Q&A Blogs give you a chance to have your questions answered by experienced professionals. The questions for this post were answered by Sharon McMeekin – Head of Workforce Development and Skills, Angela Dappert – Head of Research and Practice and Sarah Norris – Head of Communications and Advocacy. If you have any further comments or questions, please comment below.
Q: How does the UK compare with other Countries in terms of Digital Preservation progress?
A: Organisations within the UK have always been amongst those at the leading edge of digital preservation, whether that be through participation in innovative research projects, as developers of repository systems and best practice, or as those offering well-established and respected training courses.
Indicatively, at iPRES 2013, the largest international conference on digital preservation, 46 of 330 representatives came from the UK, second only to the US. One reason for this is that UK institutions collaborated early on through the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC) which is world-wide one of the largest organised national networks dedicated to digital preservation. The robust nature of the DPC and the enthusiasm of our members to work together towards digital preservation solutions illustrate the level of interest and engagement with this topic in the UK.
A few years ago there might have been criticism that only the ‘big players’ were making real progress but I would say their successes are beginning to filter down to small and medium-sized organisations meaning the country as a whole seems to be on the right path.
Q: Are the initiatives for developing digital repositories isolated or is there a broader platform for institutions to share services?
A: Ten years ago, with legal deposit legislation promising to be passed, it was mainly the legal deposit libraries who had the need to create large-scale digital repositories in a market where off-the-shelf solutions did not exist (and still do not exist at the scale needed). Given the size of the task and their historic relationship this could only be done collaboratively. They now not only share a digital repository solution but also very interesting shared access platforms for special collections.
Smaller organisations did not have the resources or urgency that came from this legislation, but in 2014 we find that a large array of open-source and commercial repository solutions are available even for small organisations. Nevertheless, collaboration is still essential because of limited resources and the amount of digital material rapidly growing even in smaller organisations, but also because digital repositories are particularly suited for the creation of very rich collaborative collections.
An excellent example of shared working can be found in Ireland: the Digital Repository of Ireland, a consortium of organisations working together to create an e-infrastructure to preserve the nation’s social and cultural data. The development of shared services is also a key mission of the NCDD in the Netherlands and a new initiative is underway in Wales, led by CyMAL. The CLOCKSS network has grown to include nearly 200 publishers and 250 supporting universities and provides a sustainable, geographically distributed dark archive for web-based scholarly publications.
Universities also share services and platforms such as in the White Rose Research Online (WRRO)open access repository for the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. All universities share a thesis system ETHOS. Data centres, such as EDINA and MIMAS provide shared platforms and research councils encourage the shared use of data centre facilities.
Our allied organisation the Open Planets Foundation engages with its members and the community to develop practical and sustainable tools and services to ensure long-term access to digital content.
One of the DPC’s main aims is to help facilitate such partnerships between our members to allow them to develop reliable and sustainable shared solutions.
Q: A few years ago there was an impression archivists weren’t much involved in the debate of DP. Do you think this has changed recently?
A: I would definitely say that participation has expanded. More and more archivists are engaging with digital preservation issues and we’ve seen this first-hand at the DPC through the ever increasing numbers of archivists at our ‘Getting Started in Digital Preservation’ events and the continued popularity of ULCC’s Digital Preservation Training Programme. At our latest DPC Briefing Day on procuring digital repository software nearly three quarters of the attendees identified themselves as archivists.
The DPC is part of an exciting new €6m European Union co-funded project, E-ARK, which actually harmonises archival digital preservation processes at a pan-European level, supported by guidelines and recommended practices that will cater for a range of data and archival organisations.
Archivists have a lot to offer digital preservation as many of the key issues are our speciality: preserving authenticity, creating and maintaining descriptive information, and appraisal and selection. The final entry on that list is one of particular relevance as appraisal and selection is increasingly becoming a hot topic in the world of digital preservation and I would encourage archivists to join the debate as we already hold many of the answers to the questions that are being asked.
Q: Digital preservation is currently taught as an optional module on some archive courses. When do you see it becoming a compulsory core training module?
A: If courses are going to remain relevant to the development of the profession then I would hope almost immediately. It was already a core module of the University of Glasgow’s ‘Information Management and Preservation course when I studied there in 2006. There also are new masters’ courses now available offering students the opportunity to specialise in digital preservation/curation, such as the Digital Curation masters at both Aberystwyth University and King’s College London. While there are posts advertised specifically for those with these skills the majority of archival roles will, at least in the near future, require individuals to be skilled in both digital and more traditional preservation methods and courses should be preparing their students for this reality.
Q: What skills would a New Professional need to find work in digital preservation and archiving?
