2 November 2023
The climate emergency has prompted archives and museums to reflect on our carbon footprints and rethink the way we work. Reducing the environmental impact within our collections care work has mainly been addressed through building design and revisions to how we maintain the physical collections entrusted to us. Research is now focussing on the impact of digital archiving which has become part of the standard remit of most services today.
Data centres contribute 2.5-3.7% of global emissions compared to aviation at 2.1-2.4%. About 65% of data is dark (rarely or never used), 15% is redundant or outdated, and there is also duplication. While the carbon footprint of individual digital archives varies based on size and scope, the cumulative impact of numerous archives, data centres, and online services is significant due to the energy required to sustain them. These alarming statistics can deter digital creation and collecting, risking innovative access pathways for audiences, and devaluing the extraordinary power digital resources hold to reimagine the future and to amplify diverse voices and representation. Balancing best practices, equitable access, and sustainability is therefore crucial.
The Box is on a decarbonisation journey and this is reflected within our mission, vision and values. In support of this, and with investment from the British Film Institute National Lottery Screen Heritage Award, our media archive team is assessing and monitoring the carbon costs associated with preserving both the physical and digital assets we are responsible for, with particular focus on the extensive moving image collections.
How is our Media Archives Team tackling decarbonisation?
Following a ‘preventing pointless preservation’ approach, we prioritise and digitally preserve vital, frequently used, and at-risk collections or parts of a collection. We now create only the highest and lowest quality versions, reducing storage, saving resources, energy and money. Access copies are created as needed rather than as a general ingest concept. We use a lossless compression format making files a third of the size, saving space, resources and energy with no quality loss during transcoding.
When choosing storage systems, we prioritise efficiency over performance. Our primary digital content is stored on LTO tapes. They consume energy only when reading or writing, providing substantial energy savings compared to traditional spinning discs. The trade-off is a slight delay when accessing these files which is a minor inconvenience.
We have introduced automation into many preservation and monitoring workflows, especially for moving and still images. This reduces computer workload, saving energy, while enhancing task accuracy allowing our staff to focus on other responsibilities. We prioritise occasional integrity checks for digitised assets during off-peak hours to conserve energy. Additionally, we frequently assess and remove redundant and duplicated content from our digital storage. We’re also in the process of implementing a Digital Asset Management system to streamline access and efficiency and to prevent duplicate files in our archive storage.
While decarbonising digital archives alone may not be a panacea for the climate crisis, it is an essential part of a broader initiative within the cultural and heritage sector to reduce carbon emissions and promote sustainability. In proactively addressing the challenge of climate change within our digital preservation activities, this commitment to sustainability has certainly not impacted negatively on our work to provide innovative access to the collections nor has it compromised our ability to meet the highest professional digital archiving standards.
By embracing sustainable digital practice, we are introducing greater efficiencies into our work which not only helps to bolster the overall resilience of the organisation but encourages us to work conscientiously in doing what we can to safeguard the planet – In today's interconnected, data-driven world, that mission is more critical than ever!
The Box is committed to ensuring sustainable practice in everything we do and in sharing that practice with others. You can watch an example of that here: RLUK DSF | Sustainability and digital in museums, collections and archives - YouTube (22:12 mins in).
By Stacey Anderson, Media Archivist.