Memory in a Digital Age: Collecting, Accessing and Forgetting

Trinity Week 'Memory' banner, via

This is Trinity Week in Trinity College Dublin. The cricket pitch is beginning to look green; the cherry blossom is beginning to come into bloom; and Front Square is beginning to fill up with tourists. Trinity Week commenced yesterday on Trinity Monday, when we celebrated the announcement of the new Honorary Fellows, Fellows, and Scholars of the College. This is followed by a week of events including symposia, lectures, roundtable discussions and many other events, all of which will be of interest to the general public as well as to members of College and academics from other institutions. This year, the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences is hosting the programme of events for Trinity Week. The theme for the week is “Memory”, and the week long programme will include exciting events which demonstrate the key role memory plays in the teaching and research in the Faculty. There is more information here, the brochure may be downloaded here, and the events are live-tweeted here.

On Thursday next, 14 April, from 9:00am until 1:30pm, the School of Law (as one of the Schools in the Faculty) is co-hosting a half-day seminar on

Memory in a Digital Age: Collecting, Accessing and Forgetting.

Our co-hosts are the School of English, and the Library, for whom it forms part of “The Library of the Future; the Future of the Library” programme of events for 2015-2016.

The digital age has enabled an unprecedented era of creativity, innovation and knowledge-sharing but has also created new challenges for documenting and preserving contemporary knowledge and culture. With such a vast amount of digital content available, how do we decide what we keep, how we access it and what we want to delete? Over the course of this half-day seminar a number of expert speakers will address these issues and attempt to answer these questions.

The event will be held in the Printing House in New Square (map here) the Emmet Theatre, Room 2037 in the Arts Building (map here). (Due to strong demand for places, we have moved the venue from the Printing House to the larger Emmet). Attendance is free, but booking is essential. The morning will be chaired by Karlin Lillington (of the Irish Times), and the schedule is as follows:

09:00 Welcome and Introduction
Helen Shenton, Librarian and College Archivist, Trinity College Dublin

09:15 Collecting (presented by the Library of Trinity College Dublin)
Lightning talks by members of the Library will illustrate the Library’s role in initiatives focused on ensuring ‘at risk’ digital content survives for future generations.
“Going, going gone – What can libraries do about the digital black hole?” Margaret Flood (Keeper, Collection Management)
“Mandated Digital Collecting – UK Non-Print Legal Deposit” Arlene Healy (Sub-Librarian, Digital Systems and Services)
“Voluntary Digital Collecting – edepositIreland” Dr Christoph Schmidt Supprian (Sub-Librarian, Collection Management)
“Voluntary Digital Collecting – The 1916 Rising Web-Archiving Project” Dr Brendan Power (Post-Doctoral Researcher)

10:15 Coffee Break

10:45 Accessing (presented by the School of English)
“‘Six by nine. Forty two.’ or How to ask the Ultimate Question” Dr Mark Sweetnam (Assistant Professor, School of English)
“Why search is hard, and why search in cultural heritage is REALLY hard” Dr Seamus Lawless (Assistant Professor, School of Computer Science)

11:45 Break

12:00 Forgetting (presented by the School of Law)
“The virtue of privacy in a digital age” Antoin Ó Lachtnain (Digital Rights Ireland)
“What is the first rough draft of history in a digital age?” Malachy Browne (Managing Editor & Europe Anchor of
“Forgetting to remember: if we want to preserve anything we will need to dispose of something” William Kilbride (Executive Director of the Digital Preservation Coalition)

13:00 Questions & Answers with all speakers

Attendance is free, but booking is essential.

Some notes on the speakers in the Law School’s session on “Forgetting”.

“The virtue of privacy in a digital age” Antoin Ó Lachtnain, Digital Rights Ireland

In the context of digital memory, what we keep private, what we delete, what we delete, is just as important as what we curate, access and remember. The comprehensive and everlasting memory of the digital realm remembers what is sometimes better forgotten, and this has profound implications for us all. In this talk, Antoin will argue that information privacy rights, including the EU’s right to be forgotten, may help – even if they are not the complete solution.

Antoin graduated from TCD with a degree in psychology and philosophy in 2003. He is a director of Digital Rights Ireland (DRI), an NGO dedicated to defending Civil, Human and Legal rights in a digital age. In particular, DRI is working to protect the fundamental right to privacy through court action at national and European level and through public activism. Antoin is also a director of exmuris, a consultancy which delivers product, marketing, IT and financial solutions in complex, regulated markets, especially in the areas of utilities, financial services and regulated sectors. He tweets at @antoin and blogs at

Digital Rights Ireland have taken a case in the Irish and European courts to challenge laws which have, for more than decade, required mobile phone companies and ISPs to retain data relating to their subscribers’ location, calls, texts and emails for up to two years. The Court of Justice of the European Union struck down the European law providing for the retention of this data, and held that this type of mass surveillance of the entire population constituted a disproportionate invasion of privacy (see case C-293/12 Digital Rights Ireland v Minister for Communications). The case has now returned to the Irish courts, where DRI seeks to have the equivalent national Irish laws struck down as well.

