Lisa Childs, student currently studying on the University of Dundee distance learning Archives and Records Management Course, writes about her experience when she attended the Digital Preservation Coalition Student Conference on 23rd January at Birkbeck College, University College London.
On January 23rd 2014 I attended the Digital Preservation Coalition Student Conference, ‘What I wish I knew before I started’, at Birkbeck College, University College London. The conference had been organised by the DPC to enable students of archives and records management and those with a growing awareness of the issues created by digital media and their preservation, to learn from those already working ‘at the coalface’. As a practising archive conservator at the National Museum Wales undertaking a distance learning M-Litt at Dundee University, I arrived on the day cautiously optimistic that I would be able to return home with a clearer vision when considering my own institution’s digital preservation strategy.
The conference was opened by Jenny Bunn, representing the ARA Archives and Technology section. Having welcomed all the delegates and speakers, she invited the DPC’s Sharon McMeekin on-stage to present her talk on ‘Getting Started in Digital Preservation’. Sharon reiterated the DPC’s much-repeated message that digital preservation ‘Won’t go away’ and ‘Won’t do itself’; but that also ‘You already have many of the skills that you need’. Sharon emphasised that it is not just about data, access or risk, but is about ‘people and opportunity’. Having identified the six key challenges of digital preservation: technology obsolescence, safeguarding digital preservation systems, storage media failure, easily corruptible/changeable data, maintaining accurate, usable metadata/documentation and on-going, active management; and then outlining the approaches to be taken in dealing with each, Sharon ended her talk by urging us all to start work now, rather than waiting for the perfect solution to arrive.
Next up was Tim Callister of the National Archives in London. Tim’s role is in examining emerging trends and future technologies with regards to maintaining and preserving government information in the form of digital media. Tim emphasised that preserving the context in which a digital record was created and used is as important as preserving the object itself. Using computer games as an example, Tim stated that as they have had such a huge cultural impact it is important that we collate and maintain information such as who played them, for how long, at what level and why? The statistics gathered can demonstrate the ‘human investment in use’. Other issues needing consideration were how we should preserve information between technologies’,e.g. ordering a book from Amazon by mobile ‘phone, or how to manage data within organisations; the digital dialogue that acts as evidence of activities and decision-making.
Maite Braud (MB), Project Manager (Archiving Solutions) for Tessella was next up onto the podium presenting ‘Technology Matters-A Personal View’. This was a useful and practical guide for newbies like me on what sort of digital archiving systems are available, what they do, how they do it and how to identify which system would suit your institution. I was expecting to be completely flummoxed by the end of it, so was pleasantly surprised to discover that within 30 minutes I understood the pros and cons of on-site and off-site systems.
Lunchtime arrived and as recommended many of us headed outside to the Farmers Market where mercifully the morning’s heavy rains had eased off and the square was full of students patiently queuing for cakes the size of breeze blocks, burgers you could wear on your head and a variety of other culinary glories. Fat and full we returned to the afternoon session where some of the well-known names and faces in digital preservation were going to tell us ‘How I spend my day’.
Dave Thompson (DT), Digital Curator of the Wellcome Library, was first off the starting block with a highly entertaining talk which clearly demonstrated how much he loves his work. Dave emphasised the opportunities for user engagement and access that digital preservation brings; the ability to ‘close the gap between the consumer and the data’. His positivity in regarding his work in being challenging but also ‘creative and fun’ was inspiring.
Next up was Simon Thompson from the BBC Sound Archives, with a description of his typical day. Starting with a meeting to discuss risk analysis of studio recordings across all BBC divisions, this was followed by staffing issues including recruitment, training and development; a discussion on accessibility versus security with regards to their Access Policy; a briefing session to the Senior Management Team on content issues concerning Radio International (no, I hadn’t heard of it either); a whole raft of copyright issues connected with BBC products and finally for a little light relief, the opportunity to answer a torrent of e-mails. Of particular interest in Simon’s talk was his efforts to embed staff across the organisation able to influence the behaviour of media management in how digital media is being created, so that these items are not an unknown quantity by the time that they reach the Archive.
Adrian Brown, Director of the Parliamentary Archives, was next to present his ‘….day in the life’. With a typical day starting at 9 am and finishing at 7 pm (!), Adrian described a wide range of activities addressing current issues and ‘future functionality and requirements’ with a healthy dose of public engagement and skills-sharing thrown into the mix. Much emphasis was placed by Adrian upon the value of communication; not only in demonstrating the work of the Parliamentary Archives to visitors, but in sharing best practice, thoughts, ideas and experiences with internal and external colleagues.
Helen Hockx-Yu, Head of Web Archiving at British Library began by showing ‘Capturing the Digital Universe’; a short film demonstrating the joint venture between the UK’s six legal deposit institutions in collecting and preserving Web content ‘for future generations’. Describing her role as a continuous learning process requiring both open-mindedness and flexibility, Helen went on to highlight her work and that of her team in technical, legal, managerial, project planning, advocacy, public engagement and copyright issues; supporting the on-going capability of the institution to archive and maintain on-going access to Web-created material.
Last to speak and returning to the podium was Sharon McMeekin. Sharon had deliberately chosen to specialise in this area, working her way up through to her current position at the DPC via a library assistant post at Glasgow University and as Digital Archivist for the RCAHMS. Her role at the DPC, she informed us, had enabled her to ‘work with beautiful things… cutting-edge technologies… interesting people and see the world’. Now if that isn’t a recommendation for hurling yourself headlong into the work of digital preservation, I don’t know what is.
The day concluded with a question panel. Key points raised included
- Look at what you are collecting, why, who is it for? (DT)
- Your main driver should be what will happen if you lose your records? Sometimes bad stories can be a good motivator. (MB)
- Identify what the drivers of your institution are and how you can support them. (MB)
- Add value to content by making inaccessible material accessible and usable for research. (DT)
- Think outside the box- who might find your collection useful. (MB)
- Plan, manage but be flexible; public interest and collecting criteria can change. (DT)
- Find project partners with similar content/aims to share digitisation costs.
The day proved to be a wonderful opportunity to learn first-hand from personal experience of the many challenges but also the creative, exciting and innovative aspects of digital preservation. It also highlighted a sense of our being ‘all in this together’, which when I boarded my train back to Cardiff that evening, somehow made me feel a whole lot better.