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February 4, 2021

Achieving Sovereignty for Data Curation and Preservation

Forging into 2021 marks an official full decade of work for me in the field of digital preservation, first with LOCKSS and Educopia (2010-2015), then with Grand Valley State University Libraries (2015-2019), and then back with Educopia and its MetaArchive and BitCurator communities (2019-2021). My how time flies! Reaching a decade milestone provides one with an opportunity to reflect back on the coherency, the consistency, the significance, and the impact of their career—however small. And I have to say that I am relatively pleased to look back now on the last ten years and take stock that I’ve managed to work patiently, intentionally, and incrementally on some of the key technological and organizational challenges that have dogged the field of digital preservation throughout that period. 

It has become common to hear digital preservationists quip that it is not the technology so much as the organizational challenges that hinder our progress in ensuring that digital information can survive the vicissitudes of rapid and rampant digital change and growth over time. I agree organizational issues pose the greatest challenge—i.e., securing institutional and collaborative support for preserving digital artifacts. 

That being said, I cannot in good faith continue to downplay the negative impact that the growth of technical outsourcing and platform lock-in is having on our efforts to achieve sovereignty over data and digital collections, both in our field and in our lives. I’ve written previously that the major technology platforms that increasingly underpin our storage and computing infrastructures are slowly but surely enacting a gambit over the full lifecycle of our digital assets. As citizens and as institutions, we should be concerned about this loss of control and sovereignty. 

Achieving sovereignty is not the phrase I would have necessarily used ten years ago to describe what I was setting out to accomplish as I began working with Educopia and the MetaArchive Cooperative. But in actuality, it is the principle and philosophy that best captures the thrust of those first five years of my career. 

As Program Manager of the Cooperative (2010-2015), I worked closely with all of the MetaArchive members to stabilize and scale up the world’s first international, member-owned, distributed digital preservation network for libraries, archives, and museums. The Cooperative at that time aimed at nothing less than the acceleration, expansion, and diversification of a community and a shared technology solution that could secure ongoing institutional control over data. 

The member institutions controlled the hardware locally, used open source software, and stored and protected validated copies of each other’s digital collections rather than sending content off to a third-party commercial service provider. Through inter-institutional policies, open and transparent governance, the implementation of heterogeneous technologies, and the use of encrypted protocols, the MetaArchive Cooperative has achieved, and continues to achieve, sovereignty over institutional data.

I left the Cooperative briefly in 2015 to get my hands dirty solving more granular digital challenges at Grand Valley State University Libraries. I did so in a sincere effort to explore whether or not I could successfully advocate for and navigate a vendor-oriented library (such as they were) into the terrain of open source adoption and collaborative communities for solving their digital preservation needs. 

In this case too, I can’t say that I would have summed up this ambitious project as an effort in helping them achieve sovereignty (as I now understand the concept) but that is indeed what it was. I wanted desperately for that very under-resourced institution to break free from the bondage agreements of the many remote, distant, and exploitative vendors to whom they had tethered their technological future.

After nearly five years of advocacy and strategic planning, with the help of a deep team of like-minded faculty and staff, we managed to persuade the GVSU library to break free from its digital platform vendor, begin hosting its own digital collections portal using open source solutions, and take the lead with launching a brand new statewide/regional collaborative network (the Michigan Digital Preservation Network) to explore common solutions for institutional digital preservation. In a sense, with the help of some incredible professional friends and like-minded activists, our team managed to replicate and amplify the enduring MetaArchive Cooperative model. 

It was during this season of my work that I solidified my engagement with the term sovereignty as it is most appropriately applied to data and the digital. Here I am referring to the movement to promote indigenous data sovereignty—an effort to decolonize Western empirical research and data management practices and empower indigenous nations and communities to regain autonomy and control over the full lifecycle of curation of information produced for, by, and about them. As a citizen myself of a federally recognized tribal nation here in the United States, this notion of sovereignty has understandably taken on special meaning and significance for me personally, as well as professionally. 

More than any other priority, beyond even those that I set in collaboration with Educopia, I work daily to advocate and innovate for more sovereignty for indigenous communities—my own and others. Indigenous communities across the U.S. and across the world have been historically pushed to the margins or outright ignored throughout the information and digital revolutions of the past several decades. Indigenous communities now occupy some of the darkest pockets of connectivity in the ongoing digital divide. They rarely have a say in how they are represented online. They have had their online social exchanges and civil disobedience surveilled and exploited by law enforcement to undermine their efforts to resist extractive capitalism and state repression. 

The road to indigenous data sovereignty is only getting started and there is much work to do. It sits at the very center of indigenous peoples’ efforts to reconstitute their lands, their wealth, their cultures, and their communities. Moving through 2021 and beyond, I will remain a source of consultation and expertise for Educopia in the areas of digital, data, and indigenous sovereignty, but will also be ramping up my individualized outreach to citizens, organizations, and communities to help them decolonize and reclaim some balance and control over data and the digital in their daily lives.*

I’m growing increasingly fond of thinking and believing that if we can achieve and uphold sovereignty for these most threatened and disenfranchised communities in our human family, then we can really begin to make more progress generally in giving non-indigenous citizens back their rights and authority over the data that they produce and that impacts their lives. And quite frankly, we have no business making progress without them.  

It has been refreshing to reflect back on this culminating thread of sovereignty in the motivations for my work over the past ten years. As I have returned to Educopia, and have had the opportunity to work  firsthand with the flagship community of the MetaArchive, and more recently at a distance in collaboration with our exceptional Community Facilitators for the BitCurator Consortium and the Software Preservation Network, the concept of sovereignty continues to animate my engagement. These communities span multiple sectors that go well beyond academia and the cultural heritage sectors. They have connections into law, government, media, industry, NGOs, and even commercial technology developers. Their impact is broad and dynamic. 

What unites them all, in my estimation, is a commitment to guaranteeing enduring access and greater control over the destiny of digital creations. Each are seeking to provide communities with both the technology and organizational tools to achieve sovereignty over data and the digital. They are not simply working on behalf of their institutions, they are working together and on a societal level against the consolidation of big technology (and by extension all of that monopolistic sector’s attendant market pressures) seeking to crowd them out of that sovereignty.


* Matt Schultz will be transitioning from Educopia to an independent consultancy over the course of Spring 2021, where he will deliver tailored and targeted immersive trainings to inspire and motivate everyday people to incorporate practical new strategies to reclaim a more balanced relationship with technology, the environment, and our communities. You can keep up with his work at