Sunday, March 20, 2016

UNESCO PERSIST: a global exchange about digital preservation

Twitter: @Oosterenvan, #UnescoPERSIST

Although our “information society” is digitalizing at the speed of light, globally speaking the preservation of digital information is still in its infancy. We know how to store digital information – our documentary heritage of the future – but many challenges remain, big challenges. Firstly there is so much information produced every minute that it's extremely difficult to decide what to keep and what not to keep. Secondly software is evolving so fast that today's information is already no longer accessible tomorrow because yesterday’s software is no longer available. If we don’t act we’re racing towards a future of “digital amnesia” in which the world will literally lose its memory.

To prevent this from happening, UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme recently stepped up its efforts to raise awareness about the urgent need for digital preservation. On 14-16 March 2016, over 30 experts and policy makers gathered in Abu Dhabi to strengthen the preservation of the world’s digital memory in a group called the Platform to Enhance the Sustainability of the Information Society Transglobally (PERSIST, see this link). The meeting was organized by Dr. Abdulla El Reyes, Director General of the National Archives of the UAE and Chairman of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme. It yielded the following results.

The UNESCO PERSIST Family on 14-16 March 2016 in Abu Dhabi

First the group welcomed the Content Selection Guidelines (see this link) which were recently finalized by PERSIST under coordination of Ingrid Parent, the former Chair of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). This tool will be used by UNESCO to assist governments and memory institutions worldwide in choosing what to keep and what not to keep in today’s overload of digital information.

Secondly the members planned the creation of a global UNESCO PERSIST Heritage Software Platform. This platform aims to motivate ICT industry partners like Microsoft to keep "old" software available so that we don't lose access to files produced with this old software. This is important as the thoughts we wrote on floppy discs and in Word Perfect not so long ago will be the key to understanding our society, history, economy, politics and climate in the future.

Thirdly PERSIST started working on new policy tools that will enable UNESCO Member States to motivate and learn from each other. As a first step a “Digital Preservation Starters Guide” will be developed to raise awareness about the risk of digital amnesia and how to prevent it. A more advanced tool will also be created for Member States wishing to improve their digital preservation policy. This tool, a “Model National Digital Preservation Strategy”, will inspire both policy makers and memory institutions who have to develop such policies and strategies.

In the impressive Mosque in Abu Dhabi with Dr. Abdulla El Reyes' Senior Advisor Robert Buckley (right) and US National Archives External Affairs Liaison Meg Philips.

In my view the most important result of the meeting was the fact that the PERSIST Family agreed that a global learning exchange about digital preservation is necessary and actually feasible. Because in many fields like water, education and health there are already so many platforms that a new platform would create confusion rather than solutions. Digital preservation on the other hand is a niche that is so small, young and urgent that there’s still room to start a useful global exchange in which Member States can inspire each other on the basis of a generic digital preservation framework. This makes PERSIST both a very relevant and exciting adventure.

Frank la Rue, former UN Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and now UNESCO's Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, emphasized UNESCO's strong support for the PERSIST project under the aegis of UNESCO's Memory of the World programme.

What makes PERSIST’s learning and standard setting exchange also a feasible adventure is the UN flag that guides it. As the only UN agency with a mandate in the field of documentary heritage preservation, UNESCO is well placed to conduct this adventure. UNESCO PERSIST has already proven that it has the legitimacy to convene all relevant stakeholders globally and to engage with major ICT-stakeholders in the private sector like Microsoft and Google. So if it’s doable, let’s do it!


The Netherlands was commended for its strong involvement in PERSIST from its inception in The Hague in 2013, in particular policy coordinator Vincent Wintermans (holding the microphone) from the Dutch National UNESCO Commission.

Conclusions of the meeting:


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