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The Digital Preservation Roadshow 2009-10: The Incomplete Diaries of Optimistic Travellers

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William Kilbride and Malcolm Todd report on the Digital Preservation Roadshow - an eleven month tour of the UK and Ireland designed to provide archivists and record managers with practical advice and support in managing digital resources.

A series of roadshows has been travelling up and down the country through 2009 and 2010 to spread the key message that making a start in digital preservation does not need to be either expensive or difficult. This simple message has been delivered in eight different cities in some 80 separate presentations and to an audience of around 400 archivists and records managers. The Roadshows are almost over: more formal evaluation will follow in due course.

In this brief report we look at the discussions which mattered to the audiences. This anecdotal and idiosyncratic review is by definition the very opposite of cutting edge: but will be useful to those interested in knowing what needs to be known. By identifying themes that matter to small and medium-sized archives we hold up a mirror to those involved in all aspects of data management and retrieval.

The Roadshow began out of a dialogue among The National Archives [1], the Digital Preservation Coalition [2] and the Society of Archivists [3], with sponsorship and funding from all three. Audiences in Gloucester, York, London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Manchester and Aberystwyth have heard a range of case studies, practical advice and news from all manner of speakers and institutions. A final event for Cardiff is planned for February 2010. Thanks are due to the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) [4], the National Archives of Ireland [5], CyMAL [6], PLANETS [7], the PRONOM and DROID teams [8] and also to the West Yorkshire Archive Service [9] for sharing time, money and staff, to all of the venue hosts and personal thanks are due to the many speakers who shared their time and experience. They are too numerous and too generous for all to feature in this eccentric summary: omission should imply nothing more than the failed note taking of the authors and the limited scope of this article. A complete listing and set of presentations are obtainable [10].

Some preliminary reconnaissance shows that many archivists know they have a problem managing digital data, but that many doubt they had the wherewithal to address it. When asked to identify barriers to the ongoing management of digital records, local government archivists in England and Wales report 'skills' and 'support' as joint second behind 'funding' [11]. A maturation of digital preservation practice in large institutions and the focus on scientific data in recent research funding seems to have cut off many archivists from the digital preservation world. We need to help them translate a growing body of knowledge into steps they can take appropriate to their collections, current level of experience and resources. This will result in specific follow-on actions being defined by the organisers.

The series of Roadshows has coincided with the consultation and launch of new government policy on archives [12] which places a distinct emphasis on services rising to the challenge of digital material. From The National Archives' perspective, ensuring archives services have access to relevant advice and guidance is a key action. Resources are tight across the sector and new activities will require both new partnerships and ways of working if they are to succeed.

Gloucester

The Roadshow got going in Gloucester hosted by the Gloucestershire Archives [13]. Digital preservation has been dominated by some very large institutions: the Library of Congress (LoC) for example or the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSDS). So what starts off as a daunting problem can seem all the more intimidating for small organisations – especially hard-pressed and poorly resourced local and community archives. In Gloucester we learned that, although it helps to have the resources of a large organisation, there is a lot to be gained by a relatively small archive getting its sleeves rolled up.

This theme was repeated throughout the series, not least based on Alexandra Eveleigh's experience at the West Yorkshire Archive Service [9]. It has recently negotiated its first substantial digital archive – from MLA Yorkshire. From one perspective, this is a relatively simple story: local organisation is wound up and so local archives receive its business archive. It is likely to be a routine exercise. But it generates all the challenges in practice, resources and expertise that you might expect. Specific lessons were shared such as file-naming and the time taken to transfer data. But the key message was surely that managing and receiving real digital archives brings real experience and that the total of things to worry about is likely to be less than the total volume of literature on the topic.

You could also be forgiven for thinking that you need to be a large agency to get involved in the provision of tools and services for digital preservation. The Roadshow gave Viv Cothey the opportunity to demonstrate a simple tool called the Gloucestershire Archive Ingest Packager (GAip). This application has been written to construct an effective ingest package based on immediate migration to preservation formats and intrinsic metadata. Its principal utility is the way it reduces the time – and thus cost – of ingest into an archive. Ingest is often cited as a cost driver for preservation, so anything which simplifies this process is likely to be doubly welcome. Presented alongside PRONOM, DROID and the PLANETS tools – all of which have received significant investment – it is hard not to be impressed with what Gloucestershire Archives have achieved. With development support across the Severn in the form of the National Library of Wales and CyMAL, GAip seems set to go from strength to strength.

York

The next stop for the Roadshow was on a hot summer's day at the Borthwick Institute in York [14]. The Borthwick's modern facilities within the University of York belie its origin: it predates the University by several years and, although it is now the official repository of the University's archives, it is also the diocesan records office for Yorkshire as well as a place for legal deposit of public records. This was an appropriate place to consider the relationships that exist between Higher Education and the archives sector and in particular how the tools and investment from the former might be adopted, adapted and deployed by the latter.

