Summer Seminar 2019: ‘It is quite lovely – bits of it’*, Digital Preservation and the Changing Role of the Archivist – Ashleigh Hawkins

On a crisp and beautifully clear June morning I was fortunate enough to be one of the few making the journey from Waverley Station, up winding Cockburn Street and onto the Royal Mile, through an imposing vaulted open arcade and into Edinburgh’s historic City Chambers for the annual Section for New Professionals’ (SfNP) Summer Seminar. This year’s theme was the changing role of the archives professional and the resulting change in required skills and knowledge with talks focusing on the use of social media, how to go freelance, and the role of the digital archivist.

Edinburgh City Chambers.

The highlight of the day for me was Sharon McMeekin of the Digital Preservation Coalition’s talk on digital preservation. Digital preservation is an area which, as a profession, we are aware requires serious investment, not only financial, but also in time and skills development, yet which, in many cases, seems to fill both new and more experienced professionals alike with, at best, uncertainty as to where to begin, and at worst, fear. Sharon began her talk by outlining the differences between caring for and preserving analogue and digital archives, arguing that training courses in the UK prepare new professionals well for going on to work with paper collections but are not currently providing adequate training for the increasingly digital focus of their work, of which digital preservation is just one aspect of the skills and knowledge required. This was emphasised when Sharon asked those present, the majority of whom had either graduated from an accredited archives and records management master’s programme in the past five years or were about to complete one, to raise their hand if they felt confident in their digital preservation knowledge and skills. Not a single hand was raised.

In a single ninety minute session it would be impossible to develop the necessary knowledge and skills required for digital preservation. However, the session went a long way in increasing the confidence of those present regarding how to begin developing these skills, where to start with digital preservation and what resources are available for those tasked with undertaking digital preservation activities (many of which are included in posts on Sharon McMeekin’s professional blog. Not only this, but it was made clear that successful digital preservation also depends upon a number of soft skills, such as working in collaboration, and communicating with a wide range of audiences with differing backgrounds. Skills with which, as archives professionals, we are well equipped.

Sharon McMeekin presenting on ‘Getting started in digital preservation’.

Furthermore, it was clear that many of the solutions to bit-level preservation were possible and could begin before the development of well-honed digital skills or significant technological and financial investment. The session emphasised that the most important activity was carrying out regular integrity checks, or checksums, for which a number of freely accessible and easy to use tools are available, followed by keeping copies of all files in multiple geographic locations using a variety of storage technologies or vendors, and without allowing a single individual write-access to all copies. The session included examination of the key documents required when establishing digital preservation processes and how they interact with and build upon each other, namely: business case, policy, strategy, file manifest, and digital asset register. It also examined some of the available guidance and tools, including providing the opportunity to rate our own organisations’ digital preservation activities using the NDSA Levels of Digital Preservation.

The NDSA Levels of Digital Preservation,

What was especially impactful was the emphasis on both the benefits and value of digital preservation, as often the conversation tends to focus on the dire consequences of not carrying out timely and regular digital preservation rather than the opportunities created by such an undertaking. Increased efficiency, new revenue streams, enabling research and protecting the environment are just some of these advantages, and awareness of these can help arm archives professionals who are faced with advocating for investment in digital preservation.

Facing the challenges of digital preservation underscores that for archives professionals continued professional development and proactive learning cannot end upon qualification. Training events such as the SfNP’s Summer Seminar are essential to build upon and further mature the skills and knowledge developed through study and workplace experience. I would heartily recommend to anyone in the early stages of their career in archives and records management, whether that be pre-, post- or during qualification to attend future SfNP events, and apply for the generous bursaries they offer, for the chance to expand their knowledge and understanding, and network with fellow new professionals. My sincere thanks go to the SfNP committee for the award of a bursary making it possible for me to attend the Summer Seminar and for putting together such a relevant and varied programme for the day.

Ashleigh Hawkins, PhD student at University of Liverpool

* Please excuse the pun: ‘I wish you were in Edinboro’ with me – it is quite lovely – bits of it.’ – Oscar Wilde in a letter to E.W. Godwin, 17th December 1884.

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