Digital Preservation. Blog on Guest Speaker

Digital Repository of Ireland

Dr. Natalie Harrower, Director of the Digital Repository of Ireland was an invited lecturer to the MA students on 27th October, speaking on the subject of Digital Preservation.

The talk was an interesting and accessible introduction to the subject and to the work of the Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI) in digital preservation, research and future access to digital collections. The lecture also emphasised the importance of good metadata for future access to preserved data and formed a useful revision for MA students on metadata as well as referencing a range of extremely useful publications available on the DRI website (http://www.dri.ie/publications).

Some areas that I would like to have heard more about are long term funding needs for digital preservation, the relationship of the DRI to national repositories with a statutory remit, copyright issues and steps to preparing data for transfer to the DRI.

The speaker explained digital preservation as the ‘active management of digital content over time to ensure its ongoing access’ and emphasised that it is a long-term series of activities rather than a single, once-off activity. As the former DRI Director says in the introduction to a national survey undertaken in 2012, (O’Carroll and Webb) the DRI is ‘an interactive national trusted digital repository for contemporary and historical, social and cultural data held by Irish institutions.’

In contrast to many paper documents and other analogue ‘objects’ made from various materials, which can be relatively stable, or can be stabilised through preventative conservation measures taken in object handling and modern storage facilities, digital objects are very fragile and unstable and can be easily corrupted or destroyed.

The relative stability of analogue objects in cultural collections is in part due to decades of research by specialist conservators, greater knowledge of materials and resulting improvements in collections management practices.   The fragility of digital data and file formats is a relatively new concern for cultural collections and the speaker emphasised the need to consider preservation from the moment a digital object is created.

Rather than being a new concern, I would suggest that it is the scale and volume of digital data being produced and the speed at which new technology is being developed, making previous versions obsolete, that is the key reason that the fragility of digital data and the need for digital preservation is now being given more consideration than before.  Digital objects always require intermediary hardware and software to be accessible, whereas the analogue is generally accessible with no need for either hardware or software.  Those of us old enough may still have data on an 8” floppy disk, or the smaller versions that came later, that is inaccessible now as these old formats are not supported by new technology.

Museums, libraries and archives have been engaged in developing and standardising metadata for access (search and discoverability) and interoperability for decades.  Libraries, in particular, have led the way in standardising metadata for access within and beyond the library building and developing widely adopted industry standards for interoperability across organisations.  Museums too, with immensely wide ranges of objects and materials, also operate with standardised metadata schemas within the sector to enable discoverability.

In recent years, due to a combination of technological advances, promotion by governments of culture as a unifying value and the unprecedented demand for cultural content from the public, there is mounting pressure on resource-poor cultural repositories to respond to the greater need for making digital versions of collections available online.   With the creation of these digital surrogates comes the imperative that these digital assets will be preserved and available long-term. Working with digital assets has become the norm in cultural heritage organisations and sectoral leaders identify the imperative that management of digital assets needs to be ‘a priority equal to the professional management of physical collections and their supporting knowledge and information’ (Poole et al).

However, as the speaker emphasised, there is a need for a strategic approach to the long-term preservation of digital assets that begins at the point of creation of those assets, an approach that, given the long-term commitment and costs, needs to be government-sponsored.  Unfortunately this hasn’t happened so far and it is inevitable that at least some of the digital assets created to date will not survive long-term, with a consequent loss of data and effort.  The DRI has secured funding for the next five years but just as there is a need to think long-term about physical collections the need for digital preservation cannot be met with short term funding. In this regard, I would be interested to learn more about the role of the DRI in relation to the pre-existing designated cultural repositories with statutory remit, such as the National Archives.  The demand for digital assets and the steps being taken towards large scale digitisation cannot be separated from the long-term costs.  As the Digital Coalition suggest in the question ‘What’s in Scope?’ it is not always desirable to preserve everything (Digital Preservation Handbook 5).  A long-term strategy should also open up the conversation about strategies for selective digitisation over the long term.

The range of publications and information leaflets by the DRI, particularly those on metadata and vocabularies, is impressive and valuable for cultural organisations, as they set out to create long-term plans for preservation.  Many of the preservation needs of organisations in the ‘GLAM’ sector (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) are shared and rather than each existing repository developing their own policy and plan, there may be efficiencies to be gained by identifying one organisation to lead and coordinate research and dissemination of findings that would inform an overall policy and plan, with each organisation then having the flexibility to adapt a central policy for their own needs.

The more recent requirement to provide greater interoperability across disciplines can create tensions with traditional disciplines and professions (Flanders and Muñoz). While preservation needs are generally shared, GLAM sector metadata is developed with a large degree of overlap but within different metadata schemas to meet requirements for different collection types.  The use of Dublin Core (which the DRI uses) meets the common needs of most in the GLAM sector but as scholars have identified (Besser 565) some view this reduction of the primary metadata as a ‘dumbing down’ which does not capture the wealth of data regarded as necessary for a particular collection type.  The imposition of restrictive requirements by the DRI beyond Dublin Core, that suit some but not all data sets (eg. title as a required field), create an obstacle particularly for museum collections, though one that will hopefully be resolved in the future with wider discussion. I would have liked to know more about the requirements the DRI have for data to be preserved in the DRI and have had more information on copyright.

This was a very informative talk about the work of the Digital Repository of Ireland, which includes preservation, research and dissemination.  It perhaps focussed a bit too much on metadata, which had been covered in previous lectures, and there was a lost opportunity to look in more depth and discuss some of the issues surrounding future funding, opportunities for strategic approaches to preservation planning and selective digitisation and unified approaches to shared copyright issues.

 Bibliography

Besser, Howard. “The Past, Present, and Future of Digital Libraries.” A Companion to Digital Humanities. Ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth. Malden, MA, USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004. 557–575. CrossRef. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.

Digital Preservation Handbook. 2nd ed. Digital Preservation Coalition, 2015. Web.

Flanders, Julia, and Trevor Muñoz. “An Introduction to Humanities Data Curation.” Web.

O’Carroll, Aileen, and Sharon Webb. Digital Archiving in Ireland: National Survey of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Maynooth: National Univ. of Ireland, 2012. Print.

Poole, Nick, Alex Dawson, and Collections Trust. “Spectrum Digital Asset Management.” Mar. 2013. Web.

 http://www.dri.ie/publications