The Higher Education sector has had a significant impact on the development of digital preservation in the UK, especially through funding from JISC. Neil Grindley gave a brief history of JISC's involvement in this domain, signalling the importance of collaboration to HE institutions, and underlining the growing importance with which funders view 'impact', such as the adoption and reuse of tools and services by others. Although the prospects for funding are not what they once were, a renewed emphasis on impact makes collaboration all the more important to funding bodies: and in this there is hope for archivists and records managers in diverse institutions participating in and deriving benefit from JISC's investment.

Two working examples supported the argument and showed how these relationships might work in practice. Chris Awre demonstrated recent developments at the University of Hull where an institutional repository – originally designed to capture and store research papers - has been embedded within a much wider organisational system that includes examination papers and audio-visual collections as well as organisational documents. So, based on this example, the prospect exists for any institution with a repository to consider and develop preservation services too.

If the implication of Chris Awre's presentation was that Higher Education can provide services in partnership with other public sector agencies, Catherine Hardman's presentation reminded us that integrated systems bring benefits back to Higher Education. Access to unpublished material from fieldwork reports in archaeology has been an ongoing problem for researchers, exacerbated by the small size of the academic sector and the fragmentation of the discipline. The Archaeology Data Service (ADS) [15] has been slowly and very effectively addressing this problem for a few years now. A broad coalition has allowed the ADS to develop the OASIS toolkit through which small and large agencies can share short fieldwork reports with each other and with researchers, confident in the knowledge that ADS's preservation services will ensure continuing access. There are now more than 4,500 reports in the OASIS 'grey literature library' [16]. It's a model of what can be achieved by working together.

London

By the time the Roadshow reached the Wellcome Trust [17] in London another trend had become obvious. Digital preservation seemed daunting a decade ago but the digital preservation community has made great strides over that period. Even a cursory glance at DPC annual reports shows how any number of agencies have moved from 'worrying' to 'planning' to 'doing' in the last decade. The proliferation of projects and tools and services and the fragmentation of a burgeoning community have created two new challenges: our language has become opaque and the variety of options can seem baffling. So how might digital preservation be integrated into other archival services?

The London audience comprised so much expertise that TNA [1] subsequently hosted an additional event in November 2009 in partnership with MLA London [18] to ensure public sector archivists in Greater London could benefit from some of the Roadshow experience. Wellcome delegates had the benefit of two success stories from relatively straightforward but distinct institutions. Adrian Brown took us from 'parchment to podcast', describing how the Parliamentary Archives [19] are developing their digital strategy. Three basic ingredients were required before they could start to think about technology: an understanding of the surprisingly broad range of digital outputs which Parliament produces; a measured understanding of the risks they face; and a clear understanding of the function and policy of the archive itself. In this way the daunting challenge can be tackled in bite-sized chunks and moreover it ensures that the archives, rather than the technology, are in the driving seat.

Dave Thompson of the Wellcome Library underlined this need for archives rather than technology to be the central driver. The Wellcome Library [20] has extensive collections from the history of medicine: not just documents but objects, books and journals. Increasing quantities of archival material only exist in digital form: so if they are not collected then the Wellcome Library will be seriously constrained in the future. The argument for engaging with the digital domain is clear. It is not additional to the work of the archive, it is essential to the long-term success of the service. Wellcome has been active in the field for several years and is keen to share the lessons they have learned [21]. Perhaps the central message is that they wish they had started with digital material earlier but that they have learned a huge amount subsequently. They started with a strong focus on producing a secure digital repository but now see this as part of a larger workflow and way of providing and supporting a set of services. There is no substitute for experience.

Edinburgh

Digital preservation can be gloomy reading. Time and again we are warned of the digital dark ages, of the economic, legal and public fall-out from short-termism. We talk of risk, of loss, of forgetfulness and wasteful recursive expenditure. Two lights shone at the Edinburgh Roadshow: recognition of the extraordinary progress which Jane Brown and colleagues at the National Archives of Scotland [4] have made with their Digital Data Archive; and the subtle realisation that digital preservation is not about risk so much as opportunity. We do not do digital preservation for the sake of the digits: we do it for people and we do it to sustain, transmit and expand opportunity. Digital preservation supports a healthier, wealthier, safer and smarter future.

The thoughtful prophet of this transformative message was Gordon Reid of the Scottish Council on Archives [22]. He challenged us to think about the purpose of memory institutions, reminding us that the case for digital preservation is likely to represent a sub-set of those arguments already made. Introspection does not impress; well-intentioned debate about standards, processes and procedures may be needed but is not persuasive; access is not an end in itself. Only when we are configured around outcomes and opportunities can we hope to make the case for preservation, which means we need to keep people at the centre of our activities.

