PERSIST: UNESCO Digital Strategy for Information Sustainability

The difficulty of maintaining long-term persistence of digital information was the main reason for the UNESCO international conference Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation in 2012. Among the recommendations of the UNESCO/UBC Vancouver Declaration was the need to establish a roadmap with solutions and policies ensuring long term access and preservation. Digital information is difficult to preserve over longer periods of time. Carriers like floppies or CD-ROMs have a short life span, and even if the bits and bytes are kept, the risk that current hardware and software cannot process the old data is very real. Archives, museums and libraries are acutely aware of these problems, yet they cannot find solutions on their own.

Heritage institutions often believe that their concerns for long-term preservation are not sufficiently taken into account by industry especially during the development of new products which they are later expected to preserve. These institutions typically become involved only the very end of the life-cycle of digital documents, where they have to tend to vast collections of disparate materials for which industry support can no longer be guaranteed.

In December 2013 an international meeting took place in The Hague in which the ICT industry, governments and heritage institutions to prepare a digital Roadmap and how best to ensure collaboration in the field of digital preservation. The meeting was convened by UNESCO, and was possible thanks to a subvention from the Netherlands Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.

This discussion between such diverging stakeholders showed that there was insufficient awareness between industry and heritage institutions about the relative concerns of the other and that there needed to be a platform to discuss digital preservation.

The important role of national, regional (European Union) and global government (United Nations) in all this is evident. It was stressed that sustained access to government information is vital for development, democracy and the rule of law all over the globe. Moreover, governments can influence developments, not only because they set the rules for businesses and draft the archival laws, but also because they are an important purchaser of ICT-products.

The industry representatives in the panel (Microsoft, International Chamber of Commerce) explained the way businesses work, and discussed in an open and realistic manner how the heritage community could find ways to make its concerns shared by the industry; the word ‘business model’ was on everybody’s lip.

In the coming years, UNESCO will cooperate with ICA, IFLA, LIBER and other partners to continue and intensify the discussion that started in The Hague. Under the new name UNESCO-PERSIST (Platform to Enhance the Sustainability of the Information Society Transglobally) globally pressing questions on selection, responsibility and division of labour will be addressed.