The growth in accessible digitized primary source materials, together with the improvement in quantity and quality of online research tools has changed fundamentally the way in which historians go about their business. While the fundamental importance of primary sources remains the same, it is ever more the case that the sources themselves were born digital, consumed digitally, and (hopefully) preserved digitally. But what assurance do we have that in the next century, or the next millennium, historians will be able to access materials that were produced on machines, and software packages that have long ceased to exist? This is the question Google Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist (and ACM past president), Vint Cerf raised in a number of engaging recent public talks, interviews, and in his Communications' "Cerf's Up" column. His conclusion is that we are standing on the edge of a precipice, and that unless we take appropriate steps a digital dark age awaits us. I cannot easily gauge the effect of Cerf's remarks in the U.S., but in Europe, his comments have been taken up widely, and accepted more or less uncritically, by the broadcast and print media. Among professionals working in the digital preservation field, the reaction has been much less accepting. Many of the people with whom I come into contact exhibit a simmering resentment that a great deal of pioneering and fundamental work carried out in Europe (and more widely), is being overlooked in the publicity storm that Cerf's pronouncements have generated.
This is entirely understandable, but I think it is almost certainly the wrong response. For most of the last decade, I have been working actively in digital preservation, having been drawn into the field from a background in what has come to be called the "digital humanities," where I continue to take a particular interest in the history of computing. For most of that time, it has been something of an uphill struggle to persuade academic colleagues that digital preservation was not only something that needed to be taken seriously, but was a field in which there were, and are, interesting and intellectually satisfying challenges to be addressed. What was true of fellow academics was doubly so of business leaders, politicians, and other opinion formers. Fellow digital preservationists were often inclined to scratch their heads, and with their thousand-yard stare firmly in place, ask what they have to do to get preservation onto the political and business agenda. I have attended a number of conferences where participants debated whether the best approach to getting preservation taken seriously was to deploy somewhat apocalyptic tales of the dangers of losing large slices of our cultural heritage as a result of inattention to preservation, or to encourage better digital custodianship by more positive means. It probably needs a little of both, but the uncomfortable truth is the messenger is often more important than the message, and whether the approach is to scare the world at large into taking preservation seriously, or to provide less dramatic encouragement, the messenger needs to be able to cut through the noise and be heard. Vint Cerf, as one of the architects of the Internet, and a key figure on the U.S. politico-scientific stage, is extremely well placed to bring digital preservation to greater prominence than has hitherto been the case, and should therefore be welcomed wholeheartedly, even if he does not always capture fully the digital preservation zeitgeist. The media interest in Cerf's talk of a looming digital dark age can only serve to help raise awareness among computer scientists and engineers and encourage them to engage with the outstanding technological challenges. His intervention may even be instrumental in persuading funders to put their dollars and euros behind much-needed digital preservation research.
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