Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson

Last updated on 2 May 2019

Like many of my digital preservation (DP) contemporaries I too read archaeology, as part of my history degree. My degree encompassed the Neolithic (We played with really sharp flint tools) to the ‘Dirty Harry’ movies (That made my day) If nothing else it taught me the circular nature of history. The past may be a different country but it’s one we seem to visit again and again.

It’s not (Necessarily) a failing of our profession that the same questions are asked again and again, it’s a reflection of change and evolution in things like IT, society and how we move the past into the future. Amidst this change, perhaps because of it, the context of the questions asked changes; ask the same question over twenty years and the answers will vary.

There is no doubt IMHO that, far from being an IT ‘problem’ DP is a social opportunity and an archival activity. There are IT skills involved/required and the necessity to work with colleagues in IT has only grown in importance. In my experience IT have sometimes, not always, been unaware that DP exists. We can be esoteric, complex, sometimes off the IT radar and can ask a lot of IT resources (Think storage/backup) or we are hidden until some crisis emerges.

It’s in light of all of the above that I’m revisiting the question; ‘What IT skills should DP practitioners have?’

This post is based on something I originally put on Twitter in 2014 as ‘Ten IT skills you need to have to work with digital preservation’. See below for the original list or search Twitter. I attempted to answer questions, in collaboration with IT, about useful IT skills one needed. Recent questions to the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC) suggest that not only do those working in DP have mixed levels of skill and access to IT but the question of what IT skills are of most use remans a hot topic.

To my mind the question misses the point.

I’ve changed my mind. Well, sort of. IT skills are essential to successful DP. As DP professionals it beholds us to understand the environment in which we apply our practical and professional skills. Understanding how the technology works, how data formats vary, how networks and storage work, understanding IT as a resource, communicating the benefits of our work and, most crucial, understanding and speaking the lingo of technology and of IT. On this basis I think my original, albeit arbitrary, list still stands. Unless you think differently…?

I’m looking at my original list in a new light. I’m now proposing one skill to rule them all.

We ask about IT skills, I’d argue, because DP is fixated with the technical, with formats and tools to work with those formats. Don’t get me wrong this is important and there are some excellent, essential and valuable tools out there. In the end we have to work with the formats we are given or create. We focus on the technical, perhaps because of its complexity, at the expense of a longer/wider view of how data can be used in the future, who wants/needs it, in what form(s) user(s) want that data and how the environment of IT and how it is used affects DP. We ask technical questions because we see a technical problem.

Instead, the key IT skills a DP professional needs to have are social skills. Social skills help us leverage skills held by other specialist and skilled individuals. They help us move from trying to be IT experts to being facilitators, flexibly leveraging skills relevant to the requirements of the material we’re working with from those who are IT experts.

Not just small talk, not just being nice to the IT team; (which helps) hard core social skills such as the communication or documentation of complex ideas, the ability to ‘sell’ DP to senior managers, to understand and communicate resource needs/cost benefit and to convincingly share those ideas. An ability to demonstrate understanding in how technology might be used to support DP. The ability to both communicates the complexity of DP in written and verbal forms and to communicate the value of the benefits of DP within and across the organisation.

This benefits IT. DP professionals need to be able to operate in a technical IT environment. This means understanding how IT works so that we can work with IT on relatively equal ground; we need to understand the solutions they offer us. By meeting IT half way, they can offer solutions we may not have considered. We may offer solutions they may not have considered. Collaboration based on mutual and shared understanding benefits both sides. That said not every IT department is able to provide, or afford, more than what they are contracted or funded to provide or supply.

DP is often seen (Perceived as…?) by organisations as a capital expenditure. And not a cheap option. Social skills, and the ability to communicate the value of digital assets as a corporate good can move the conversation within the organisation from ‘cost’ to ‘benefit’. An IT department can carry great sway in an organisation, when IT ‘get’ DP one has gained a powerful ally.

As we saw in the Brexit negotiations – oh, I haven’t the strength for that analogy.

This becomes problematic in organisations that have outsourced IT services/support. With no IT ‘on-site’ and with service/support levels contractually defined it may be difficult to get support for DP activities that require different access to IT. PC hardware may be ‘locked down’ (often done for the best of reasons) leaving no access to USB ports which rules out access to much of the hardware used for file transfer; USB sticks, portable hard drives, USB floppy drives, USB CD/DVD drives etc. This can be tough.

