Digital preservation: preserving heritage and protecting civil rights
Issues concerning the management and preservation of digital information were examined at the international conference, “The Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation,” held in Vancouver (Canada) in September 2012 to mark the 20th anniversary of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme.
The participants adopted a series of recommendations to ensure the durability and reliability of digital records, whose importance has grown in keeping with the growth of digitally generated information. These measures also reflect increased awareness of the crucial legal and technical problems of preserving digital records and data—including audio and video documents.
In October 2012, Dr Anne Thurston (UK), founder and Director of the International Records Management Trust, a keynote speaker at the conference, shared her views on some of the crucial issues for digital preservation and their civil and human rights implications.
What are the key issues in relation to preserving records created digitally?
Governments often introduce digital systems without understanding the challenges of preserving the integrity of the records the systems generate. This depends on a quickly changing array of hardware and software. If the digital records of government policies, actions and transactions are to remain available, authentic and usable over time, international professional standards must be applied. For instance, metadata about the records (who created them, when, where, how and why) must be captured so that they will remain meaningful and accessible. Already, some digital records are inaccessible, such as older medical records. The challenges will grow more critical as the volume of records in digital format increases.
How do these issues affect digitized paper records?
Essentially, the issues are the same. If digitized records are to survive and be accessible over time, international standards, including the capture of metadata must be applied. This is true in relation both to our digitized heritage, such as records included on the Memory of the World Register, and to digitized modern government records, for instance, land and court records, which will be needed over long periods of time and must retain their legal authenticity.
Are there ways to ensure that files are not tampered with to cover up information?
Digital records will only remain accurate and authentic if they are managed professionally. Norway’s digital records system illustrates what can be achieved. Government requirements for digital records systems ensure that records are properly identified and controlled, and hardware and software vendors must comply with these requirements. The Government publishes, online daily, metadata about government records that are created, so that users can identify relevant documents and ask for copies. After a few years, the digital records are transferred to the National Archives where they are held securely for historical use.
How vulnerable are digital records and data?
Digital records are extremely fragile and can easily be lost, deleted, corrupted or altered. If there were to be a disaster and we had not taken all possible precautions to protect this digital information, the consequences would be very serious for government accountability, economic opportunity, citizens’ rights and the preservation of knowledge. While paper records are often looted and burned during wars, many original documents do survive - this may not be the case with digital records. Equally serious, there is a high risk that on a day-to-day basis, digital records will not survive unless control systems are applied.
What are the social and political implications of these issues?
When records are not well managed, governments cannot be held accountable. It is easy to misuse information, hide fraud and corruption, and draw inaccurate conclusions. Delivery of justice is impaired, and human rights cannot be protected. Citizens cannot prove unfair treatment or defend themselves from false accusations.
What are the solutions?
The Open Government Partnership (OGP), established a year ago in recognition of citizens’ desire for more accountability and transparency, may offer the platform for solutions. The Open Government Declaration endorsed the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention against corruption. To date, 57 countries have joined the initiative. Well-managed records are the basis for transparency and accountability and can ultimately enable citizens to claim their rights and monitor what their governments are doing. This can be achieved if the OGP recognises the need to introduce modern laws, policies and management controls.
Input of the Vancouver conference?
The conference marked a turning point in the memory of the world. Attended by representatives from 110 countries, it brought together many of the world’s most experienced information management and preservation experts. The presentations made it clear that preserving the world’s documentary heritage is not simply a matter of creating and storing digital information. It involves repositioning and strengthening the information profession to play a key role in global development. The profession has already worked internationally to develop standards, laws, practices and technologies needed to manage digital records. The challenge now is to develop the political will to move forward. . It is good that UNESCO is stepping up as a focal point for change, bringing these issues to a higher level of awareness and introducing them into the development agenda.