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For The Love

After IIPC 2024| ·1852 words
Digital Preservation
Andy Jackson
Andy Jackson
Fighting entropy since 1993

I have a theory about books: people love them.

I know, I know… Bear with me.

Douglas Adams said that books are like sharks. Perfectly evolved. Adapted beyond obsolescence.

“Books are really good at being books and no matter what happens books will survive.”

Yes, but also, our tools shape us back. I think part of the reason books are good at surviving is because our society has co-evolved with them. We’ve learned to keep them safe, to love them.

Yes, print is more robust than digital bits. But it is also true that we have adapted our behaviour to mitigate its weaknesses. We keep books dry. We keep those digestible pages away from insects and animals. We are taught not to damage the spines. Frowned upon for tears and marks. Most of us revere reading, and teach each other to care for the read.

This love is so deep, it can reach beyond reason. People, or at least People On The Internet, are enraged by the sight of pages being turned without gloves. Become incandescent when books are discarded while being weeded out of a library’s collection. Despite the fact that libraries and archives are well aware of what they are doing, even they end up fighting the love of books sometimes.

In some ways, books are worse than digital storage. They are difficult and expensive to copy. They are only visible over short distances. The are susceptible to fire, pests, children, and other acts of moisture. So they have become precious, maintained by infrastructure so familiar it fades from view.

The frailties of print are obscured by our cupped hands.


There is a great white figure cut deep into a hillside in Oxfordshire. The Uffington Horse. It has been there for three thousand years. Open to erosion by weather and vegetation, but repaired over and over in a ceremony dated back to the Bronze Age. The Scouring of the Horse is now an annual event. Every year volunteers come together to maintain and refresh this ancient image.

I’d like to join them one day. To make a tiny contribution to its long history. To hear the sounds as I approach. The murmur of the people. The rattle and scrape of the buckets. The chaotic beats of unsynchronized hammers, breaking down chunks of chalk, bedding into the lines and the edges.

I’d walk slowly, taking a moment to imagine what this would look and sound like, if only I could perceive that multi-millennial span. The days-long cacophony of each scouring condensed into a single sound. One beat of a drum, but one repeated over and over from the past and into the future. The softening and sharpening of the lines across space-time, pulsating to that beat. Erratic at first, but becoming steady, and then quickening. Getting louder.

When those cuts were first made, only those within a few miles could see the results. In time, the sight could be shared, and spread. Now we can all see it in the palms of our hands. Learn its history. Imagine being there. And wonder how maintaining these shapes has shaped us.

The Uffington Horse, from above.
The Uffington Horse, from above.


I was fortunate enough to be able to attend this year’s International Internet Preservation Consortium conference in Paris. I’ve not been back since the 2014 conference and it was nice to return to the François-Mitterrand site. I like the way the building is folded in on itself, making visitors walk up the sides of the lower floors before dropping back down to enter through a doorway in the encircling walls.

I’ve always enjoyed hearing the growing hubbub of a conference hall. The partitioned spaces and high ceilings of the library echoed pleasantly with the sounds of people meeting and talking.

It was both strange and liberating to attend in my new role. A chance to deliver on some commitments. Neaten some loose ends. But also a chance to find a new way to be of use. To build on the links between roles.

It was a very positive experience. It was lovely to see and meet people, and there was a lot of great work on display. But most importantly, it was simply wonderful to spend some time with people that really care about the web, and want to work together to preserve it.

In these rooms, the digital is loved.

Over centuries, societies have built great machines to preserve and propagate their notions of themselves: galleries, museums, libraries and archives. Bringing together the people, systems and spaces needed manage, filter, sort, arrange, and keep. Imperfect? Biased? Yes. But nevertheless valuable and valued. Respected. Loved.

But now, over mere decades, those same organisations are being interrupted by the digital world. It’s unclear how to adapt. Often the digital problem gets delegated to small teams, or individuals, or even some fraction of a person’s time. Often, it’s long-term goals on short-term money.

Even large institutions find their resources outmatched by the scale of the challenge. Take those teams to one side, and ask them if they feel supported by the institution they work for? Then read between the lines. Listen for the echoes of the funding that’s always under threat. The endless justifications, answering questions rarely asked of print.

This happens almost everywhere. Even for those that seem to lead the way.

