Following a 10-year+ career in academic libraries, I made a much coveted move into the realms of Archives and Special Collections in 2014. In 2016 I began an Archives and Records Management distance learning MLitt with the Centre for Archive and Information Studies’ (CAIS) at the University of Dundee which provided me with the opportunity to take up a secondment position as Digital Preservation Manager at the University of Sheffield in 2017. Having previously worked with the existing post-holder on born-digital archive collections, I had acquired a background knowledge of the subject and an understanding of the challenges involved in the long-term preservation of digital material.
At Sheffield, the Library has taken the leading role in developing a robust preservation strategy for the institution’s important digital objects. This has involved putting in place safeguarding measures for the capture and care of material from Special Collections and Archives as well as the National Fairground and Circus Archive, which has its home at Sheffield. As well as archive material, the library has overseen a project to integrate the university’s research data repository with our digital preservation system, ensuring a comprehensive lifecycle care plan for researcher’s data.
Investigating digital preservation during this particular period has so far proved fascinating. A time in which it seems possible for the community to reflect on the successful avoidance of the feared ‘digital dark age’; to recognise that a considerable investment of time and skills from the archives, libraries and IT sectors managed to prevent the large-scale loss of material that threatened sleepless nights for the information professions (following several notable data-loss horror stories from the 1980s and 1990s).
Challenges faced by the digital preservation community are well documented and not insignificant; the term ‘digital preservation’ itself often being used as the name of a challenge, rather than an area of archival study. Interestingly, when I examined these challenges in parallel to those I have personally encountered, it seemed that it was not only possible to make direct comparisons between the two sets, but to perhaps view the latter as a microcosm of the former. For example, approaching digital preservation from an essentially non-technical starting point immediately made clear the massive gaps in my personal knowledge.
In the archival sector, such skill-gaps have been acknowledged by practitioners as an area that could be addressed by re-evaluating roles. At the 2017 ARA Conference, for example, Victoria Lemieux spoke about the need for a Computational Archival Science community. This talk was one of several at the event which considered this type of emerging discipline based on standard archival practices but encompassing complex technological and IT responsibilities.
Solidifying the importance of digital preservation on the wider agenda is another common challenge likely apparent to many, at both an institutional and sector-wide level. We are fortunate at the library to have systems staff who are not only aware of the structural implications of digital preservation but who are also sympathetic to the theoretical reasoning behind them. In short, the importance of technical stakeholders who understand both the ‘how’, and as significantly the ‘why’, is massive and can have a huge bearing on an organisation’s successful implementation of a digital preservation programme. Being able to establish an effective internal advocacy programme is an invaluable but demanding task.
During my introduction to the subject I have heard more than once discussion of what may be described as the relatively recent end of the initial phase of digital preservation and the consideration of what’s to come in ‘Digital Preservation 2.0.’ We find ourselves now in a position to apply standards and frameworks to ensure the preservation of simple digital objects, we can call on a wide variety of shared knowledge and expertise and we may have the luxury of being able to employ commercial vendors to provide all-encompassing, off-the-shelf system solutions. Challenges for the future include the safeguarding of content from places like social media where more and more of our shared cultural heritage is not only now recorded but actually originates from. Similarly, questions over the preservation of ephemeral or difficult to pin down information sources like Google Drive or SharePoint documents loom-large and force us to reconsider our approach to traditional archival functions such as appraisal and arrangement.
Considering the future and my personal professional development, it again seems fitting to talk in terms of a microcosm when looking forward. I acknowledge that a complete understanding of every technical aspect of digital preservation is a somewhat ambitious and long-term goal. However, I can at least have confidence in a comprehensive awareness of both current issues and potential future areas of concern. And perhaps the same scenario could be applied to digital preservation in the wider context; we may not currently possess all the answers, but we at least have a very good understanding of the landscape.
Chris Loftus, Special Collections & Digital Preservation Coordinator, University of Sheffield