Here are four ideas to get the ball rolling
If we turn ‘communications and advocacy’ into ‘community development’ then we lose our mandate for the chippy campaigning implied by ‘advocacy’. Public policy development used to be one of our strengths, making a nuisance of ourselves in the corridors of power to affect a policy and regulatory environment responsive to the need for digital preservation. In the last few years we’ve done less of that and instead we’ve invested in advocacy tools so that others can make the case. Arguably we have become much better at internal advocacy and a much better ally of those who are making the case for investment. But our messages have become more nuanced over time so like many policy shops we have found it harder to sell subtler messages. Therefore digital preservation remains stuck in the public consciousness with hysterical, over-blown prophesies of a digital dark age which will only be overcome through some engineering innovation of bomb-proof, time-proof, Trump-proof storage. It is embarrassing to have to explain to government ministers the difference between digitization and digital preservation. And too often we find ourselves on the wrong side of the ‘right to be forgotten’ debate and seem strangely out of the loop with respect to the cybersecurity agenda, even though we have a lot to offer both. I am firmly of the view that DPC needs to maintain its campaigning mandate. I won’t pretend it’s easy but perhaps having ‘advocacy’ as a separate objective from community development would concentrate our efforts to make sure digital preservation is neither overlooked nor misunderstood.
Our ‘research and practice’ work includes a commitment to ‘better tools, smarter processes and enhanced capacity in digital preservation’. It’s an always open challenge because the tools and smarter processes are perpetually emerging. The fundamental technologies which constitute our digital creativity are intrinsically dynamic. So we offer improvement but not completion. How might such improvement be manifested and how might it be deepened? DPC faces two directions here. We can offer a lot of advice and guidance to our members about how to do digital preservation based on our privileged appreciation of cutting-edge tools and services; and we can represent the needs of our members to developers, with community-validation (or challenge) to ensure that solution providers properly understand problem owners.
Everything we have done to meet this objective has been good: but I can see at least three ways it could be extended over a five-year period. Firstly, the DPC’s pivotal position between developers and collection owners means we’re well placed to compile a sort of technology roadmap for digital preservation. Secondly, we have a role in standards development: encapsulating, refining and abstracting good practice and making it available to others to implement. It seems to me that digital preservation needs these two services and DPC is relatively well placed to offer them either directly or in some collaborative way on behalf of all. Perhaps more importantly is the need to offer a platform for tool or service development and deployment. I cannot imagine DPC ever being an IT vendor, storage provider or seller of DP products. But there are parts of the digital preservation community crying out for sustainably-funded, community-owned tools and services. And 15 years later, here we are. Perhaps it’s time the development of common tools and services became an explicit objective of the DPC, to the advantage of the whole digital preservation community and with some explicit privilege to members.
Digital Preservation: All of us first?
A connected thought on digital preservation comes to mind, with regard to commercial agencies. Although we are vendor neutral, DPC has always engaged to a greater or lesser extent with digital preservation vendors. It’s become obvious to us – it should have been obvious a long time ago – that DPC members benefit from being able to access the multitude of digital preservation service providers and that a large, lively market place for solutions is in everyone’s interest. We’ve frankly not been very good at talking to vendors and couldn’t figure out how to make sure that such an engagement could be an explicit benefit for our members. So in 2017 we have introduced a new ‘commercial supporter’ programme which will be ring-fenced as a sort of trust so that we can give early-years training and travel grants. It gives the vendors a marketing opportunity and allows them to speak to our members and understand their requirements better: but it explicitly doesn’t interfere with our commentary and advice which remains fiercely independent. It’s a solution so simple it only took us 15 years to find.
And there’s the whole world to consider. DPC started as a collaboration between agencies in the UK and Ireland. It’s always been a little bit international but unless you looked really closely you would not have guessed. We used to turn down applications outside the UK and Ireland on principle but frankly became embarrassed at the number of requests. So, especially after the collapse of APA we started accepting applications from international agencies who had some interest or connection to the UK or Ireland – NATO, European Central Bank, United Nations and others. Then in summer 2016 we extended the offer of membership to any agency that wanted to join, providing this didn’t destabilise our existing allies around the world like NCDD or nestor (who have a sort of geographical mandate) or OPF and IIPC who have a distinct but complementary thematic mandate. This has provoked a lot of interest around the world and since then all of our new members have been from outside the UK or Ireland. Although increased internationalization won’t change our mandate directly, it does shake up our assumptions about the means of operation. Travel has always been a concern, but time zones matter more to us now. And how best should an emergent international organization be structured: is it a network of networks?; is it a franchise?; does it have local chapters?; branch offices? I’d like someone to show me how to set up a complicated multi-national enterprise.
Be advised: this is speculation for two important reasons. Firstly, no one has yet told me where the money will come from and let’s be clear that we can only take on what we can reasonably afford. Our resources are stretched already and – mostly because of the incredible commitment of the staff which it is my privilege to lead – deployed incredibly efficiently. It is an unavoidable truth that the future will have to be fully funded. It is also a subtler truth that the DPC isn’t an alternative to the digital preservation community and we should not inadvertently find ourselves in competition with members and friends around the world. There is a lot of work to be done and only a small resource available to achieve it. If someone else is already doing all of this, or wants to stake a claim then that’s fine. Be assured of our promise to promote effective and accessible digital preservation tools and solutions wherever we find them, and we will do that with a special joy when someone else is funding them.
So DPC will be talking a great deal about itself in the next twelve months. It’s not because we’re inward looking or self-regarding: rather because we want to renew our programme and our mandate for the trials and opportunities that lie ahead. And because we’re a coalition we want everyone to get involved. Over those 5 years DPC will grow and flourish, continually extending an open hand of friendship to everyone who wants to ensure our digital memory is accessible tomorrow. Perhaps the next 5 years will see another presidential inauguration. As I write these last lines the radio reminds me of Donald Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again’. It always seemed to me an odd slogan: at the DPC I think our best times are yet to come.