The world of digital preservation can appear a bit daunting: a world full of checksums and programming and OAIS models, AIPs and DIPs, combined with the urgency of acting before it all becomes too late and technological obsolescence creates a black hole, swallowing up our digital heritage. The Digital Preservation Coalition’s What I Wish I Knew Before I Started Student Conference provided an opportunity to meet others beginning to work in digital preservation, and hear advice and reassurance from a range of interesting expert speakers.
Fancy words and acronym bingo
The day began with an Introduction to Digital Preservation by the DPC’s Sharon McMeekin who introduced us to current models, methodologies and frameworks, which she warned could also be known as fancy words and acronym bingo. Her presentation was very practical and informed us about resources which will be invaluable when putting digital preservation into practice. Sharon emphasised the importance of active preservation: it isn’t only the digital materials which are vulnerable to obsolescence, but the digital preservation systems that they are stored in. Crucially, digital preservation needs to be embedded into day-to-day work to make it sustainable.
The need for active preservation was echoed by Steph Taylor from the University of London Computer Centre, who urged us all to learn to keep up to date and engage with the digital preservation community through twitter, blogs and forums. She counselled us to be prepared to explain again and again that digital preservation is really not the same thing as backing up files.
Matthew Addis from Arkivum then gave a technologist’s perspective, introducing us to a range of software and tools including the DROID file format identification tool; the POWRR Grid that maps preservation tools against types of content and stages of their lifecycle; the PRONOM registry of file formats; the Exactly checksum tool, among many others, carrying on the game of acronym bingo. The amount of choice of tools and standards can lead to what Matthew called preservation paranoia and then to preservation paralysis where the task seems so big and complex that it seems better to do nothing at all.
It’s people that are the biggest risk to digital content surviving into the future. People thinking that preservation is too hard, too expensive, or tomorrow’s problem and not today’s. (Addis, 2016)
Being a digital archivist = being an archivist with extra super powers
The afternoon sessions were launched by Adrian Brown from the Parliamentary Archives. The Parliamentary Archives hold a wide range of digital material, from the expected email and audio-visual records to the more surprising virtual reality tours and reconstructions of sinking ships. He emphasised that digital archiving was still essentially archiving, involving selection, appraisal, preservation, cataloguing and supporting users. Being a digital archivist, he said, is the same thing as being an archivist, only with extra super powers.
Next, Glenn Cumiskey, Digital Preservation Manager at the British Museum spoke about the importance of engaging with technology, decision makers and user communities. In the current environment, Glenn illustrated through the roles associated with digital preservation: Archivist, Records Manager, Librarian, Information Technologist, Digital Humanities, and Software Programmer all at once, that you may need to be all of these things at once.
We then heard from Helen Hockx-Yu from the Internet Archive. Here at the Bodleian, the digital archive trainees are actively involved with the Bodleian Libraries Web Archive which uses the Internet Archive’s ‘Archive-It’ and ‘wayback machine’ services. It was interesting to hear from Helen about the redevelopment work she is involved in and how her own career developed in web archiving. Her final advice to us was to keep learning and not worry about being a perfectionist.
Ann MacDonald from the University of Kent inspired us with a talk about her own career began and developed over the last few years, and emphasised that technical innovations are not all about big machines and that small actions can go a long way in implementing digital preservation.
Only point of digital preservation is reuse of data. Nothing else.
Finally, Dave Thompson, Digital Curator at the Wellcome Collection, gave an entertaining presentation which made the point that digital preservation is not an exercise in technology for its own sake. He argued that the only point of digital preservation is the reuse of data, therefore data needs to be reusable, consumable and shareable. Digital preservation should be seized as a social opportunity to do this.
Overall, the DPC’s Student Conference: What I Wish I Knew Before I Started was an engaging mixture of reassurance, ideas and advice to prepare us to begin working practically with digital preservation. Key themes which emerged across the presentations were the importance of people in the process, the importance we must give to what users actually want from digital collections, and the importance of selling the benefits and opportunities that digital preservation can bring. It introduced us to technology, tools and processes, but at the same time stressed that you do not need to be a qualified programmer to work in digital preservation.