UNESCO PERSIST: How long will our digital heritage remain accessible?

We can still read the clay tablets that were made 2000 years ago with our eyes. But the words we wrote in WordPerfect not so long ago have already become inaccessible because today we don’t use WordPerfect anymore. This “innovation gap” will become a memory gap for society if we don’t preserve the old software. If we don’t act, the 22nd century will not know that the 21st century existed. Society faces a risk of “digital amnesia”.

UNESCO PERSIST is an initiative that addresses digital amnesia – and its remedy digital sustainability – globally. As the UN organization for documentary heritage, communication and information, UNESCO is uniquely positioned to coordinate this effort. PERSIST started in 2012 as a part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme for the preservation of documentary heritage.

What solution does UNESCO PERSIST propose?

To keep old digital files accessible UNESCO PERSIST proposes a simple solution: preserve the old software needed to open old files and keep it in a PERSIST Foundation. This Foundation is a kind of “bank for old software” where the whole world can use it to open their old files.

There is one problem: as computers and their operating systems keep evolving they can’t run old software. But there is a solution: it is possible to instruct modern computers to “function like an old one” so that they can handle and run old software. This requires so-called emulation software.

The PERSIST Foundation proposes these two elements: it preserves old versions of software and it develops the special emulation software needed to run this old software on modern computers.

Ambassadors lunch

To raise awareness about the problem of digital amnesia and the PERSIST solution the Dutch Ambassador to UNESCO, H.E. Lionel Veer, convened an Ambassadors lunch on 24 February 2017. 12 UNESCO Member States were represented, including Australia, Canada, India, France and Qatar.

During the lunch PERSIST was introduced by Prof. Natasa Milic-Frayling from the Nottingham University in the UK. She chairs the PERSIST Technology and Research Working Group and worked 17 years as a senior researcher for Microsoft. Here introduction can be watched here.

Next steps

Several Ambassadors called for political endorsement for UNESCO’s PERSIST Programme. The Dutch Delegation will coordinate efforts in this direction with UNESCO’s Communication and Information Sector headed by Assistant-Director General Frank Larue. 

Furthermore PERSIST will organize a special roundtable on 31 March 2017 with representatives from the ICT industry, to discuss their involvement in the PERSIST Foundation and Programme.

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