“What is the first rough draft of history in a digital age?” Malachy Browne, Managing Editor & Europe Anchor of

What we decide to forget or delete are important issues for journalists as well as for librarians, academics, lawyers, NGOs, and civic society. Although we benefit from digital memories, the capacity to forget is also valuable. If, as Phil Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, once said, journalism is a first rough draft of history, then journalists working in a digital age face particular challenges in what is recorded for posterity and what is forgotten. On the one hand, digital “evidence lockers” would ensure that media related to human rights is downloaded and saved in a way that preserves metadata and other important information, so that it can potentially be used in future prosecutions and investigations by journalists, NGOs and human rights actors. On the other hand, as Viktor Mayer-Schönberger argues in Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton University Press, 2011) not being able to leave the past behind can make us more unforgiving in the digital age than ever before. In this talk, Malachy will therefore discuss the benefits and costs, from a social and journalistic perspective, of forgetting or deleting digital data.

Malachy is Managing Editor & Europe Anchor of at First Look Media. He was co-founder and Editor-at-Large at, and News Editor at, and he worked for the political magazine, Village, where he ran the magazine’s website, He takes an interest in international politics, conflict, social justice and human rights. He has covered the Arab Spring, conflicts in Ivory Coast, Syria and Ukraine, humanitarian crises from Somalia’s famine to Typhoon Haiyan, global civil rights movements, and the response to Europe’s economic crisis. He has written about eyewitness media and citizen networks for Al Jazeera, Open Democracy and the European Journalism Centre’s Verification Handbook. Formerly a computer programmer, Malachy enjoys newsroom innovation and creating technology that powers journalism and human rights work.

“Forgetting to remember: if we want to preserve anything we will need to dispose of something” William Kilbride, Executive Director of the Digital Preservation Coalition

Fears over data misuse, sometimes misplaced, can lead to surprising outcomes. While the ‘right to be forgotten’ remains critically ill-defined in the context of a burgeoning digital universe, we can at least agree that there is an innocent party in all of this. Abuse of data is not the fault of the data. Perhaps we need a more sophisticated and more generally relevant appreciation of the ethics of information processing. But as we wait for enlightenment, the data grows, the weaknesses proliferate and the case law stacks up. CIOs take fright; risk-averse public servants lose their nerve; data is blamed. There is a right to forget just as surely as there is a right to memory. But forgetfulness has fear on its side and data seems to be the victim. Can forgetfulness and memory be reconciled in the digital age? Archivists have long known that forgetting (which they call disposal) is a necessary pre-condition of remembering (which they call retention); archaeologists implicitly understand this too, or Dublin would be thick with Vikings and saints. Our still immature digital culture cannot but tend in the same direction. Data volumes are overwhelming storage, and economics will soon overtake both. If we’re going to remember anything, we’re going have to dispose of something. If we can decide what we want to retain we can decide what to relinquish. Digital preservation, it turns out, is the art of knowing what to delete. In this talk, William will argue that the challenge of our generation is to choose wisely.

William is Executive Director of the Digital Preservation Coalition, a not-for-profit membership organization providing advocacy, workforce development, capacity and partnership in digital preservation. Trinity College Library was a founding member of the DPC in 2002. William started his career in archaeology in the 1990s when the discipline’s enthusiasm for new technology outstripped its capacity to manage the resulting data. He joined the DPC from Glasgow Museums where he was Research Manager and before that was Assistant Director of the Archaeology Data Service in the University of York. Before that he was a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Glasgow, where he retains an honorary position.

Attendance is free, but booking is essential.

Update Karlin Lillington later wrote a column in the Irish Times about the event; here are some extracts:

Lax archival law allows ‘digital black hole’

Call for so-called ‘legal deposit’ to cover digital items as well as print

… At a recent Trinity seminar on the topic, [Trinity librarian Margaret] Flood noted that internet pioneer Vint Cerf has referred to this archive vacuum as the “digital black hole” of lost content [see, eg, here].

Critically, this isn’t just about saving websites or videos or images, although these obviously have value. In many cases, it’s about saving content – including formal government and agency documents – that is now only produced in digital format and, thus, not required to be archived. Imagine the gaps in the historical and factual archive if State bodies in the previous 200 years could have chosen what content was saved for posterity?

… At the seminar, another Trinity librarian, Christoph Schmidt-Supprian, highlighted our own Irish digital black hole in the area of government publications. … Because of this extraordinary state of affairs, a considerable State record is vanishing into Cerf’s digital black hole. … What does it mean for democracy, for transparency, for collective memory, when seemingly arbitrary decisions are made by State bodies as to what should be archived, he asked.