Better together: raising awareness of digital preservation

Sarah Middleton

Sarah Middleton

Digital preservation is one of those things we cannot (effectively) do on our own: it relies on co-ordinating a range of skills and services from within or outside our organizations. And this means we need as many people as possible to be aware of what it is, why it matters, what it entails, and what you need to do it.

Which makes advocating for, and raising awareness of, digital preservation one of the most crucial tasks in the process.

Even for those organizations for which digital preservation is well established, there will be new challenges, staff changes, and the support required to enable effective digital preservation is likely to constantly change.

Which also makes advocating for digital preservation not just a crucial task but an ongoing one.

To draw attention to digital preservation in the early days we would use ‘shock and awe’ tactics, tales of disaster and woe – we talked about digital dark ages, risk, loss (sometimes we still do where we need to). But solutions have emerged and we have been able to be more subtle in our messages. Advocating for digital preservation has become increasingly about identifying stakeholders and helping them understand:
• how their choices make digital collections more or less resilient.
• the benefits they will accrue from the active management of well-formed and accessible digital materials.
• the necessity of investment – whether time, money, or other resources – and the extent to which it is required to achieve these benefits.

The ability to communicate these points has, therefore, emerged as a necessary skill for our community.

At the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC) one of our strategic aims is to support the creation of ‘a political and institutional climate more responsive and better informed about the digital preservation challenge; raising awareness about the new opportunities that resilient digital assets create.’

One of the ways we empower our knowledge community is by providing resources to support this communication.

Last year, the DPC and UNESCO developed and released the Executive Guide on Digital Preservation (Executive Guide) to do just that. It provides practitioners with a resource to support communications with senior executives, legislators, budget holders, decision and policy makers with a view to embedding the value of digital preservation at the core of every organization.

Users of the Executive Guide may belong to organizations of any and every kind: memory and heritage institutions, commercial organizations, government bodies and not-for-profits. The development of the resource is supported by UNESCO whose member states each have a role in implementing the UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Preservation of, and Access to, Documentary Heritage Including in Digital Form.

And in order to support as many organizations as possible, in their mission to sustainably preserve our digital heritage, the Executive Guide aims to be as broad reaching as possible. It does, however, recognize that even within the same sector or state, every organization is different, has different priorities, risk factors and motivators. It therefore presents a set of generic and sector-specific statements, which may be selected and tailored by individual organizations to assist with internal advocacy.

Digital Preservation illustration
Your organization may have other priorities than digital preservation: show them how digital preservation can support their own motivators

By the way – we are delighted to report that the Executive Guide is being translated into French, Spanish and Arabic as we speak!

As with many of the DPC’s resources, the knowledge community is actually empowering itself. The Executive Guide is community-developed and community-owned. The statements contained within the resource are contributed by volunteer members of the DPC representing a portion of that same global digital preservation knowledge community.

And the statements are tools we can use to help sell the idea of digital preservation within organizations: whether that be through the optimistic Opportunities or through ‘shock and awe’ tactics using the Risks. It depends on your organization, and the audience you are talking to.


Step 1: Know your audience
This might sound like the most obvious thing to say – but knowing who you are talking to is a fundamental part of the process. It is important because every ‘receiver’ of the message interprets it in a different way. Understanding who you are talking to, helps you anticipate the way they will do this, so you can make sure this is done accurately and the message is understood.

Step 2: Identify their concerns
I said every ‘receiver’ interprets the message you send them in a different way, and this is because everyone has their own interests, concerns and priorities. You can identify organizational commitments/mission/motivators by consulting your organization’s Strategic Plan. And having this information will help you present your message in a way that appeals to Executives of the organization and makes it more likely that the message will be understood in relevant terms.

Some examples (taken from the Executive Guide) might be:

• Accountability – Does the organization need to remain transparent in its activities, to demonstrate what it does or the extent to which it does it? This is often the case when public money is being spent.
• Corporate/ Cultural Memory – perhaps organization is obliged to accept and preserve digital records as part of a national or political remit. Being seen to be able to fulfil that mandate reflects on the capability and credibility of the organization.
• Reputation – not just for memory institutions, I am sure all organizations will want to maintain their standing in their field or market. For public organizations, a perceived loss of reputation can have a knock-on effect for funding, and for commercial organizations it can mean loss of consumer confidence, loss of market share, reduced revenue.

Step 3: Tailoring your message
Once you have identified the organization’s motivators, or the area of concern for a target audience, these can form the basis of a powerful message about digital preservation to meet that concern.

In matter of fact, we are no longer talking about digital preservation itself anymore; we’re talking about the benefits associated with digital preservation. We’re talking in the language of your audience, talking about accountability, about cost and about risk, and how to address that through digital preservation.

Step 4: Build your army of advocates
An ‘advocate’ for digital preservation is the ultimate goal. They are people within our organizations who will talk favourably about digital preservation for us, in their own terms. And of course, the more the merrier! The more people who are persuaded that digital preservation is a good thing the better – and increases the chances of the message getting to wherever it needs to get to.

Digital preservation itself is not the only thing done better together; almost certainly having an army of advocates divides this critical and ongoing task and multiplies the success.

Sarah Middleton, Head of Advocacy and Community Engagement for the Digital Preservation Coalition