foreword (to the past)

Congratulations to Melissa Terras and Paul Gooding on the publication of an important new collection of essays entitled Electronic Legal Deposit: Shaping the Library Collections of the Future! This volume takes a global outlook on challenges and successes in preserving digital information, and stems from their Digital Library Futures AHRC project, which first analyzed the impact of electronic legal deposit legislation on academic libraries and their users in the UK. More from Melissa here, including “An Ark to Save Learning from Deluge? Reconceptualising Legal Deposit after the Digital Turn,” an OA version of the opening chapter she & Paul contributed to the collection.

I was honored to be asked to write a Foreword to the book, which I share here, under Facet Publishing’s Green OA agreement, as my own author’s last copy of a single chapter from an edited collection. I thought I’d post it, particularly, now — as next week not only marks World Digital Preservation Day, but another highly significant Election Day in the United States. We are four years on from the moment I describe below…

On the morning of November 9th, 2016, I looked out over a Milwaukee ballroom crowded with librarians, archivists, and specialists in digital preservation. Some were pensive. Many were weeping. Others seemed stricken.

My audience had gathered for the first joint conference of the Digital Library Federation (DLF, the US-based nonprofit organization I then directed) with its new partner, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA)—a cross-industry group that had recently come under DLF’s wing from its place of genesis at the Library of Congress. We were strangers and friends, largely though not exclusively American, united in a community of practice and the common cause of a dedication to the future of libraries, archives, and their holdings and information services in the digital age. But it suddenly felt as if we didn’t know what information was, and whether—despite all our efforts, expertise, and the shared infrastructure that our memory institutions represented—its future could be made secure.

The unexpected outcome of the US presidential election, announced in the wee hours the night before, had cast a pall over this professional audience that crossed party lines. How could so many confident, data-driven predictions have been so wrong? What shared social understandings—built from the seeming common landscape of ubiquitous digital information that we had met to manage and survey—had never, in fact, been shared or were even commonly legible at all? And what evidentiary traces of this time would remain, in a political scene of post-truth posturing, the devaluation of expert knowledge, and the willingness of our new authorities—soon to become as evident on federal websites as in press conferences and cable news punditry—to revise and resubmit the historical record?

The weeks and months that followed, for DLF and NDSA members, were filled with action. While the End of Term Web Archive project sprang to its regular work of harvesting US federal domains at moments of presidential transition, reports that Trump administration officials had ordered the removal of information on climate change and animal welfare from the websites of the Environmental Protection agency and US Department of Agriculture fostered a fear of the widespread deletion of scientific records, and prompted emergency ‘Data Rescue’ download parties. A new DLF Government Records Transparency and Accountability working group was launched. Its members began watch-dogging preparations for the 2020 US Census and highlighting House and Senate bills meant to curtail scientific and demographic data creation; scrutinizing proposed changes to the records retention schedules of federal agencies and seeking ways to make the arcanum of their digital preservation workflows more accessible to the general public; and—amid new threats of the deportation of immigrants and the continued rise of violent nationalism—asking crucial questions about what electronic information should be made discoverable and accessible, for the protection of vulnerable persons. The Social Sciences Research Council convened a meeting on challenges to the digital preservation of documents of particular value to historians, economists, cultural anthropologists, and other social scientists, and the PEGI Project—focusing on the Preservation of Electronic Government Information—commissioned a wide-ranging report on at-risk, born-digital information meant to be held by US federal depository libraries and other cultural memory institutions for long-term public access and use.

Over time, reflective, pedagogical, and awareness-raising projects like Endangered Data Week emerged, ties among the NDSA and international organizations like the UK-based Digital Preservation Coalition were strengthened, and conversations on college campuses (fueled by the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the work of scholars of race, technology, and social media like Safiya Noble and Siva Vaidhyanathan) turned more squarely to data ethics and algorithmic literacy. Frenetic Data Rescue parties gave over to the more measured advocacy and storytelling approach of the Data Refuge movement. And in the UK, an AHRC-funded ‘Digital Library Futures’ project led by Paul Gooding and Melissa Terras (the seed of this edited collection) offered a golden opportunity to reflect—in the light of altered global understandings of the preservation and access challenges surrounding digital information—on the parliamentary Legal Deposit Libraries (Non Print Works) Regulations of 2013, which extended collecting practices dating to the Early Modern Period to new media formats beyond the book.

You hold in your hands (or view on your screens, or listen to through e-readers, or encounter in some other way I can’t yet foresee) an important and timely volume. It is well balanced between reflection-and-outlook and practice-and-method in what our editors call the ‘contested space’ of e-legal deposit—taking on the international and very long-term consequences of our present-day conception, regulation, assembly, positioning, and use of library-held digital collections.

In other words, the essays assembled here cross space and time. The editors take a necessarily global view in bringing together a broad array of national approaches to the legal deposit of materials that already circulate in world-wide networks. And while the authors they’ve invited to contribute certainly take a long view of digital information, they also frequently address, head-on, the ways that electronic legal deposit forces our attention not just on posterity, but on the here-and-now of what media consumption means and how it works in the digital age. Rather than asking us to rest our imaginations on a far-future prospect in which reading is conducted as it ever was in print (was any such act, as Jerome McGann would ask, self-identical?), the authors of these essays, collectively, assert that the kaleidoscopic mediations of e-legal deposit show us we’ve never really known what reading is. 

The best thinkers on libraries question the very assumptions that our memory institutions rest upon, while elevating and honoring both their promise and the centuries of labor and careful (if not always disinterested or benign) intent that have made them what they are. Melissa Terras and Paul Gooding are among the best, and the perspectives they have assembled here—from publishers, eminent librarians and archivists, technologists, organizers, and scholars—make this edited collection an essential contribution to the literature on digital preservation. It is a necessary book that grapples with legal, practical, technical, and conceptual problems: with the distinctive visions and values of libraries; with the necessarily concomitant development of policies and platforms; and even with the very nature of our documentary heritage, at a moment when print-era logics break down.

What I most appreciate is that this book—like the notion of e-legal deposit itself—calls for careful consideration of both present-day services and research possibilities not yet dreamt of. In this, it serves the true mission of legal deposit libraries: to be a stable bridge between a past that is perpetually constructed by our acts of preservation and erasure—and the many futures we may mediate but can barely imagine.