A: The competences required to work in digital preservation are wide ranging and cross-disciplinary, but at the same time I wouldn’t want this to discourage those thinking of working in the field, rather it is one of the aspects of digital preservation that makes it interesting and challenging. As mentioned above, many of the traditional skills of the archival world remain relevant in the digital age and I would encourage new professionals to consider how they can be applied. Knowledge of current standards, tools and best practice is obviously also necessary and most of this information is easily accessible on the web. More standard practices such as project planning and risk assessment are also key. To find a complete picture of the skills required by those working in digital preservation I would recommend looking at the outcomes of the DigCurV project whose ‘skills lenses’ seek to identify the competences required by those working in the field at ‘Practitioner’, ‘Manager’ and ‘Executive’ levels. There is a wide range of training available in relation to digital preservation and I would recommend keeping an eye out for relevant courses. At the DPC we both provide training and offer places on established courses through scholarships from our leadership programme.
Q: Do archivists need to do more to preserve our digital heritage?
A: When it comes down to it we all really need to do more. People tend to worry about doing something wrong or think that a better solution is just around the corner, but the best piece of advice in relation to digital preservation is just to get started. It needs to be an active process so doing something is almost always better than doing nothing. It has been proved that the earlier in a digital objects’ life-cycle that preservation issues are addressed the more successful and cheaper preservation will be as a result.
Q: Any tips for implementing digital preservation strategies on a low budget?
A: First up, don’t get put off by complicated standards such as OAIS (Open Archival Information System, ISO 14721). It’s not essential to comply with every aspect of these standards and they also might not be wholly relevant. Try to identify what the important issues are for your organisation, how these can be addressed and what standards or tools are relevant. There are lots of open-source tools that are now reaching a useful level of maturity, for example the SCAPE project has been further developing a suite of tools related to preservation planning. Have a look at the Open Planets Foundation’s COPTR tools registry to see what others are available. Network with your peers, share efforts, and learn from others at event such as the DPC Briefing Days.
Q: What file formats are the best to use to ensure digital continuity?
A: That is not an easy question to answer, and cannot be generally addressed as different organisations have different usage and preservation needs. Even files of the same file format can be used very differently amongst different organisations. There are a variety of recommendations for file formats from leading organisations (for example Archivematica’s, the Library of Congress’s or Jisc’s but they vary because of their varying goals and assessments.
It is a simple fact that homogenous collections are easier to care for than those containing a proliferation of different formats, and as such some organisations have taken a normalisation approach, transferring all digital objects of a particular type to a single file format at the potential risk of loss of authenticity. It is also generally accepted that file formats with desirable preservation characteristics, e.g. those which are widely adopted and well documented with open specifications, are preferable. Click here for examples.
But while there has been much discussion around the issue of preservation formats no real consensus has been, or can be, reached. You can find some interesting discussion around particular object types such as CAD and moving pictures and sound in the DPC’s series of Technology Watch Reports.
Q: Managing and preserving documents in standard formats (docs, jpegs, etc.) seems to have become more accessible. But what about non-standard formats, for instance .mov, is investment in preserving these types of file justified?
A: Preservation decisions should be motivated primarily by the value of the information contained within the object so we cannot dismiss formats wholesale because they are perceived to be ‘difficult’. Collaborative working is often also key to the development of preservation solutions for such formats so it’s always worthwhile seeing whether there are any working groups or special interest organisations working with the particular type of digital object, such as the PrestoCentre which focuses on the preservation of audio-visual material. If no preservation solution is currently available there are still plenty of steps that should still be taken to ensure at least bit-level preservation including the capture of complete metadata, secure storage and back-up and fixity checking to ensure the maintenance of the an authentic record.
Q: Do you have any suggestions for those trying to convince colleagues to invest in and maintain archival standards for born digital records?
A: The first step is to clearly define the risks and benefits associated with the preservation of digital objects (or lack of) within your organisation. Being able to clearly articulate these in an accessible manner will be your greatest tool in gaining investment from stakeholders. In relation to risk management there are useful resources available from the National Archives’ Digital Continuity Service as well as tools such as SPOT and DRAMBORA that can help you identify risks. For benefits it is worthwhile having a looking the generic benefits list produced by the Keeping Research Data Safe project which is an excellent jumping off point when identifying the value of digital preservation within your organisation. The DPC and Spruce Project have also worked together to produce a Digital Preservation Business Case Toolkit which is a comprehensive toolkit to help practitioners and middle managers build business cases for investment in digital preservation activities.
Q: If there was one thing you wish everyone knew about digital preservation what would it be?
A: That you don’t need to be an IT geek to get involved with digital preservation! No one person has all the skills required to carry out this work and so it will always be a collaborative process. A lot of it is also common sense as long as you don’t forget to ask yourself whether people could use the materials you care for as they are now if nobody looked at them for 20 years. Train yourself to think about the long-term usability of digital materials. Archivists have a lot of relevant skills and knowledge to bring to the table and digital preservation will be more successful if we all get involved.
The digital preservation community is critical to spreading this message and there is plenty of opportunity to rub shoulders with other practitioners doing the same, through the DPC. Our programme is bursting with publications and events scheduled throughout the year. These events are open to anyone, but members can attend for free.
We also have loads of good stuff on the DPC website, with more to come in 2014. This bounty of information includes case studies, a jargon buster and our ever popular Technology Watch Reports. For more information about joining the DPC community and availing yourself of our member benefits, visit our website.