Considering Digital Repositories…

In relation to the field of digital humanities, the idea of digital preservation is prominent in relation to both 2D and 3D source materials and the protection of their data. Our class recently had the pleasure of meeting Natalie Harrower, the director of the Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI), who spoke to us about digital preservation and how repositories function as a means of preserving data for a wide selection of materials in a range of mediums.

Her lecture was of particular interest to me, as I had never before considered how data might be digitally stored for extended periods of time after it had been used for research purposes, or indeed how those storage methods might be effective or not. We all know that physical archives have storage methods that prevent source materials from being damaged, but the same process for digital sources is constantly in more danger, as it can disappear or be digitally corrupted in an instant. Natalie’s lecture discussed digital preservation and the risks associated with it, as well as access and metadata, which I will discuss briefly, but it is the preservation of digital sources that interested me the most.

Metadata in relation to digital repositories is important for obvious reasons; without the metadata, searching through an online archival database is like searching for a needle in a haystack if the correct metadata is not present to make the data searchable. The absence of metadata also makes the material inaccessible, and access, along with the metadata, is also very important in digital archiving. Without proper access, the repository ceases to serve it’s secondary function.

The most important thing that I learned from Natalie’s lecture is that, while the metadata and access principles make the repositories function well as a resource, they are useless if proper preservation measures are not taken, especially is relation to born-digital data. While we are always able to access physical files if the digital should be destroyed in any way, the same cannot be said for born-digital, which, if destroyed by some error, cannot be recovered through physical archives. Through Natalie’s lecture and my own reading, I understand threats to data to exist in three forms; hardware error, software error and human error. The most prominent form of hardware error is the decay of removable storage, such as USB flash drives. We are reminded daily not to store academic work on flash drives, due to the likelihood that the device may become corrupted at any time. Much like corruption due to hardware errors, the same can happen to software, due to grievances such as bit-rot. However, the most problematic form of threat to material is human error, especially that of inadequate capture, whereby sufficient metadata is not collected to archive the material in an accessible and searchable way. The work of digital repositories is to prevent circumstances such as these by implementing quality control standards and keeping datasets constantly updated with storage methods and quality checks.

After our lecture with Natalie, I had a new and better-informed idea of how digital preservation works, and the importance of preservation and storage institutions such as the Digital Repository of Ireland, especially in relation to born-digital data. The idea behind digital preservation is to store data and control the health of that data over an extended period of time. The benefits of such a system are seen in every aspect of academic research, as data can be healthily stored for years until it is of importance to somebody, either for academic or personal interest purposes. We see digital preservation every day, through scanned and archived records on museum websites for example; they are accessible, protected and widely available. In relation to digital humanities, the idea of digital preservation is paramount. In both 2D and 3D technologies, the field of digital humanities sees the benefits of digital preservation and archiving methods at every turn. Such principles protect physical archives documents from damage, while still making the data accessible through transcription and metadata organisation. Overall, Natalie Harrower’s lecture opened my eyes to an aspect of digital humanities that I understood very little about, and solidified my understanding of the importance of digital preservation processes.

Works Cited
Digital Preservation Handbook, 2nd Edition, Digital Preservation Coalition, 2015.
Tom Gollins, Putting Parsimonious Preservation into Practice: Recent Developments in Digital Preservation at the National Archives (UK)
Van den Eynden,  Veerle , Louise Corti, Matthew Woollard, Libby Bishop and Laurence Horton. Managing and Sharing Data: Best Practices for Researchers, 3rd edition. Essex: UK Data Archive, University of Essex, 2011.