Jennifer: On Monday, Professor Lyn Beazley asked her audience at Government House to ponder the following question: “If Charles Darwin had blogged On the Origin of Species, would we still be talking about it?” Beazley, Western Australia’s Chief Scientist, presented the 2009 Geoffrey Bolton Lecture on the topic “The Evolution of Scientific Records and Challenges in the Digital Universe”.
The Geoffrey Bolton Lecture is held annually in Western Australia in honour of Australian historian Professor Geoffrey Bolton. It aims to encourage debate about the meaning and nature of history and society, and to provide archival and historical context to national debate on contemporary issues.
Today, historic archives are almost exclusively created and stored digitally. According to the International Data Corporation, there exists 281 billion gigabytes of digital information, stored in 20 million billion files. It is estimated that this figure will have increased ten-fold by 2011. Professor Beazley’s lecture on Monday night addressed the formidable challenge that historians face, of ensuring long-term digital preservation of this information, and of guaranteeing its long-term availability and usability.
How do we preserve this collective memory, made up mostly of personal information- photos, entertainment, emails, phone calls and other communications? The profession of “librarian” has existed for more than 100 years, and now, according to Horst Forster, Director of Content at the European Commission, the profession of “digital curator” needs to be defined. The Commission is currently developing a common European curriculum for digital curators, and in certain Member States, digital preservation has already been integrated into education and training. For example, students at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart, Germany, can undertake a Master of Arts in conservation of new media and digital information. In Australia, the National Archives has implemented a digital preservation policy that aims to promote and facilitate improvements in government recordkeeping.
So- would we still be talking about On the Origin of Species, had Charles Darwin blogged it? Maybe not. There is every chance that it would have been lost in the extensive and ever-growing digital universe. The prospect of such revolutionary evolutionary literature going unnoticed is reason enough to get serious about long-term digital preservation.