Margaret Hedstrom has some concerns about how the current state of digital preservation might bias history in favor of certain cultures.
And she should know. Margaret's digital preservation expertise spans decades. An associate professor at the University of Michigan's School of Information (UMSI), she was formerly chief of State Records Advisory Services and director of the Center for Electronic Records at the New York State Archives and Records Administration. Her writings – still timely and influential – include "Digital Preservation: A Time Bomb for Digital Libraries," (external link) "It's About Time," (PDF, 1.51MB) and "Invest to Save." (external link) Her current Library of Congress-National Science Foundation work is "Incentives for Data Producers to Create Archive-Ready Data Sets." (external link)
From 1997 to 2000, Margaret headed a team of UMSI students and researchers that helped assemble the archives of the liberation movements, including the records of the African National Congress at South Africa's University of Fort Hare (UFH). UFH is the oldest historically black university in Southern Africa and its alumni include Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe; Archbishop Desmond Tutu was chaplain at UFH.
The UMSI team helped organize and catalog papers, recordings, articles and videotapes kept by anti-apartheid leaders during their years in exile. It is a continuing project, and Margaret continues to return periodically to Fort Hare with her graduate students eager to help. This past May and June she and a team started to organize and catalog the university's own archives, worked on a digitization proposal and revised the collection's Web site.
Margaret's experience gives her a unique perspective. Though UFH is not a Third World institution, it faces enormous resource obstacles. As Western institutions blaze forward, preserving terabytes and petabytes of their cultural content, institutions like UFH lag behind. "We need to appreciate the privileged position developed countries are in regarding technology," Margaret says. "The most threatened content in the world is the unique content in developing countries."
She adds, "When people are dealing with public health problems, lack of food and so on, we need to be cognizant of the fact that because almost all the (digital preservation) emphasis is coming from a small number of developed countries, we're going to have a skewed historic perspective." Even if Western countries help digitize the collections of developing countries, it is crucial to also help them create a solid infrastructure and advance their capacity to care for their own digital heritage.
Often the outside institution may benefit more than the country from which the content originated. Margaret explains, "Outside institutions may have some short-term funding, which they'll use to produce valuable resources that don't stay in the country of origin. There is no plan for sustainability. In the long run this will create a skewed record of culture, where the culture from developed countries will be well preserved and the culture from the underdeveloped countries may be lost."
"Money helps," Margaret says. "But also do understanding and respect for other cultures and indigenous content. We can't just drop in and fix the problems. We need to help them develop capacity to develop stuff that they themselves think is important. Don't wait for them to catch up technologically, but figure out how you can make the technology work in ways that they interested in."