Digital Preservation – What Those in the Know Wish They’d Known

January 26th, 2012 by Catherine McIntyre, Archives Assistant

On Tuesday, I attended a half-day student conference on digital preservation organised by the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC), the Archives & Records Management Association’s Data Standards Group and the Universities of Dundee and Aberystwyth, with the theme of ‘What I Wish I Knew Before I Started’. It was aimed at students on the postgraduate archival programmes around the country and had speakers who have been tackling the digital preservation issue for some time now talking about the things they wish they’d known before starting out.

 I study with the University of Dundee and have recently completed their ‘Management and Preservation of Digital Records’ module, which I found interesting, enlightening, but quite tough-going in parts (metadata being my least favourite aspect). Although, ultimately, I finished the module feeling as though the perceived problems of digital preservation were really just the same problems archivists have had to deal with in relation to traditional archives, just in a different format. This feeling was confirmed by the speakers at the conference and the general theme seemed to be that we shouldn’t be scared of digital preservation – Sarah Higgins of the University of Aberystwyth declared that it involves the same functions we as a profession have always undertaken, just with a different terminology. To demonstrate this, Sarah turned her slides of the OAIS model from tech-speak to archivist-speak, which I found very helpful.

1970s Technology (IMAGELIBRARY/473)

William Kilbride, Director of the DPC, had a nice wake-up soundbite as an introduction to digital preservation: It won’t go away. It won’t do itself. Don’t wait for perfection. Andrew Fetherston, from the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre, re-iterated the last point and said that no one solution would suit all repositories and that it was important to make a start, however small.

William also emphasised that digital data has value, potential and outcomes – just like other formats in archives – but what makes it different is that it has dependencies (on hardware, software, input/output devices etc.). It is how we pass on these values, potentials and outcomes to the next generation whilst dealing with the dependencies that is the issue because, as Dave Thompson of the Wellcome Library pointed out, re-use of digital materials is the point of preserving them – just like other formats in archival collections.


1980s Technology (IMAGELIBRARY/1174)

1980s Technology (IMAGELIBRARY/1174)

Dave also told us that archivists have a professional responsibility to engage with digital materials – this is our duty as recordkeepers and to ignore the problem would severely affect our professional integrity. As William said, it’s not going away and it’s not going to do itself. Adrian Brown, of the Parliamentary Archives, highlighted the point that an archivist’s role in digital preservation will be to manage the parts that can’t be automated.

Helen Hockx-Yu, Head of Web Archiving at the British Library, talked to us about the problems and processes of trying to archive web content. One of the things that struck me was how difficult, even impossible, it is to preserve the jazzier features of web sites that are encoded in Javascript etc. Technology moves so quick in the digital environment that what we are trying to preserve can be more sophisticated than the tools used for preserving it.


1990s Technology (IMAGELIBRARY/1095)

1990s Technology (IMAGELIBRARY/1095)

I found the event really helpful in confirming my opinions and I also felt reassured that archivists have the skills to tackle the issues arising from digital preservation. It’s important to educate the next generation of archivists and record managers so that they can continue the work being done by people like the speakers at this conference and learn from their mistakes and successes. The large turnout proved that the next generation are interested in and willing to step-up to the challenge. You can find more ideas from the conference via the Twitter hashtag #dpc_wiwik and the slides from the speakers are available on the DPC web site.

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