A Tradition of Scholarly Documentation for Digital Objects: The Launch of the Digital Curation Centre
The Digital Curation Centre had its official launch in Edinburgh on 5 November 2004. Perhaps an odd date to pick for the launch of such an important international initiative, but it justified the inclusion of some virtual fireworks on the home page of the DCC launch Web site. The DCC is one of three major activities in Phase 2 of the UK e-Science Programme, along with the National Grid service and the Open Middleware Infrastructure Institute, as well as being a key activity of the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). e-Science requires sound preservation and curation techniques for handling and processing digital objects of many kinds, and a principal function of the DCC is to provide policy and advice for those who use and reuse large datasets, both dynamic and static.
Prince Philip, Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, was the principal VIP expected to attend the event. However the death of Princess Alice occurred earlier in the week, and the Duke was unable to attend. This was a pity, since his interest in computing and technologies in general is well known. It was announced at the beginning of the proceedings that an alternative date for a visit by the Duke had been arranged for February, which, given the busy nature of his schedule, booked up sometimes years in advance, indicates how important the Duke regards the creation of the DCC.
The VIPs on the platform were, Tim O'Shea, Principal of the University of Edinburgh, Sir Muir Russell, Principal of the University of Glasgow, Sir Stewart Sutherland (Lord Sutherland of Houndwood); Professor Tony Hey, head of the UK eScience programme and Professor of Computation at the University of Southampton; Peter Burnhill, Director of EDINA and head of DCC Phase 1. Representing the Duke was Lord Sutherland, the former principal of Edinburgh University, now President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and also President of the Saltire Society.
The opening was quite formal since it had been rehearsed with the Duke of Edinburgh in mind. So we had a number of speeches by the VIPs. The current principal of the University of Edinburgh, Tim O'Shea, emphasised that the importance of the DCC had been taken on board by its host institution and this was echoed by Sir Muir Russell, Principal of Glasgow University. Tony Hey told the audience that he was conscious that the importance of the DCC transcends e-Science and that it should also address the concerns and needs of digital librarians. Lord Sutherland also emphasised the long-term future for the work of the DCC, and that its greatest benefits would be reaped by the generation now rising.
The demonstrations and displays set up for the inspection of the visitors on their arrival included a number of projects already wrestling with the issues of preservation and data curation on a daily basis. Also present was a display of obsolete media, put together by Adam Rusbridge of the University of Glasgow in conjunction with the Museum of Computing in Swindon. One which caught my eye was a thin black vinyl flexidisc of the sort which used to be given away with Private Eye magazine, and used to distribute programmes for the popular Sinclair ZX81 in the early 1980s.
There followed a number of presentations by the principals of the DCC, aimed at the press as well as the invited audience, outlining the main tasks of the DCC, and the important issues which have to be addressed by anyone working with digital datasets, and more broadly, with digital information of any kind. The presentations were by Seamus Ross, Director of HATII (Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute), Liz Lyon, Director of UKOLN, David Giaretta of CCLRC (Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils), Peter Burnhill of EDINA, and Peter Buneman of the Department of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh. Each of them illustrated the importance of the work of the DCC principally from their own perspective - some from the point of view of computer science, some from the perspective of data processing, some from the point of view of humanities computing. However each of the presenters was aware that the need for digital curation techniques and policies runs across the whole gamut of digital objects, particularly to avoid the loss of unique sets and sequences of data. Peter Buneman emphasised that sometimes a good deal of metadata which we might want to capture is already present in file paths, so the automation of its collection is possible.
The information pack distributed contained flyers for specific upcoming activities of the DCC, including the proposed online peer-reviewed journal, the International Journal of Digital Curation. There was also documentation on the various demonstrations on show.
The brochure represents a cross-section of current views on the importance of digital curation. The field is fast developing - though the need for some formal approach to the management of digital data at a variety of levels has been obvious for some time, the term 'digital curation' isn't very old. Peter Burnhill suggests in his contribution that 'the key task is the deployment of a digital curation strategy, or set of strategies, that ensures provenance and manages representation information, as well as preserving the integrity of digital bits on long-lasting media.' The challenges faced by the DCC are 'of first order significance with hardly a trivial problem in sight.'
Tony Hey suggests that '...the deluge of scientific data expected from the next generation of experiments, simulations, sensors and satellites, together with the data that is now being used to record annotation and opinion, must be managed in a new, more pro-active way and we must also recognise the wisdom of preserving this information to be used and re-used for generations to come. The time is ripe for the document tradition of scholarly research to be integrated into this vision in the rapid progression as Research becomes e-Research.' Lynne Brindley, the Chief Executive of the British Library, adds that 'centres of excellence, strong and enduring partnerships and technical innovation will be required to respond to the challenge of making research results reusable and available for future generations'.
Cliff Lynch, Director of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) is of the view 'that the DCC will have importance and impact worldwide, both because scholarship broadly and e-science particularly is a global enterprise, and also because the technologies, intellectual strategies and best practices being pioneered and advanced by the DCC will serve as models for other national cyberinfrastructure initiatives and for local institutional repository programmes in many countries'.
Sarah Tyacke, the Chief Executive of the National Archives (formerly known as the Public Record Office), said that 'as we have found in the development of our digital archive, the management of the 'seamless flow' of electronic records into the archives, the curation and preservation of digital records, is the biggest challenge facing the archival community. The DCC, by becoming a centre of expertise, support and advice, will play a vital role in helping practitioners to ensure that the digital historical record will be preserved for future generations'.
So the DCC represents an important and extensive commitment both to its funders and to its stakeholder community. One of its earliest hurdles is to make the importance of digital curation obvious to those who do not yet realise it is about their own projects and business processes, not just about superscience and massive systems manipulating terabytes or petabytes of data. An institution like CERN already knows its need for curation in the future, and is building this into its plans. But the need for a tradition of curation in the digital field embraces everyone who has the need to preserve and reuse information.
The DCC has now announced that its Director for the next stage of its operations will be Chris Rusbridge, currently Director of Information Services at the University of Glasgow, and formerly Director of the JISC-funded eLib Programme in the mid-nineties. Further details can be obtained from the DCC Web site .
- Digital Curation Centre home page http://www.dcc.ac.uk/