William Kilbride

William Kilbride

Last updated on 26 February 2020

Earlier this week I had the pleasure to acknowledge the work of Barbara Sierman at a workshop hosted in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in Den Haag. Barbara had invited me, Micky Lindlar of TIB in Hamburg, Ingrid Dillo of DANS and Marcel Ras of DHN to speak on the single word ‘Re-use’. This blog is the text of my contribution to that discussion.  The presentation was also recorded and shared online. The recording can be viewed here.

I am grateful to Barbara for this clever topic which has already opened a distinctive, but not conflicting set of presentations. We have all has the same single title, and each of us have said very different things, but we have not so much contradicted each other. We have added layers of meaning. To some this may appear like confusion. To me it sounds like collaboration and coalition, which is where I am happiest. The ever-changing nature of digital preservation means the topic is inherently interesting: but it’s the ‘Coalition’ bit that keeps me coming back. Digital preservation is done by people and it’s done for people.

The layers of meaning that we’ve already introduced today about the word ‘re-use’ encourage me to take the idea of people one step further. It leads me to think out loud about meaning-making. Meaning making - and meaning re-making – are central to the use and re-use of digital objects. People make meaning, and with it they make stories, and in that way they remake the world. Discursively at least, the scientists have been wrong about this: the universe wasn’t constituted billions of years ago from primal elements. It’s constituted and re-constituted every day in stories.

So this short paper will examine the concept of re-use from the perspective of how people make digital resources meaningful. I am going to delve into the concept of the ‘designated community’, a term which puts users and their ambitions for re-use at the heart of the digital preservation project.  Or at least it seems to put them there. We’ll get to that.

Let’s start by making our own story. How did we get here?

Digital preservation has emerged as a community over the last two decades, mostly by borrowing (that is to say re-using) concepts from many other disciplines and professions. Digital preservation is the practical expression of the duty and the capacity and the resolve to address a global, generational challenge to consistent and authentic meaning-making. A specific kind of hybrid digital practice has emerged that is ubiquitously relevant. 

Shared concepts, typically codified from practice into standards, provide a common vocabulary across a diverse group which might now be termed a community of practice.  But good practice from one sector might not be good practice in another: so even within this creative community, tensions and subtle differences are certain to arise. Sometimes these assumptions are encoded and transmitted as standards which appear neutral, but which transplant and inflict values from one sector on another.   That may not always be in our best interests. Collaboration is a social good. But beware of geeks bearing gifts.

Here’s an example. The OAIS reference model, adopted from space science, makes particular assumptions about the users (that is to say the consumers) of a digital archive, including a special class of consumers which it calls the designated community. 

Here’s our first linguistic horror. I am going to talk about re-use and re-users but I think OAIS would have me talk about re-consumption and re-consumers. Yuk. That’s beside the point. Let’s cycle around the idea of the designated community for a moment.

The OAIS Functional Model is the one that everyone knows. In some sense it is the community of practice in digital preservation. But connoisseurs will tell you that we should be making tattoos of the Information Model, not the Functional Model. (Imagine the horror of getting a tattoo of the Functional Model, only to learn that you should have asked for the Information Model instead.)

On first inspection, there’s a problem written into the information model. In order to render a data object meaningful, a vast array of semantic and structural information is packaged alongside. We call this representation information. But representation information is interpreted with representation information and so, we risk a sort of infinite recursion.

Let me play that out.   In order to understand a bit stream from a database we need to understand the format of the database, and certainly the relations in the database, and the declared meanings of the fields, and the constraints on data entry, and many of the concepts of relational database design, and something of the vocabulary of database design, and perhaps also the metaphors or idioms which that vocabulary exploits, and the language which contextualises the idioms, and how person who entered the data understood that language, and the changes in the language through time, and the glyphs which render the language in to text. And so on. A single data object requires the whole of human experience as context.

Think for a moment of all the effort which NASA had to put into the Voyager gold disks in order that intelligences millions of light years away, and millions and millions of years away, could access and understand what the disk was telling them.

It’s not sustainable. So, it’s not what happens. There are two routes out of this. Firstly representation information can link to other representation information. You only need to explain the PDF format once. Thank goodness.

More importantly, the OAIS places the information package into an active exchange where there is already a significant degree of implicit knowledge. Thus, the infinite recursion stops where the users’ knowledge is brought to bear. And that is the designated community – a class of users whose needs define the limit of representation information. A class of users, therefore, who define in practical terms the nature of preservation actions and provide the only independently verifiable measure of success for a digital archive.

