By August I will have published the current awareness newsletter Current Cites every month for twenty-four years — with all but the first of those years (1990-1991) freely available on the Internet. My children, now in college, aren’t even that old. In fact, my only absence from its publication was the period shortly after their birth. Time well spent, I have to say.
Although the publication was born at UC Berkeley, it outgrew its host and has long been hosted elsewhere and no longer has any contributors from Berkeley. From its first day it was written by volunteers — first by employees who volunteered to be a part of the entity that gave it birth, then by people who truly had no compensation for keeping it alive except the love of doing it. When I’m ready to pass it on, or should I die suddenly, I’m sure someone who loves it like I do will step up and keep it going. That’s what commitment is made of.
Meanwhile, I have witnessed almost every other Internet-born publication go down to dust — whether sponsored by an organization or not. The only Internet-based open access publication I can think of that equals or exceeds (I’m not arguing) our longevity is TidBITS, by Adam Engst. And guess what? We share something in common. Commitment. Adam has been just as committed or more to publishing TidBITS as I have been to Current Cites.
So here’s the thing: the only effective strategy for preserving things for the future is commitment. I don’t mean to suggest it must be the commitment of an individual — far from it. There are many examples of institutional commitment. But simply because either an individual or an organization is involved does not by itself signal the sufficient commitment for long-term preservation. I have personally saved web sites from certain neglect or destruction by moving them from an institutional host to either another institutional host or my personal server.
Therefore, I’ve long thought that what we really need for digital preservation is a digital preservation marketplace. For example, let’s say my doctor has said that I have roughly six months to live. After picking myself up off the floor and drying my eyes, eventually I would get around to finding someone to carry the loves of my web life forward. I would need a commitment marketplace. Someplace where I could go to say “I have this. It consists of X. It requires Y to keep it going. You must love it, like you would love a rescue dog.” And individuals or organizations could apply to take it over.
Either it has value or it doesn’t, and the digital preservation marketplace would decide. But without true commitment there is no technology, no metadata standard, no prayer, that will save it. Believe me, I’ve lived — and am living — it. Just call it a commitment. Do not look to technology to save anything. Look only to your heart. It is the only thing that has ever saved anything worth saving or ever will.
Photo by Hector Alejandro, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.