William Kilbride

William Kilbride

Last updated on 22 February 2019

I fell into digital preservation pretty much by accident.  I am an archaeologist by training, inclining therefore to the slow lane of history.  I find a strange but productive juxtaposition between the hectic stylings of information technology and la longue durée of the archaeological record.  These themes have been for me an unexpected overture to a career in digital preservation where new technology and human history are in a sort of tension, occasionally even a sort of harmony.  But let me share an insight from this week, probably my favourite so far: there are records being created by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority with a lifecycle of around 10,000 years. Think about that. It means the records have to survive longer than writing has existed.  At the last count there were 5086 rings on the oldest surviving tree in the world, a bristle-cone pine in the White Mountains of California. These records have a lifecycle twice that long.  What’s a few thousand years between friends?

I am counting years just now because 2019 offers not one but two decennials to me.  I joined the Archaeology Data Service in 1999, my first, fully-fledged digital preservation job.  I had been tinkering with the issues before then, but I can now explicitly claim to have worked in digital preservation for twenty years.  Also, and more surprising, it’s exactly ten years since I started work at the DPC.  I started on the 23rd February 2009.  It’s hard to believe that nine years and 364 days later I find myself still battering out DPC themes on my laptop. 

Enough about me: a better way to think about it is to compare the digital preservation challenge and the DPC then and now.  A sort of ten-year challenge.  There’s a saying that you can’t see the impact of new technology in one year but are astonished to think what’s happened in the decade.  So here are some things to ponder about how we’ve all changed.

In 1999, the ADS accepted its first two digital archives.  The archives of Excavations at Eynsham Abbey and at the Royal Opera House in London seem trivial now but rest assured that almost every aspect of the workflow was coded by hand.  There was no alternative. 

By 2009, a scientific software company called Tesella was deep into development cycle of a product called Safety Deposit Box which was offered as an in-house or managed multi-tenant repository for digital preservation, while Ex Libris were working with National Library of New Zealand on their Rosetta product. Although there was a lot of interest in these products there were precious few buyers.  Dial forward a decade and there is now a lively and rapidly growing market for digital preservation technologies.  Tessella became Preservica and is now growing at something like 40% per year. There is a queue of new entrants into that market and the move from on-site installation to cloud-based services has reduced, if not entirely eliminated one of the major barriers to participation.  For me, the expansion of this market has been one of the defining features of the last decade of digital preservation.

Related, and perhaps the cause of this expansion has been the diversification of digital preservation.  There were maybe 150 people at the ‘Digital Preservation 2000’ meeting where I first encountered the plan that would become the DPC, and everyone of them from a national library, or major research institution (here’s a photo of Paul Wheatley, one of the amazing new people I met there).  In 2009 there were hints that business archives might be interested in this topic, but no clear path.  In 2019 it’s hard to imagine a digital preservation event without contributions from industry and commerce.  Indeed there would likely be complaints if there were not.  DPC now includes some familiar and unfamiliar names of agencies that don’t think of themselves as being memory institutions, but have such a large investment in long-term business processes that digital preservation is an inevitable and indispensable requirement. 

There’s also been an inflection that’s hard to pinpoint but which is undeniable about the coming pre-eminence of digital.  In 1999 the digital world was a facsimile of the analogue: with some efficiencies but few actual changes.  I still bought CDs, my first ADS laptop didn’t have wifi and my first mobile phone (also 1999) came in a sort of holster.  In 2009 I joined an in-vogue social media platform called Twitter which seemed a helpful way to keep in touch with Kevin Ashley, Maureen Pennock and a few other of my newish DPC friends who quite rightly wanted to know what the DPC was doing (and yes, in 2009 what I was doing was what the DPC was doing).  By 2019, social media is ubiquitous. I am not saying that Twitter alone has transformed the world, but that micro-blogging through social media via your phone is not a small change in communications, it’s a big one.  It’s just not like sending a postcard or making a phone call. If digital ceases to be an analogue of the analogue, then the preservation that we offer will need to be different too. And so the game is on for the disruptive digital archive where we’re either forced to change or we become the change.

I recall asking my interview panel what would be the best and worst aspects of the job. Chris Rusbridge’s instant answer hit home: that as director of the DPC one could quickly become frustrated at seeing everything but not being able to do anything.  These were wise words: ten years on and I am not sure I can point to a single byte that I’ve saved.  But I take comfort in the knowledge that I know some people who have done exactly that.  I’ve always known that the stars of the DPC are the members and my job has been to let the stars shine.  The stars will shine one way or another, so the real work has been to remind everyone to look up, and to make sure that everyone who looks up has a clear view and time to reflect. 

I know I’ve not always managed that, nor has it been my task alone, nor has it always been as simple as it sounds. I can’t celebrate ten years without offering an apology for those occasions when I’ve obstructed the view, or pointed in the wrong direction, or simply not been paying sufficient attention.  Also, it’s pretty lonely to celebrate on your own: I have to share the celebration with everyone who has contributed.  It’s dangerous to list people but sometimes necessary.  I think I am one of the few company directors I know what actively looks forward to Board Meetings: and for that I want to thank all the Board directors who have served the digital preservation community so diligently and in particular the Chairs who have guided and shaped my own work: Ronald Milne, Bruno Longmore, Richard Ovenden, Laura Mitchell and Juan Bicarregui. I have been tremendously lucky to share my work with smart and generous people over the years – smarter and more generous than I.   DPC has employed ten people since February 2009 and I owe a debt of gratitude to each of them too: Carol Jackson, Angela Dappert, Sharon McMeekin, Sarah Middleton, Lorraine Murray, Paul Gooding, Sara Thomson, Paul Wheatley, Alyson Campbell and Jenny Mitcham.  I recall also Ronald Milne telling me at the interview that the travel would be the worst part.  Hard to argue. I cannot close this vote of thanks without explicit thanking my family, especially Mairi-Claire, for the patience and encouragement on which all this depends. I have had too many early starts and far too many nights away from home. To be honest, just one of either would have been too many. 

For my own part, I am not the same person that walked into the DPC office ten years ago: and mostly I hope for the better. I'm certainly older, wiser and wider than I was then. I’ve moved house, written off a car and had another one written off for me. I have tied up the affairs of one parent and held the other’s hand so she didn’t walk towards dementia alone. We’ve acquired a dog and two children who joyfully run rings around me, even as the rings around me have grown. 

Ten years seems a surprisingly long time at the DPC, but it’s a margin of error in the archaeological record, and barely discernible in the long growth cycle of the bristle-cone pine.  I cannot imagine the next decade being any slower, or any less demanding, or any less fulfilling than the last. 

 I am grateful to Sarah Middleton who comments on a draft prior to publication.

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