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'Cache in the Attic' by William Kilbride

In case you hadn't noticed, we live in hard times.  Economists can supply the abstract proofs but day time telly is good enough for me. A decade ago the schedules (at least in the UK) were crammed with property shows.  Grasping and tawdry, they taught a complacent generation of amateur speculators how, with nothing more than a tin of paint, a fitted kitchen and a false promise of house price inflation, they could turn their petty savings into massive debt-ridden portfolios that would guarantee a carefree old-age of unearned income.  It’s fine if you’re willing to dispossess a generation.  With the long-predicted price crash finally coming in 2008, TV shows on how to make your millions through house price speculation seems like the acme of foolishness: their glib presenters culpable and contemptible; their hapless acolytes – and much of the public sector - swept to bankruptcy in a tide of cupidity, miss-selling and downright fraud.  It's only very rarely that I can actually see things coming; it's only very rarely that my latent presbyterianism shows through; only very rarely can I sense the moral fable that I am living through, so I take the rare occasion to ask 'What on Earth were we thinking’? Why did we believe the colossal folly of our generation: that an ever expanding house price is the best way to improve your life style? The schedules are still replete with people seeking their fortunes, only now they have a back-to-basics penury about them (at least in the UK).  Cash in the Attic, Bargain Hunt, Heir Hunters, Flog It: the cheerful titles belie a painfully unfolding tragedy.  Aloes on nails cure no neuroses.  They might as well launch a show called 'Selling your nick nacks (or relatives) for food'.

My point?  As investments go, houses are no longer as safe as houses.  And here we are trying to persuade you to invest in the long-term potential of digital data. We must be crazy.

So let's go back to the very beginning.  Digital data has little inherent value.  Books and papers have at least a residual value as door stops or kindling but even here it's not the substance that matters it's the potential.  Collectively we have invested massive sums in digital tools and services and data sets because they can be deployed to solve real world problems with real impacts on real people and real lives.  Digital technologies help us detect criminals, cure diseases, and prosecute wars.  They connect products with customers; enable research; they support planning.  They connect loved ones and put unimagined cultural riches at our finger tips.  They make active curators of passive consumers. Digital technologies support and enable services which our parents could not have imagined (which we could scarcely have imagined).  We have developed digital technologies for the sake of the real world. It’s not for the sake of the data.

These technologies depend on a complex interaction of software and hardware with people but experience shows that software and hardware and people have the inevitable habit of changing.  So the attainment of real world goals is contingent upon a fragile configuration which we know will change.  Change is not a bug - without it there would be no digital technology.  And strictly - repeat this only very carefully after grasping the full nuance of the argument that follows - data loss is not a problem either.  But the inescapable and entirely predictable loss of opportunity matters a great deal.

It's this subtle shift which makes a coherent argument about why we need to invest in digital preservation.  We’ve recognised for a while that data was not the core concern. It was briefly fashionable to talk instead about 'permanent access' in order to emphasise the utility of data but to my mind this lacks clarity and ambition too: as if interoperability were an end in itself.  Nor for that matter is our concern with managing risks: as if mitigation were teleological.  Our goal is to have an impact on the real world, now and in the future.  So we preserve data, facilitate access and mitigate risks to benefit people and sustain opportunities.  If we're not willing to invest a little bit in people and opportunities for the long term then these present long hard times will be harder and longer than we expect.

So far, so ideologically compelling: what might this mean in practice?  What is the right level of investment: what is too little, what is too much?  How can you put these glib aspirations to your manager and get the investment you need?  Here's a piece of the puzzle which you can try as an experiment.

Although I can only speculate on the actual numbers (and I’m hoping 4C will help), it seems to me that there is an appropriate ratio between the perceived value of a collection and the size of the investment needed to secure it.  I know from experience that the £30million pounds which Glasgow City Council invested in state-of-the-art museum storage seemed like an unbelievable windfall: but it was trivial when you realise that the collection was valued in billions.  Once completed the operating costs were considerably less than for poor storage and because everything is catalogued and located it means the whole lot can become a new kind of practical asset in the life of the city, its economy and identity.  I grant you that museums are extraordinarily good at putting cash values on things - it helps that insurance premiums for leaky warehouses are high and that auditors routinely want to check that city's largest public asset is not being lost, damaged or stolen. But the broader point is sound: estimating the value of a collection puts us on the road to a sound business case.

Except that I have stated that the intrinsic value of the digital collection is negligible: it's the opportunity that is valuable.

How then should we articulate the value of our digital collections?  Here's an experiment you can try with any classroom of engaged and committed preservationists.  Try to sell them your iPod (other digital music players work just as well). I’ve tried it a couple of times.  I point out that all of the music is backed up on a laptop and that much of it exists in CD's at home.  I play up the fact that they won't have to do all the tedious ripping and synching and that it would cost them several months’ salary to purchase all the music again.  I play down the fact that the rights of this kind of sale are pretty unclear, and that I can't seem to expunge Celine Dion tracks that were uploaded during a lending-to-a-relative-in-hospital crisis a couple of years ago.  I am candid about all the other tracks and I emphasise the immediate gratification of a system that is ready and complete.

It's a crass and silly question which elicits clever and subtle answers.  We seldom actually agree the value, but we do agree that the value has components, some of which can be measured precisely in actual cash terms:

  • the retail price of the of the equipment
  • the cost of acquiring the original material prior to transferring to the device
  • the effort of transferring the material onto the storage
  • the legal consequence of infringing someone else's rights
  • the effort of buying and configuring your own iPod
  • Other components are evident, though harder to quantify, but assist the argument:
  • the reputational risk of infringing someone else's rights
  • the immediacy of use
  • the insight into my own musical tastes
  • the uniqueness of owning something that is authentically associated with me

(the last two don't really work for me - but imagine the value of Amy Winehouse's iPod)

The list is not exhaustive nor is it meant to be.  It is really just presented here as a way to provoke debate.  It reminds us that, in order to be credible, the costs of curation have to be commensurate in some way with the value of the collection.  This value can be broken down into a series of components, some of which can be calculated precisely.  For the avoidance of doubt, this looks at first inspection like a cost model but it is definitively not.  But it is part of a business case which would need a cost model beside it to be taken seriously.

My problem with the property shows and their facile assumptions was that they seemed unduly quick to assert the price of everything, and unable to perceive the value of anything.  4C will clarify the costs of curation.  I firmly hope that we can clarify its value too.

Dr William Kilbride, Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC)

William and the DPC are contributors to the 4C Project work package “Engagement,” developing The Project Communications Plan and other communications deliverables which will enable two way interaction between the project and its wide range of stakeholders.