Digital Preservation: What I wish I knew before I started

The Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC) and Archives and Records Association event ‘Digital Preservation: What I wish I knew before I started, 2013’ took place at Birkbeck College, London on 24 January 2013. A half-day conference, it brought together a group of leading specialists in the filed to discuss the challenges of digital collection.

William Kilbride kicked off events with his presentation ‘What’s the problem with digital preservation’. He looked at the traditional -or in his words “bleak”- approach that is too often characterised by data loss. William suggested we need to create new approaches, such as understanding the actual potential and value of output; data loss is not the issue if there is no practical case for keeping or digitising material. Some key challenges facing digital archivists were also outlined and it was argued that impediments such as obsolescence issues and storage media failure are a problem bigger than one institution, and collaboration across the profession is paramount.

Helen Hockx-Yu discussed how the British Library is collaborating with other institutions to archive websites of historical and cultural importance through the UK Web Archive. Interestingly, web archiving at the British Library is now a distinct business unit with a team of eight people. Like William, Helen also emphasised how useful it is to share experiences and work together, both internally and externally.

Next, Dave Thompson, Digital Curator at the Wellcome Library stepped up with a lively presentation entitled ‘So You Want to go Digital’. For Dave, it is “not all glamour, metadata and preservation events”, which he illustrated with an example of his diary for the week. He then looked at the planning side of digital preservation, arguing that if digital preservation is going to work, not only are we required to be creative, but we need to be sure what we are doing is sustainable. Dave highlighted some key lessons from his career thus far:

1.     We must be willing to embrace change

2.     Data preservation is not solely an exercise in technology but requires engagement with data and consumers.

3.     Little things we do everyday in the workplace are essential to efficient digital preservation, including backup, planning, IT infrastructure, maintenance and virus checking.

4.     It needs to be easy to do and within our control, otherwise the end product is not preservation.

5.     Continued training is essential so we can make the right decisions in appraisal, arrangement, context, description and preservation.

6.     We must understand copyright access.

Patricia Sleeman, Digital Archivist at University of London Computer Centre then highlighted a selection of practical skills that should underpin how we move forward with digital preservation. For instance, she stressed that information without context is meaningless and has little value without the appropriate metadata. Like the other speakers, she suggested planning is paramount, and before we start a project we must look forward and learn about how we will finish it. As such, project management is an essential tool, including the ability to understand budgets.

Adrian Brown from the Parliamentary Archives continued with his presentation ‘A Day in the Life of a Digital Archivist’. His talk was a real eye-opener on just how busy and varied the role is. A typical day for Adrian might involve talking to information owners about possible transfers, ingesting and cataloguing new records into the digital repository, web archiving, providing demos to various groups, drafting preservation policies and developing future requirements such as building software, software testing and preservation planning. No room to be bored here! Like Dave Thompson, Adrian noted that while there are more routine tasks such as answering emails and endless meetings, the rewards from being involved in a new and emerging discipline far outweigh the more mundane moments.

We then heard from Simon Rooks from the BBC Multi-Media Archive who described the varied roles at his work (I think some of the audience were feeling quite envious here!). In keeping with the theme of the day, Simon reflected on his career path. Originally trained as a librarian, he argued that he would have benefited immensely as a digital archivist if he had learnt the key functions of an archivist’s role early on. He emphasised how the same archival principles (intake, appraisal and selection, cataloguing, access etc.) underpin our practices, whether records are paper or digital, and whether we are in archives or records management. These basic functions help to manage many of the issues concerning digital content. Simon added that the OAIS functional model is an approach that has encouraged multi-disciplinary team-work amongst those working at the BBC.

After some coffee there followed a Q&A session, which proved lively and engaging. A lot of ground was covered including how appropriate it is to distinguish ‘digital archivists’ from ‘archivists’. We also looked at issues of cost modelling and it was suggested that while we need to articulate budgets better, we should perhaps be less obsessed with costs and focus on the actual benefits and return of investment from projects. There was then some debate about what students should expect from undertaking the professional course. Most agreed that it is simply not enough to have the professional qualification, and continually acquiring new skill sets is essential.

A highly enjoyable afternoon then, with some thought-provoking presentations, which were less about the techie side of digital preservation, and more a valuable lesson on the planning and strategies involved in managing digital assets. Communications, continued learning and project planning were central themes of the day, and importantly, that we should be seeking to build something that will have value and worth.

-Jacqueline Cahif

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