Image of a scanner and computer screen

Over time, digital preservation has moved from a preoccupation with physical objects which embodied digital files, to online digital content.

In 1988, for example, the State Library of Victoria and Museum Victoria worked together on a videodisk for pictures. The Museum was a pioneer in collecting digital copies of historical photographs, through the work of Matthew Nickson and Ewan McGillivray; at the same time, the State Library had a large collection of historic pictures. Paradoxically, the Museum’s Biggest Family Album project, from 1985-1991, led to the publication of some nice books too, such as Mum and Dad made history.

Who can forget the threateningly voluminous CD-ROM avalanche in the early to mid-90s? It was such a brilliant idea to publish journals in digital, searchable form. Not so great an idea to use the CD-ROM and, even more problematical and fiscally alarming, the CD-ROM juke-box.

Moving online

The brief age of the CD-ROM soon passed as more and more content was created online, or moved online as it was digitised. Fortunately, in the mid-90s digital content started to move online, until now, digital content in a physical form is almost redundant. I still buy music on CDs, but apparently I am part of a shrinking minority.

When he retired from Museum Victoria, I think around 2003, Matthew Nickson suggested that Victoria’s cultural broadband network was in reality successor to the pioneering 1988 videodisc – its role, the transmission and dissemination of cultural content and information. He sent me a copy of our original submission, to prove it.

It is striking how quickly these innovative, transformational technologies – videodisc and CD-ROM became not only irrelevant, but dinosaurs.

Legal deposit of digital works

One landmark on digital preservation was the conference Multimedia Preservation: Capturing the Rainbow, organised by the National Preservation Office and held in November 1995 in Brisbane. I scored an invitation because of my expertise in legal deposit, acquired through longevity – I had gone to work in this area when I started working in libraries in 1974. I spoke about the legal deposit of digital works, which had not yet reached an advanced thinking stage.

You can track the passage of time by changes in vocabulary. The term “born digital” was invented about then. My own coinage, “born again digital” never caught on, unfortunately. Wikipedia has an entry for born digital, but must make do with the rather lame term, digital reformatting and its even clumsier adjectival form, digitally reformatted.

In the mid-nineties, the focus was on the medium and the medium of preservation, and the term “electronic” was used extensively. Now, the bulk of our information is created digitally, and preserved digitally. The legal deposit issue has largely been sorted out, after twenty years. The distinction between digitised and created digital was fundamental to thinking then, less so now. The rainbow metaphor has not survived, and the reasons are obvious. Another dinosaur, to bring back my own metaphor.

Copyright Act 1968

And speaking of dinosaurs inevitably brings us to the Copyright Act 1968. Our digital lifestyle either rests upon, or ignores the law, or somewhere in between. This is particularly true of copyright law, which has a bad habit of falling years behind the way people actually live.

Kirsti Haipola, Director of the Copyright Law and Policy Section of the Department of Communication and the Arts recently said “in our experience copyright reform usually resembles something akin to a full contact sport rather than a collaborative process.”

She was commenting on the surprising but gratifying progress made on the Copyright Amendment (Disability and Other Measures) Bill 2016. The proposed bill, in particular, addresses problems in the current Act over preservation by libraries and archives, and its main provisions were set out in documentation from the Department of Communications and the Arts.  The changes are a notable achievement, welcomed by everyone as bringing the provisions of the Copyright Act up to date, eliminating some distinctly odd provisions, and simplifying the requirements of the Act. The proposed new Part IVA sets out the new approach.

The proposed changes cover five main areas. For preservation, the changes include provisions which might seem axiomatic – “…for example, libraries and archives will no longer be required to wait for published material to be damaged or deteriorate, or to have been lost or stolen, before making a preservation copy.”  “There will be no limit on the number, version or format of copies that can be made for preservation purposes …” We hope that these changes will make libraries and archives more confident in their preservation decisions.

Support for reform

It is essential that these modest practical reforms which can underpin future digital preservation are not lost in the excitement following the recent election, but are passed and  implemented as planned and agreed. Neither copyright reform measures, nor support for digital preservation, are common – we need to support them as much as we can.

This post is part of Born Digital 2016, the inaugural digital preservation week – an initiative of the National and State Libraries of Australasia raising awareness of the importance of preserving digital content for the public good.

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