Take Glasgow Museums [23] as an example – one of the most socially engaged memory institutions in Scotland and accidental holders of a huge oral history collection. Collections management in museums is mainly about objects and their records. Oral history helps to interpret objects and is a popular way to 'do' local heritage. But it is anomalous and it is hardly surprising that the sundry cassettes, videos, tapes and digital audio files quietly accumulating in Glasgow Museums have been neglected. Step up Tracey Hawkins who made the obvious argument that this material is significant in its own right and that protecting an eclectic analogue collection through digitization creates the conditions where digital preservation becomes essential. The hundreds of interviews seem deceptively mundane: couthie * remembrances of Old Glasgow; holidays 'doon the watter'; the privations of wartime evacuees; work and play; religion, politics, football; true, half-true and utterly bogus: stories told so often that they might as well be fact. They could hardly be more circumstantial but because it is the narrative of a city delivered in the voice of its people, and curated by the officers of the people, the argument for preservation could hardly be more straightforward. That it is good news for researchers and curators is a happy coincidence.

Dublin

The Dublin Roadshow provoked the most detailed technical dialogue of the set. The theme was set by our hosts in University College Dublin (UCD) [24] who presented a vision – and a reality – of an Irish Virtual Research Library and Archive [25]. There was nothing 'virtual' though about the hospitality extended by UCD and the National Archives of Ireland [5]. The aspiration - to provide access to an extensive archive through digitisation - is a familiar one for many archives and increasingly the workflows, equipment and expertise are becoming familiar too. Conversation turned quickly to themes of format management and in particular compression. Advice in digitisation – and digital preservation for that matter - is generally to avoid compression, especially lossy compression, on the assumption that it may result in irretrievable loss of data; that overly aggressive compression amplifies the risks of bit rot; and compression may lock you into proprietary systems. But managing and replicating massive volumes of data are not simple and in any case risk management ought to include consideration of ongoing costs. Tim Gollins's commonsense recommendation of 'parsimonious practical preservation' means we need to include costs and time within our preservation planning. So perhaps it is time to reconsider compression – even lossy compression – within digitisation, if not preservation? That is an argument beyond the scope of this report, but the concern that best practice inhibits good practice is one that many will recognise. The Dublin Roadshow previewed a necessary debate: we will fail to make digital preservation mainstream if we make it unattainable.

Manchester

The Manchester Roadshow was co-sponsored by the Records Management Society [26], which brought a subtle twist to proceedings. The emergent theme of the day was collaboration – both internally and externally. A thoughtful and thought-provoking presentation from Michael Day of UKOLN [27] emphasised the need for preservation to start earlier than has traditionally been the case. This means there ought to be a close relationship between digital preservation functions of an organisation and records management. Corporate email and Web presences provide examples of how these functions might be more thoroughly integrated, and what goes wrong when they are not.

Collaboration was also a theme of Kevin Bolton's presentation about archives in Greater Manchester [28]. The area has eleven different public sector archives: one for each the boroughs of Bury, Bolton, Wigan, Salford, Trafford, Manchester, Stockport, Tameside, Oldham and Rochdale; plus an archive for Greater Manchester County. Should each of these aspire to developing a trusted digital repository? Which of these is most like NASA? Collaboration – through the Greater Manchester Archives Group – helps these interlocking records offices develop new types of service. So a survey and review of digital preservation needs in 2007 has lead to a joint digital archives policy and improved accessioning processes. The model works so the future is likely to see closer co-operation between the existing partners and perhaps also a wider coalition.

Aberystwyth

The Roadshow progressed to Aberystwyth on a sunny day in January 2010, sponsored this time by CyMAL [6] and hosted by the National Library of Wales [29]. Grim forecasts of snow blocking the mid-Wales mountain passes the previous day had been greatly exaggerated. Ceredigion has something for everyone interested in digital preservation. The extensive and impressive programmes of the National Library of Wales deserve more attention than they have received; the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales [30] offers technical complexity by virtue of the diversity of its collections; CyMAL, which has recently moved to new offices in Aberystwyth, offers policy and strategic leadership; not to mention the Information Studies Department at Aberystwyth University [31] and its online and offline programmes for librarians, records managers and archivists. Perhaps it is no surprise that the smallest town on the Roadshow produced the largest audience.

Digital preservation events used to get lost in elaborate and unsatisfactory vocabulary competitions: fashionable terms were recursively created, defined and re-defined to the point that they lost the cleverness they were intended to convey. So it was re-assuring to note that this obsession with obfuscation seems to have stopped – or at least does not translate into Welsh. The subtle message from Aberystwyth was that we know that we will need access to data in the future and we have a number of tools and services that can help. We can work out the costs; we can identify the gaps; we can minimise the risks; and we can do all of them together. And then we can move on. When the job is done, will anyone remember whether we called it continuity, or digital archiving, or data curation, or lifecycle management, or sustainability, or ..?

