Helen Fisher

Helen Fisher

Last updated on 1 May 2020

Helen Fisher is the University Archivist at the University of Birmingham.

We were asked to write a blog post this time last year but we postponed it because we didn’t really know what to say about our digital preservation journey at that stage. Our turn has come round again, and we can’t put it off any longer, so here goes!

Since 2017 colleagues from different divisions of Library Services at the University of Birmingham have been working together to try to deal with our digital preservation challenges. I’m the University Archivist and am based in the Cadbury Research Library which manages the University’s rare books and archives. I had been concerned for some time about the growing gaps in the University Archives, with digital copies of committee minutes and other record series not being transferred to us, and about the amount of born-digital material scattered across our collections on USB sticks and floppy disks of various sizes

I was aware of the scale of the problem that we had, and tried to read what I could about practical digital preservation, spending quite a bit of time on the DPC website. I began compiling a digital asset register so that I could at least know the extent of the digital material we hold which is at risk. What I didn’t know was that others in the University were facing similar problems.

As it turned out, the University had set up an Open Data Programme in 2016, which was designed to cover all aspects of Research Data Management, and included several projects, some of which looked at the storage and archiving of research outputs deposited in the Library’s repository infrastructure. These assets include digitized images, research data, reports, working papers and electronic theses, Alongside this members s of the Collections Management and Development (CMD) team in Library Services had also started to recognise the preservation risk around born and made digital items held on physical media and local network drives, such as electronic newspaper archives, accessible texts, CDs in theses and more USB keys and hard drives with poorly understood content. A member of the CMD team, Patricia Herterich, contacted me in 2017 to ask whether there were areas of my work on digital preservation that might overlap. I was delighted to speak to someone else who was concerned about digital preservation, who knew a lot more than me, and who wanted to do something about it.

We decided that we would only be able to make progress if we worked collaboratively, and formed a Digital Preservation Working Group in October 2017, made up of three staff from Collections Management and Development, dealing with Research Data Management, and two staff from the Cadbury Research Library, dealing with preservation of digital archives and digitized material. We joined DPC as an Associate member, and have found the guidance and help available to be really useful in working out our objectives. We’ve also benefitted from attending DPC training days over the last couple of years.

Since 2017, working together, we’ve written a Digital Preservation Policy, compiled digital asset registers and risk documents, and completed a DPC Rapid Assessment Model assessment. We’ve also put together a case for the University to invest in a digital preservation system and we’re trying to create awareness across the University of the importance of digital preservation and the need to do it. This process has made us realise that there is a demand within the institution for digital preservation but, so far, it hasn’t come from the people we most want to be taking notice of the problem.

We spent some time over the summer of 2019 evaluating preservation systems and arranged a number of vendor presentations which we found to be a refreshing experience. It says something about the digital preservation community that the vendors wanted to be part of the conversation. Ultimately, although the vendors were trying to sell us their product, they went out of their way to suggest solutions for us without us having a detailed vision of what we wanted, and we were not a guaranteed sell.

Our situation is possibly more complex because we’re trying to balance both research data management and digital archive needs. We’re approaching problems from several angles and it has sometimes felt like we are trying to do everything at once. Essentially, we are a group of 4-5 people, none of whom are digital preservation experts, who have been taking time away from our main jobs to do some digital preservation at a low level, and to build a case for more investment.

Happily, one achievement has been to secure a new post in Library Services with digital preservation responsibilities, and we’re going through the recruitment process now. Hopefully our next blog post will be written by our dedicated Repository and Digital Preservation Librarian and in the meantime, if anyone is able to provide us with some pointers of how they got the strategic leads at their own big institution to sit up and take notice of digital preservation, we’d love to hear from you


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