I’m arguing that social skills are even more essential here. Those working in DP must wield the skills to ‘sell’ the value of digital material as a valuable organisational good. A good that is based upon and requires IT to be realised. Not just to their line managers but to senior management. Even more crucially using social and communication skills to get a seat at the table when IT policy is set and service level agreements negotiated with vendors. No, it’s not easy. Yes, it can be time consuming and frustrating. No, it’s probably not in your job description.

Change the language. In this environment one might stop talking about ‘preservation’ (cost) and start a conversation about how the XYZ digital collection enhances an organisations reputation (Benefit) or how much users are viewing the XYZ digital collection. (Have stats ready to ‘prove’ it) Talk about how digitisation could surface a little used but key collection driving user demand (Benefit). Talk about small investments yielding a larger gain in the creation of a valuable corporate asset and increasing organisational reputation. (Benefit) If your CEO has an open-door they are fair game! (But please be brief)

Whether one has an in-house IT department or that function is outsourced it can pay to walk the walk. Walk your organisation, seek out influencers, if your corporate intranet has biogs of staff seek common ground. Link digital work to organisational goals/objectives. If everyone has a price then everyone has an entrée. Get invited to other departments’ staff meetings and talk about your work, share stories, share success and failure, share images from that digitisation project. Remember, other departments have an interest in maintaining data over time; HR or finance for example, both can be powerful organisational allies.

Equally reaching out and sharing stories with other DP professionals, and professional bodies such as the DPC is a learning and sharing opportunity. Others have been here before you, have faced similar issues and had time to think up creative workarounds and/or solutions. Time spent professionally networking is never wasted, though ‘selling’ time away from one’s desk can be difficult. Not all line managers understand, everyone has targets, deadlines and deliverables. The shtick is to ‘sell’ and then demonstrate the benefits of sharing experiences and learning. Quoting shared stories adds credibility and value. Using phrases with your CEO like; ‘I was talking with so-and-so the other day and they were impressed/interested that we….’ become useful levers. As one’s personal profile increases both internally and externally so the organisation benefits in terms of its reputation.

I seem to have gone a bit off piste, and for some of you I’m clearly preaching to the choir. I’m aware that social skills are not technical IT skills. If you asked me about technical skills today I’d challenge you to demonstrate effective interaction and communication within your organisation. I’d challenge you to demonstrate benefit and value in your DP activities. I’d go ask your CEO how much they know about your DP work.

Successful DP requires access to infrastructure and organisational resources as well as individuals with personal IT skills. By becoming more social the key role of the DP practitioner becomes that of advocate, mediator and fixer. The ability to make an elevator pitch to an organisational influencer is a skill that trumps your ability to migrate data from obsolete media and serves to make DP more sustainable in your organisation.

So, you could go ahead and pick up the following skill set; and to be honest (IMHO) you probably should. You could also take a different tack and become more ‘social’. Step back from the hurly burly of technical DP ‘problems’. The application of social skills can help move your digital work into a context that is better aligned with your organisation. Reaching out and ‘selling’ digital preservation within your organisation might mean that you don’t need hard core technical IT skills, those skills might come to you.

Anyway, here’s my original list. I’ve not checked for link rot or changes to Twitter tags; my bad.

  1. You’ll need an insatiable curiosity about computers & a willingness to learn about, operating systems, file formats & the way data can be manipulated & managed.
  1. You’ll be following technical/subject specific blogs & Twitter accounts like #gdsteam #BBCTech or #DPC or The Signal - http://blogs.loc.gov/digitalpreservation/
  1. You’ll to be able to speak, or at least be familiar & comfortable with the technical language of IT, as well as having good relationships or links into your IT team to help them achieve your goals & objectives.
  1. You need to be able to express a set of technical requirements (Written or spoken) in a way that IT understands. You’ll also need to be able to ‘translate’ these for your colleagues.
  1. You’ll be familiar & comfortable with the principles of project management & be good at building & maintaining relationships.
  1. You need to be broadly familiar with the IT architecture of your organisation, or at least the bits you use regularly & have an understanding of your organisations processes for updating & changing IT systems.
  1. You’ll be clear about your organisation’s strategic mission & goals. You’ll understand your institution's Value Proposition (preservation only, enhanced access models, etc) when it comes to the digital material that is acquired.
  1. You need to be confident sitting in front of a computer & experimenting, pushing buttons & trying stuff in systems you’re not fully familiar with.
  1. You might have some programming skills or some technical skills in managing data.
  1. And lastly, you’ll need to know when to stop fiddling & ask for help! (Seriously)

Dave Thompson, October 2014

Tweet me @d_n_t

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