It’s not that our institutions don’t care for the digital at all, but they have grown around print. Our libraries love books in their bones. Every building. Every corridor. Every trolly and lift. Every role. Every team, in-house or otherwise. Every interface, procedure, protocol. Every connection and communication channel. Sinews drawn over the shape of print, stretched tight by diminished funds.

Even if there’s little passion left in the building, these calcified structures form a kind of love. The roles and routines that provide a stable environment, day to day, week to week, because that’s what we do. Leaning on learned behaviours built from lessons at risk of fading into hazy memory.

This rigid foundation strains. Digital catalogue records are born, online catalogues grow in sophistication, empowering the familiar systems and services. Then digitisation promises wider access, while the born-digital turns from a fringe concern to a looming wave. And now, the first oscillations of the storm surge from generative AI.

At every stage, more pressure to do more, while funding only falls.

Most have quietly adapted to this pressure. The growth and the strain hidden from wider view, despite the hearts hollowed out as natural collaborators are forced to compete for crumbs. Intense tensions, invisible from outside.

One unexpected after-effect of my time in Paris has been a compulsion to re-explore my music collection. I love music, but in recent years I’ve tended to listen to podcasts or audiobooks most of the time. But on the long train journey home, I found myself browsing and shuffling. Panning for gold. Hearing songs I knew, but hearing them anew.

Can we suddenly see a known face in a new light? See them with fresh eyes, and be changed?


But one cannot demand this of another.

The conference reception was at the Richelieu site. A beautiful location, new to me. A grand speech in a grand place. A great round reading room of old. A cathedral raised in reverence of the printed book and what it means.

Another lovely lofty murmur. A glass to hold and raise. The right words spoken well. Pulling in the place and planting this loose crew in it. Putting us in our historical context, and saying the links out loud. Rightly praising the importance of this community and the exemplary collaboration and innovation of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. All together, coherent, for a time.

A lesser self surfaces to say yeah… but does he really mean it? The long history is clearly understood. Lines are cast towards the future from the past. But are they felt? Are those connections loved enough to be traced? Mapped? Projected? The consequences grasped?

Do our friends, under his care, feel the warmth of that praise on those long days spent crushing the cold rocks into the edges of the shape we’re all fumbling to find?

Just before the reception, for a short period of time, we were given exclusive access to the magnificent Mazarin Gallery. A Baroque treasure box to envelop you as you savour the jewels of the BnF Museum collection. But I wasn’t feeling it.

I don’t know if it was the long journey to Paris, or perhaps my inertia while adapting from the relative isolation of remote working to the intensity of the conference environment. But I wasn’t feeling it.

I did like it, seeing the artefacts and juxtapositions. The space. The ceiling, restored so vividly that it seemed both old and new at once. My mind was engaged. But I wasn’t feeling it.

Then I noticed the light in others’ eyes. The hushed exclamations. The slow, lingering steps. Those renewed colours glowing on upturned faces. Glimpses of undiscovered threads in the social fabric.

I felt that.


Networks of collaboration like the IIPC are crucial support structures that form the foundation of care for digital heritage. Through the many membership organisations that have sprung up in recent decades, we pool resources to smooth the rough seams of our patchwork institutions. Each focussed on a slightly different gap. Doing as much as we can, with the little we have. Sharing out the hammers and buckets, breaking down the chalk. Diverging at the edges.

There is no fun to be found in fighting over crumbs of funding. No pleasure in being forced to choose which networks you can afford to join.

Perhaps joy can be found in the fight for a larger slice of a larger pie.


I’m fortunate to be in this new role. A chance to lay the hammer down. Get off my knees and walk around. Recognise the work of others, highlight the efforts being made, make connections, draw comparisons. Step back, survey, map the shape of the thing and the scale of the work to be done.

Link it all together with tools and prototypes. Gather evidence and analyse the results. Good. Useful. Necessary. But insufficient.

We can’t force the world to love the digital like we do, but there are bright sparks to share. Perhaps the best I can do is dedicate some of my efforts towards those outside our networks of comfort? Find neighbouring forums, and think of ways to confront and inspire those who have more power to change the game.

Present the evidence, the analysis, the ‘value’, yes. But show the work, and let the love be seen. Show how we hold a file in our minds, a bound spine lightly cradled in gloveless hands. Perhaps others will see themselves in the light reflected from our upturned faces.