The definition makes sense in the context of information sharing in research but it also risks a sense of entitlement – and by extension also exclusion – for the re-use of digital materials by the greater mass of the population. This seems at odds with the wider movement towards inclusion, contested meaning and polyvocality which have come to prominence in archival theory.

One might quite reasonably claim that archivists and librarians have always been the gatekeepers of knowledge, and that this will always be the case. Moreover, in many practical cases the OAIS sees the curator as the special class of user, acting as a broker to access. But we’re all plugged-in and powered-up now, where immediacy is valued over authenticity and disintermediation the norm. The designated community seems like a marvellously arcane idea.   There are many reasons why an archivist or curator would need to retain some kind of intellectual control over what is made accessible – data protection and copyright will enforce that, not to mention the very real need for sensitive records to remain confidential to their clients. But it seems to me that we’ve erected a barrier of our own before we even get there.

So, to recap. Who gets to make and re-make meaning in a digital archive? As currently constituted, this seems like a privilege enjoyed by the few. It’s true to say that re-use is at the heart of OAIS. On this basis, it’s fair to assume that users are at the core of digital preservation generally: but it’s a very special group of re-users that are envisaged, with a very special kind of re-use in mind. That’s probably not the access that world expects from us.

I have dwelt too long on this topic – I really don’t mean to excavate the foundations of digital preservation. I simply want to observe that there are values hiding here that need to be explored, and which are a practical barrier to re-use at scale. This particular barrier to re-use has emerged from the way that digital preservation community has constituted itself.

These sorts of mismatch emerge in part from an obvious but too poorly documented dynamic of the digital preservation community. It’s a large and rapidly growing community which is becoming more diverse over time. 

There’s a digression here about our own experiences of growing up in the digital preservation community. For example, I think I am right that I first met Marcel Ras at a conference in 2000. It was the same event at which the DPC was willed into existence, and at the time it seemed like the entire global digital preservation community was there. Not quite 100 people. In 2020 the DPC has almost 100 members. DP is not a narrow special interest any more.

The dynamism of the digital preservation community is welcome.  As I said at the start, it’s the bit that keeps me coming. So, if as has been hinted we have been poor at re-using and re-imagining our own practice, then we can at least point to a rapid expansion, a lack of infrastructure and a set of rapidly changing requirements. 

Can we avoid these kinds of mismatches and misunderstandings in the long run?  Well that’s the very purpose of collaboration; and so with no modesty at all, it allows me to point to the DPC and all the other forums and partnerships which engage and enable that kind of multi-lateral conversation. And collaboration is what Barbara and through her the KB are known for: not only what you have achieved but how you have achieved it.

The digital preservation community is now surely mature enough to set some expectations about how to engage with each other more effectively.  And this is where I turn all that ‘how to’ introspection into a call for action.

Re-use – meaning re-making - should be at the core of digital preservation. Whether we realise it or not, the OAIS Information Model puts re-use into all those service architecture and workflows. How can we make it obvious?

One way to progress that would be to put re-use at the core of our digital preservation research and development too.  That way an honest and transparent assessment will emerge where we can all learn better from each other, and not just from our successes. 

Perhaps if also we get used to the idea of sharing and re-using the digital objects we create, then we’ll come to a better appreciation of the many different re-use cases for the digital objects we also curate.  As far as re-use is concerned, putting users first puts all of us first.

So a call to arms: we should preserve the story of preservation. That will help us two ways. It will demonstrate to our audiences that we are serious about the requirements we impose. And it will remind us, as a constant case-study, of just how hard and just how rewarding meaning making can be. We will understand our own goals experientially.

We are the people who own the digital preservation challenge. We have the task of making sure re-uses and re-users are at the core of the purpose and practice of digital preservation now and in the future.   It’s not a question of thinking of users first or thinking about research first or technology first. If we work that way, we’ll all keep coming second, each as an after-thought to each other’s purpose.

All of us should come first, all the time.


I am grateful most of all to Barbara Sierman, a long term friend a collaborator, who generously invited me to join this panel and also who challenged me to develop this theme. Marcel Ras, Ingrid Dillo and Micky Lindlar also commented on early drafts of this paper when still an idea without form.  I am also grateful to colleagues at the DPC who reviewed prior to publication and for the warm welcome extended by Martijn Kleppe on behalf of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek.

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