Michael Popham

Michael Popham

Last updated on 28 November 2022

Michael Popham is Digital Preservation Analyst at the DPC.

For this month’s DPClinic, Barbara Sierman chose to reprise a session she offered at the recent iPres 2022 conference. Barbara is well-known to many in the digital preservation community, having worked formerly as Digital Preservation Manager at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands), and since being awarded a DPC Fellowship in 2018 in recognition of her sustained personal contribution to digital preservation.

Barbara is currently writing a book about her time working in digital preservation, in which she plans to pay tribute to the pioneers in the field. Barbara confessed that in the course of her research, she has been surprised at just how long some people have been working on aspects of digital preservation that still engage our thinking today. She was keen to hear others’ thoughts and reflections on these topics, and chose to do this by presenting citations from five seminal pioneers of digital preservation from Australia, Canada, UK, US, and the Netherlands.

The first extract was from an article by Colin Webb in the newsletter of the IFLA Core Programme for Preservation and Conservation, published in 1999. Webb suggested that the (digital) preservation community needed to “…step out into a wider research community”, and demonstrate “..a willingness to share honest information…”. The question Barbara posed to the audience at the DPClinic was “Is the current digital preservation community aware [of] what happens in other disciplines?”. This immediately prompted some enthusiastic discussion amongst the attendees, and suggestions of other sectors (notably highly regulated industries like aeronautics, pharmaceuticals, and the energy industries) from whom we might usefully learn. Some voiced the opinion that we ought to do more to engage with the wider scientific community, and make greater efforts to network and work on shared solutions with those in other disciplines.

Barbara’s second citation came from a work by the Canadian librarian, Terry Kuny, who seemingly coined the term “The Digital Dark Ages” in an article he wrote in 1998 (also for the IFLA PAC newsletter). Amongst a number of “Challenges in The Preservation of Electronic Information”, Kuny suggested that the “…demographic bulge of electronic materials coming into libraries and archives…” would surpass our ability to properly collect, manage, and store digital information. Barbara felt this remained a concern, and wanted to know from her audience if we are giving enough thought to how we manage today’s information in a way that will assist those who come after us? In response, William Kilbride was keen to support that view that demographic changes in the communities of information producers and managers (and in the broader IT sector more generally) are having a significant impact on what and how digital information is preserved. Whilst there was a consensus that such issues have been recognized and studied within the Knowledge Management community, this led on to a very vigorous discussion about whether or not current and future generations are equipping themselves with the core skills and IT literacy that will be essential to the successful preservation of such material.

Next, Barbara presented an extract from a report by Mark Fresko from a workshop sponsored by the British Library and JISC at Warwick University in the UK, in 1995 – on the theme of the “Long Term Preservation of Electronic Materials” (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I was there!). The selection was taken from a presentation by Peter Graham, Associate University Librarian for Technical and Networked Information Services, Rutgers University Libraries, suggesting that “Libraries and their parent institutions will need to develop new fiscal tools and use familiar fiscal tools for new purposes”. Barbara suggested that financial aspects remained an ongoing concern for all of us working in digital preservation, and asked whether anyone was still considering charging for access to materials? Many in the audience felt that the conversation had moved on since the Warwick workshop, and that there are several different financial models in place. Sarah Higgins remarked that paying for access to e-publications (online textbooks etc.) is now widely accepted as the norm – although how to cope with the rising costs of maintaining access subscriptions is a constant concern.  Others suggested that charging for deposit (rather than access) was commonplace in archives – both analogue and digital – but that this did not reflect the inherent vulnerabilities of digital materials, and the (significant) costs of active preservation of digital data compared to analogue content (and the associated risks of loss if funding for digital preservation is reduced or withdrawn).

Barbara then turned her attention to a citation from an article by Margaret Hedstrom, a Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Michigan, looking at “Research Issues in Migration and Long-Term Preservation” (1998). In her article, Hedstrom suggested that “Systematic research should be conducted….to identify a set of minimal record attributes, which if not retained, would make investments in preservation pointless”. Barbara wanted to know if the audience felt that such a set of record attributes had been identified, or was still required? This generated some active discussion amongst the attendees, where the prevailing view was that such attributes are primarily purpose- and context-dependent, and efforts to establish a universal minimal set of records attributes was destined to fail. However, there was also consensus that the digital preservation community could usefully put more effort into sharing information about those records attributes we do care about (not least because this might help expose any inherent biases in collection and retention policies). Sarah Higgins suggested that the topic of significant properties had not been seriously addressed since the INSPECT project, some 15 years ago, and given the greater experience within the community perhaps the time is right for this proposal to be revisited.

The final citation that Barbara presented was from a report by the NEDLIB project, published in 2000. Barbara explained that NEDLIB was the National Electronic Deposit Libraries Project, in which the KB had been a partner. In particular, Barbara was keen to highlight the statement that “What NEDLIB found missing in the OAIS Model was a conceptual entity symbolising the preservation processes required of an OAIS, whatever the preservation strategies followed”. Unfortunately there wasn’t time to discuss this suggestion in great detail, but it was noted that this extract demonstrated that international collaboration was taking place (at least amongst some of the national deposit libraries), and that there was knowledge-sharing between digital and analogue preservationists working in libraries and archives, and those space scientists at CCSDS working on OAIS.

In parallel to discussions around the particular extracts, the accompanying chat session was filled with debate about the need (or not) for those working in digital preservation to have a greater understanding of, and facility with, the technologies upon which modern IT and digital systems rely. Whilst some thought that those working in the field of digital preservation should be familiar with systems architectures and have the ability to read program code, others suggested that the field was (now) too broad and complex for the necessary skills and knowledge to reside in a single individual, and that recruiting students to suitable training courses was already sufficiently challenging as to make such courses unviable.

The DPClinic succeeded in generating some wide-ranging and vigorous debate, and revisiting some topics that concern everyone currently working in digital preservation. Whilst we might not all possess Barbara’s thirty years of experience of working in the field, it was clear that there is an active community of people working in digital preservation, who remain keen to address the many fundamental challenges that we still collectively face.

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