Cardiff: The End of the Road?

A final Roadshow is planned for Cardiff in February 2010 [10]. By that time it will be possible to distil and digest more completely the lessons of the previous nine months and 1,099.5 miles. But there is no question that the Roadshows have been popular: all have been full to capacity and many have had waiting lists. They have been deliberately practical and sought to be engaging: feedback suggests that participants have also found them encouraging and empowering. Typically the speakers (at least these ones) have left each event with more than they brought. Requests for additional Roadshows have been received but set aside until the current ones are completed. Cardiff is the end of the road for now, but the success of the format and the needs of the community suggest that we may yet be taking to the road again soon.

* Editor's note: 'Couthie', 'couthy': loving, affable, cosy, comfortable. Collins Scots Dictionary, 2003.

References

  1. The National Archives http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
  2. Digital Preservation Coalition http://www.dpconline.org/
  3. Society of Archivists http://www.archives.org.uk/
  4. The National Archives of Scotland (NAS) http://www.nas.gov.uk/
  5. The National Archives of Ireland http://www.nationalarchives.ie/
  6. CyMAL: Museums Archives and Libraries Wales
    http://wales.gov.uk/topics/cultureandsport/museumsarchiveslibraries/cymal/?lang=en
  7. PLANETS (Preservation and Long-term Access through Networked Services)
    http://www.planets-project.eu/
  8. The National Archives: PRONOM http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/PRONOM/Default.aspx
  9. West Yorkshire Archive Service http://www.archives.wyjs.org.uk/
  10. Digital Preservation Roadshows 2009 - 2010
    http://www.dpconline.org/training/roadshows-2009-2010.html
  11. Boyle, F, Eveleigh, A and Needham, H., 2008,
    Report on the Survey Regarding Digital Preservation in Local Authority Archive Services, Digital Preservation Coalition, York, p.4.
    http://www.dpconline.org/docs/reports/digpressurvey08.pdf
  12. H.M.Government, 2009, "Archives for the 21st Century"
    http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/policy/aft21c/
  13. Gloucestershire County Council Archives http://www.gloucestershire.gov.uk/archives
  14. Borthwick Institute, University of York http://www.york.ac.uk/inst/bihr/
  15. The Archaeology Data Service (ADS) http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/
  16. OASIS: Online AccesS to the Index of archaeological investigationS http://www.oasis.ac.uk/
  17. The Wellcome Trust http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/
  18. London Museums Libraries and Archives http://www.mlalondon.org.uk/
  19. The Parliamentary Archives http://www.parliament.uk/publications/archives.cfm
  20. The Wellcome Library http://library.wellcome.ac.uk/
  21. See for example: Christopher Hilton and Dave Thompson, "Collecting Born Digital Archives at the Wellcome Library", January 2007
    Ariadne Issue 50 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue50/hilton-thompson/
    Christopher Hilton and Dave Thompson, "Further Experiences in Collecting Born Digital Archives at the Wellcome Library", October 2007,
    Ariadne Issue 53 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue53/hilton-thompson/
  22. The Scottish Council on Archives http://www.scoarch.org.uk/
  23. Glasgow Museums http://www.glasgowmuseums.com/
  24. University College Dublin http://www.ucd.ie/
  25. Irish Virtual Research Library and Archive Project http://www.ucd.ie/ivrla/
  26. Records Management Society http://www.rms-gb.org.uk/
  27. UKOLN http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/
  28. The Greater Manchester County Record Office http://www.gmcro.co.uk/
  29. National Library of Wales http://www.llgc.org.uk/
  30. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW)
    http://www.rcahmw.gov.uk/
  31. Information Studies Department at Aberystwyth University http://www.dil.aber.ac.uk/en/home.asp

Author Details

William Kilbride
Executive Director
Digital Preservation Coalition

Email: william@dpconline.org
Web site: http://www.dpconline.org/

William is Executive Director of the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC). He joined the DPC from Glasgow Museums, where he initiated work on digital preservation and access to aspects of the city's growing digital collections. Previously he was Assistant Director of the Archaeology Data Service at the University of York and a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Glasgow.

Malcolm Todd
Digital Archives Advice Manager
Archive Sector Development
The National Archives

Email: malcolm.todd@nationalarchives.gsi.gov.uk
Web site: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Malcolm is charged with spreading the digital preservation message of the new government policy on archives, Archives for 21st Century. He has been a digital records manager and archivist in government service for over a decade and at The National Archives since 2001.

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Date published: 
30 January 2010

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How to cite this article

William Kilbride, Malcolm Todd. "The Digital Preservation Roadshow 2009-10: The Incomplete Diaries of Optimistic Travellers". January 2010, Ariadne Issue 62 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue62/dp-rdshw-rpt/


article | by Dr. Radut