14 Sept 2021

Preserving our cultural memory in the digital age

Libfocus is very happy to post the second of the highly commended posts in the 2021 CONUL Library Assistant Awards.  Congrats to Stewart Killeen of TU Dublin (City Centre) Library

Recently, I had the great pleasure of watching Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, Matt Wolf’s documentary film on the life and work of Marion Stokes. Marion Stokes was an African-American civil activist, who besides tirelessly engaging the broad spectrum of American public opinion through public-access television, also took a key interest in technology with all of its political and social implications (Wikipedia, 2021). Her visionary enthusiasm for the new media and technologies which developed throughout the twentieth century and her commitment to democratic values culminated in her astonishing collection of recorded television news footage, spanning a period of 35 years from 1977 until her death in 2012 (Wikipedia, 2021). Her collection, which is now in the care of the ambitious Internet Archive project, consists of 140,000 VHS tapes, and it provides a record of televised news covering many of the seminal events that marked the close of the previous millennium and the beginning of a new one (Wikipedia, 2021). 

Courtesy of the BBC 

It was surely of no little significance to the legacy that Marion Stokes left that for much of her professional life she worked as a librarian with the Free Library of Philadelphia (Wikipedia, 2021). Indeed, in my own short time working as a Library Assistant with Technological University Dublin and through my studies on the MSc in Information and Library Management with Dublin Business School, I have come to appreciate the fragility of our shared cultural record as it is brought to life in a digital world. 

With the arrival of the internet and the explosion of digital technologies that has accompanied it, information professionals have faced both new challenges and opportunities in the curation of information. Traditionally the preserve of librarians and scholars, the digital turn has opened up the domains of human knowledge like never before, offering  “fast facts” to our fingertips (Kavanagh and O’Rourke, 2016, p.4; Rowlands et al., 2008, p.293). In some sense we have all become librarians today, as we access, monitor, and create large volumes of content to be shared and distributed across a wide variety of public platforms. The democratisation of information has undoubtedly improved the individual and collective lives of many, but it has not come without risk. The greatest danger it seems is the tendency to assume that the sheer volume of digital information available is a guarantee of its future sustainability and accessibility. One need only consider the historical and cultural significance of the Marion Stokes collection, however, to appreciate the tenuousness of such an equation. 

As far back as 2003, Clifford Lynch, one of the founding members of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), warned of the potential threats to cultural preservation in a digitally-driven economy (Lynch, 2003, p.149). In his paper, The Coming Crisis in Preserving our Digital Heritage, Lynch outlined how developments in intellectual property law, the dynamics of market forces and the technologies involved in maintaining digital information across sustained periods of time may conspire to “create a crisis in our ability to preserve our cultural heritage as this heritage increasingly migrates into digital formats” (Lynch, 2003, p.150). 

Lynch singled out as particularly worrisome the changing terms of availability that increasingly characterise the digital economy where, rather than paying to obtain copies of a given work consumers instead pay to experience these works (Lynch, 2003, p.151). This has in fact become the norm with many of today’s biggest information providers offering a large class of “ephemeral”, “transient,” and “experiential” products in return for a subscription cost (Lynch, 2003, p.151). However, should we choose to abdicate our responsibility for cultural preservation to intermediaries whose primary concern is not the “long-term preservation of the cultural record” we may, as Lynch suggests, run the risk of losing a considerable and vital part of that record (Lynch, 2003, p.151). 

Courtesy of the Haiti Trust Digital Library 

What can be done to avoid such an outcome? 

The success of libraries in supporting digital scholarship within the academic community offers a possible solution. With their expertise in “contextualising information”, their knowledge of metadata creation and their commitment to long-term access, librarians have been instrumental in helping create digital objects that are sustainable in the long-term (Burns, 2016, p.246). Moreover, librarians play a key role in the cultivation of skills that are essential to responsible and effective information management, i.e., information literacy, and there is a growing recognition of the need to cultivate a “digital mindset”, one which inculcates a deeper understanding of the implications of our digital culture (Kavanagh and O’Rourke, 2016, p.7). As Kavanagh and O’Rourke (2016, p.5) have argued, the “truly digital literate person is one who moves beyond passively absorbing information to actively participating in its creation.” By instilling both the skills and appreciation for the creation of sustainable digital objects it is perhaps possible to save some of the digital heritage we will leave to future generations. In doing so we will honour not only our own legacy but also that of Marion Stokes. (777) 

Courtesy of the National Orientation Agency 

Recommended Resources: 

A guide to personal archiving by the Library of Congress
A quick guide to Personal digital archiving by the Digital Preservation Coalition 

How to preserve your digital memories: Sara Day Thomson gives lecture on ‘Personal Digital Archiving’ by the Digital Repository Ireland 

Personal Digital Archiving: the basics by Purdue University Library 


Burns, J.A., 2016. Role of the information professional in the development and promotion of digital humanities content for research, teaching, and learning in the modern academic library: An Irish case study. New Review of Academic Librarianship, 22(2-3), pp.238-
248. https://doi.org/10.1080/13614533.2016.1191520 

Kavanagh, A. and O'Rourke, K. C. (2016) Digital Literacy: Why It Matters. Available at: https://arrow.tudublin.ie/ltcart/37/ (Accessed: 16 July 2021) 

A. Lynch (2003) Chapter 18. The Coming Crisis in Preserving Our Digital Cultural Heritage, Journal of Library Administration, 38:3-4, 149-161, https://doi.org/10.1300/J111v38n03_04 (Accessed: 16 July 2021) 


Rowlands, Ian et al. (2008). The Google generation: The information behaviour of the researcher of the future. Aslib Proceedings. 60. 290-310. 10.1108/00012530810887953 (Accessed: 16 July 2021) 

Wikipedia (2021) ‘Marion Stokes’. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marion_Stokes (Accessed: 15 July 2021


Post a Comment