100 years of solitude

As an archeologist I have always thought of our presence in relation to the past and the future. I have wondered why do we act as if we believe that our lifetime, this of hundred years, is so important when earth has existed for millions! When is it that we lost the perspective and the consciousness of being the smallest particle of a great universe that has existed before us for a long long time before we could even grasp its very existence!!

In times of crisis though as this year`s Corona pandemic, this becomes even a greater imperative, how will all these stories be preserved for the future. All these meetings we have had at work the last months, are they stored somewhere, how long will they last, will anyone ever try to reconstruct this digital period of our existence. As Leonardi (2010) argues we live in a time where we are moving “away from linking materiality to notions of physical substance” so we need to find new ways to discuss this and create strategies for preserving our digital present.

So, who takes the responsibility for a huge organization like our Universities and their digital productions (mine has with 40,000 students and 6,000 employees) with a prospective lifespan of, let’s say, 100 years.

The questions are many and as time passes by they become even more. A few, to be posed here, have also been answered by my students who have had some interesting ideas on the subject. 

  • What happens to all the digital data we produce today, email, photos, job documents?
  • Who will take care of it, who thinks that this should be preserved for 100 or more hundred years?
  • Do we need a computer conservator and a data archaeologist to be able to read formats that will be too old, that might not be readable in 30 years’ time?
  • How much do we lose along the way and who is to decide what and how to keep specific digital data?
  • Do we have any evidence or research on the time span of data degradation of  the physical storage media of their habitat and migration strategies?
  • Who is then to decide where our digital data will physically be stored so that it is preserved?

In a busy working day things go so fast that we have no time to problematize preservation strategies or sustainable storage possibilities, migrating data degradation for a time horizon longer than 10 years away. But in order for the digital legacy we produce today to be preserved for the future and for technology itself not to stand in the way of sustainable development, we must be made aware and take responsibility.

But we must then be able to establish an understanding of each other’s subjects and expectations. An archaeologist thinks of it in terms of longevity, and there are many organizations such as EUROPEANA, UNESCO, ICOMOS-CIPA, CYARK500 who work on such issues. My title is 100 years of solitude because I have had a feeling that there is such a long distance between those who make the decisions and those who have to implement the actions, that strategy becomes a long floating bureaucracy where someone or something other than us is supposedly responsible for.

At NTNU University library, the Gunnerus Library, we have treasures and collections of Norway’s past from far back in time that have been preserved and nurtured for hundreds of years. We have handwritten manuscripts, maps, and rare books. For the past 20 years, we have been engaged in digitizing and making it available for researchers and students, we offer courses and we establish projects in collaboration with teachers and researchers.

At the same time, we work constantly on infrastructure and updates and engage in discussions and strategies of workflows where metadata and important information do not disappear while all the physical compliance we still preserve for future generations, as stated in the Norwegian parliament Article 24:

“Digitization and preservation of cultural heritage: The vision for the Government’s ICT policy in the field of culture is to make as much of the collections in sour archives, libraries and museums as possible accessible to the maximum possible by future-oriented use of IK-technology solutions. The collections should be searchable and accessible across the entire ABC field, and the content should be communicated in a user-oriented manner”.

It is an eternal challenge.

“Digital culture heritage” though is slightly different than “digitization of heritage”. It was born digitally and though as of digital nature.  UNESCO in its definition of Digital Heritage says

 “Using computers and related tools, humans are creating and sharing digital resources – information, creative expression, ideas and knowledge encoded for computer processing – that they value and want to share with others over time as well as across space. This is evidence of a digital heritage. It is a heritage made of many parts, sharing many common characteristics, and subject to many common threats.

My students from the EIT (Country Village 9: Digital conservation of the Past) have tried to problematize the subject. “Experts in team” is a master’s degree course in which students develop their interdisciplinary teamwork skills and prepare themselves for their working life. Village 9 worked during the spring semester with ideas on Digital dissemination of the past and discussed the possibilities and the limitations technology can offer as a tool. The idea was to work interdisciplinary and discuss the challenges technology poses around the lifespan and the documentation strategies of today’s digital data production that the Museum and Library section deals with. Creative ideas as to what would be the best strategy to structure and disseminate the metadata of archives and special collections in the future is a demanding and ongoing task for our library and suggestions from young professionals is a way to stay in tune with the current technological developments. At the same time, contact with the general public is the main factor for the development of new visualization tools and allows us to think of new ways of approaching our users and their interests and achieve.

In times of crisis though this becomes even a greater imperative, how will all these stories be preserved for the future. All these meetings we have had at work the last months, are they stored somewhere, how long will they last, will anyone ever try to reconstruct this blizzard period of our existence. 

So, who takes the responsibility with a prospective lifespan of, let’s say, 100 years.

The answer must be “ourselves, one and each of us”.

Alexandra Angeletaki

NTNU University