Jenny Mitcham

Jenny Mitcham

Last updated on 13 May 2020

A couple of weeks back, on a mission to resurface some of the great content we have hidden away on the DPC website, William Kilbride kicked off the ‘Greatest Hits’ blog post series with a ‘mix tape’ of resources relating to OAIS.

Being that my remit is Standards and Good Practice, and William has already covered what is arguably the biggest digital preservation standard there is, I thought I’d better try and cover the topic of ‘Good Practice’.

But first a confession...

As Head of Good Practice and Standards I’ve always found it harder to describe or quantify the ‘Good Practice’ part of the job. I see Good Practice everywhere across the DPC Membership and beyond much so that I find it impossible to keep track of it or feel I have any sort of a handle on it. And of course this is ‘A Good Thing’.

It is everywhere, yet it is almost impossible to quantify or describe.

So I thought I would pick up the ‘mix tape’ challenge with an attempt to highlight some resources on the DPC website that, in my opinion, help define and represent some of this Good Practice across the community.

I think I have set myself an impossible task. I could have picked pretty much any webinar, blog, resource or publication to represent Good Practice in some way.

This ‘mix tape’ is thus doomed to never be complete. Consider this to be the mix tape on which, (hampered by the technology available at the time) only a certain amount of recording space was available…..the last song cuts out and you’ll never hear how it will never be certain how many other great songs you are missing. I encourage you to have a rummage and dig out those ‘lost songs’ for yourselves.


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1. Good practice is doing the ground work

There are some fairly standard and sensible approaches to moving forward with digital preservation at any institution. Often there is much ground work to be done before you even start to get hands on with the preservation of digital content. Tasks may include working out what you’ve got (and what you are likely to get), writing a preservation policy, preparing a business case and of course much internal advocacy and communication.

This Digital Preservation in Action webinar from Chris Fryer (then at the Parliamentary Archives in the UK) provides a great example of how to start to embed digital preservation good practice at your institution. It describes the journey from making a business case to justify digital preservation as an activity, to implementing policy and strategy and discusses how to get stakeholders on board throughout (please log in to view recording).


A blog post from Jaana Pinnick covers similar themes. In ‘Developing a Digital Preservation Programme at the British Geological Survey’ she describes how they have moved forward with digital preservation by, writing a preservation policy, a business case and an action plan for the future.


2. Good practice is understanding what you are trying to achieve

Before we can do any digital preservation we really do need to understand what we are actually trying to achieve. What do we want to preserve, why and for whom? At the DPC we are often asked for advice on how to preserve different types of content. Perhaps annoyingly, we tend to respond with questions rather than answers. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to digital preservation. The right approach will typically depend on what exactly you are trying to preserve and why.

One of the most interesting and entertaining talks I heard last year really brought this home to me. James Newman from Bath Spa University spoke at our software preservation briefing day. In his talk ‘Mario is missing - playing, not playing and preserving videogames’ he highlights some of the quirks and imperfections of the game Super Mario Bros. and how players use and exploit them. Preserving games isn’t just about preserving the software code, it is also about understanding and preserving the experience of playing the game. He therefore suggests a shift from game preservation to game play preservation (please log in to view recording).



Another good example of the need to ask the right questions in order to come up with the right solution comes from Matthew Addis of Arkivum in his blog post about creating a solution for email preservation. I like the clear demonstration of the fact that you can’t really implement a solution until you unpick what exactly you are trying to achieve and this key message stands regardless of the system you are using.


3. Good practice is getting stuck in (in a controlled way of course)

No one can learn everything they need to know about digital preservation from a digital preservation handbook or training course (though both are helpful!). To make progress there is nothing better than actually getting stuck into tackling some real world challenges. Extra points for sharing your experiences and lessons learned!

A blog post from Sara Day Thomson and Graham Purnell ‘Teaching a Young Dog Old Tricks: Emulation Research at the National Library of Scotland’ is a great example. As well as being highly informative, this post really captures the highs and lows of trying new things out, including setting realistic goals, working with the wider community and coming away with a whole bunch of learning points and of course more questions...

I’d also like to add Dave Rice’s talk at last year’s briefing day on Preserving Moving Images and Sound into the mix. This is a great all round presentation for anyone who is interested in preserving AV, but what I particularly liked was how he describes getting stuck in writing a preservation microservice - an act which had a profound effect on him! A microservice is a good way of automating a series of actions and standardising what happens at a particular point in a workflow. He describes how just 18 lines of code can make a big impact! (please log in to view recording)



4. Good practice is tackling the problems that need to be solved

Digital preservation is an evolving discipline. One of the reasons it evolves is because there are people in the community who are actively working on solutions to particular problems we have or gaps in our existing toolsets.

A blog post from Paul Young of The National Archives UK jumps into my mind - 'Undateables – methods for determining date ranges for born-digital documents when file system dates go bad’.
Paul describes how he has tackled one of those problems with metadata that many of us face (even if we haven’t realised it yet) - the problem of accurately capturing the date of born digital files. By talking about the challenges and testing and documenting potential ways of tackling it, he starts a dialogue which hopefully others will build on, as he himself has built on previous work that other members of the community have carried out.

Again from The National Archives UK, Santhilata Kuppili Venkata delves into a problem that I had certainly encountered in the past - that of how to usefully identify plain text files. See the posts 'Motivation to Undertake File Format Identification Research for Plain Text Files' and 'How to correctly identify the file type of a text file from its contents?'

I know I've highlighted this one before, but worth flagging up again a post from Euan Cochrane of Yale University. 'Designing a Universal Virtual Interactor (UVI) for digital objects' describes a work in progress to solve a specific emulation challenge - how to match digital objects to configured computing environments automatically. 


5. Good practice is documenting what we do

There is a great blog post from Amy Rudersdorf of AVP from last year with her 10 reasons why you should document your digital preservation activities - 'DOCUMENT THIS. And this. And this, too.’ 

She is right you know! This rather boring administrative side of digital preservation isn’t talked about that much but is absolutely essential. Good practice isn't really good practice if you don't have records and evidence of what you are doing and why.


6. Good practice is continuous improvement

I think we all know by now that digital preservation is never ‘done’. It is an ongoing task that we keep on doing, and it is important to adjust our practices over time, particularly as the challenges change, or the scale of our work increases. What may have been sustainable and sensible when dealing with 100 digital objects may not work for 10,000. A commitment to continuous improvement is therefore an important element of sustaining good practice. 

It is helpful to see examples of organizations adjusting established processes to solve a problem or address an emerging challenge. Sheila Morrisey from Portico describes such a situation in her blog post ‘Taming the Pre-Ingest Processing Monster’ and discusses how they have moved from processes based on “world-as-it-should-be” assumptions to something that better handles the slightly less perfect reality of the digital content that is delivered.


7. Good practice is working together as a community

The collaborative nature of our work is one of the things I love, but why is this considered good practice? Having several heads on the same problem helps produce resources that are more broadly useful, and if these can be used by the whole community to provide advice or guidance, this helps us all move forward together.

There was an award winning example of this in the Winners Webinar series with the Archivists Guide to Kryoflux. What do you do if you receive a piece of digital preservation hardware that doesn’t really have the instructions you need? You get together with a group of like-minded archivists and write them yourselves. This group of archivists has worked together to come up with a helpful resource which could be used by the wider community (please log in to view recording).



8. Good practice is questioning what we are doing and why

For me, an important part of good practice is questioning and testing our standards, models and practices as we go along. If we all just blindly followed the recognised status quo then the discipline would stagnate and fail to move forward in a positive and constructive way.

A very recent example of this was a webinar last month on environmental sustainability in which the speakers Keith Pendergrass, Walker Sampson, Tim Walsh and Laura Alagna discussed some of the changes they had made to their digital preservation practices in response to the climate crisis (please log in to view recording).



DPC's Paul Wheatley wrote a really interesting blog post called ‘A valediction for validation’ in which he asks why we carry out validation of file formats. Is this something that we do just because it is part of digipres lore or is it really serving a useful purpose for us? There are some interesting observations here and in the comments that follow.

Another great example comes from Leontien Talboom and David Underdown of the National Archives UK with a blog post entitled ‘Access is What we are Preserving’: But for Whom?'. The authors discuss the OAIS concept of ‘designated community’ and the challenges of applying this usefully when serving a very broad audience. It describes how OAIS “was created to aid us in digital preservation, but it does not mean that we have to take everything literally word for word from it.” Another thought provoking discussion piece that is well worth a read.


9. Good practice is…


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