Russell Kennedy and Ed Pinsent

Russell Kennedy and Ed Pinsent

Last updated on 24 May 2019

Russell Kennedy is Web and Digital Solutions Analyst and Ed Pinsent is Digital Archivist at the University of London


You join us at an exciting time. The University of London (UoL) is embarking on an ambitious, collaborative programme of work, which aims to create a culture of digital best practice throughout the institution. Central to this initiative is the long-term digital preservation of content, and our aim is to weave the importance of preservation into the fabric of the University, building it into job descriptions and training provision.

Alongside this, an integrated discovery layer – with flexible access levels and integrated search – will serve up relevant, ‘access-copy’ content to users. This will not only significantly improve the discovery experience within the University, but also surface previously uncatalogued material, which could be of great benefit to a number of key audiences.

In order to link these two areas, a dedicated, strategic layer will provide a framework of best practice, policy and process to anyone working with or benefiting from the wide range of material in our remit.

These three key themes – digital preservation, discovery and access, and policy and process – broadly make up what we have termed the UoL Digital Ecosystem Programme, and, while it is easy to provide a summary of what we hope to achieve, turning that into a reality is undoubtedly a major undertaking. It will take several years to put in place, need collaboration from across the whole institution, and require buy-in from the highest level of management. This post will detail our journey so far, some of the key preservation concerns, and our plans for the future.

The story so far

The University has thought about this kind of activity before. Three years ago, Senate House Library had kicked off a project relating to its own collections and assets, while the School of Advanced Study undertook some preservation testing on its own material. However, the more we thought about the issue, as well as the breadth of data across the estate, the more we realised that a joined up, collaborative approach was the way forward. With this in mind, a project group has been formed, made up of experts from across the University and dedicated to delivering a solution that will meet our diverse range of requirements. Governance is provided by a steering group, comprised of senior staff and also representing a cross-section of the University’s departments.

The programme formally got underway with a brainstorming workshop, where we discussed key issues, ideal solutions, and defined a number of potential work-streams. One of the first and most important tasks to come out of this was a scoping exercise, which aimed to get a better picture of exactly what content exists around the estate that might fall under our remit. In order to find this out, a briefing session was held with key members of staff. A survey was then sent out, inviting content owners to suggest assets and collections that may warrant preservation.

At this point we were still referring to this piece of work as the digital preservation programme. However, we soon realised that what we actually needed was a solution with a number of integrated services – digital preservation, discovery and access, and policy and process – all of which were essential to our success. Some work was done to reframe the programme with these elements in mind, and a UoL Digital Ecosystem strategy and vision paper was written to give a better, high-level overview of our goals.

We received a number of very useful responses to the survey, which will act as a great starting point to the work we have to do. It would be naive to assume that these responses represented absolutely everything within our remit. However, by casting a fairly wide net over the whole University, we have found some very interesting – and in many cases, previously unknown – content that could be used to move forward with the next stage of the work. Our theory is that by proving we can meet the preservation and access requirements of some of the material that has come back in this survey, we will be able to build confidence in, and raise greater awareness of, our solution on a very wide scale.

Preservation considerations, from UoL Digital Archivist, Ed Pinsent

The programme will include virtually anything that is born-digital content, and digitised content; in scope are digital archives, digitised books, and e-records. As an archivist, my interest would be to ensure that UoL is able to build and protect its corporate memory in digital form, which will entail improvements in electronic records management and digital preservation. I’m also aware that we have external depositors – such as learned societies, and people who donate to SHL’s special collections – that must be taken into account in this wide-ranging programme of work.

The programme is going to deliver improved access, not just to library assets, but to many other forms of interesting and valuable digital content. The improvement will come about through development of a souped-up online catalogue that is capable of handling many strands of metadata and cataloguing standards. Integration is the key. The hoped-for outcome is a single search portal that can give the end-user a search across a wide range of content, and delivery of suitable access copies on request.

Like many other Universities and HE Institutions, we also have research data. This is generated by the School of Advanced Study and the academics who are funded by the School. The challenge for me at this stage is defining the exact preservation requirement for this significant strand of work, and ensuring that all the stakeholder needs will be met. There’s more at stake than just storing digital files; I want to build something that academics can trust, and use. Our efforts here should aim to ensure that research outputs are better exposed, shared, and disseminated with appropriate users (through the improved catalogue); and that the raw data itself also remains intact and authentic in the preservation system, capable of being reused and repurposed in the future. We must also meet the School’s remit, and the terms of the funding agreements.

The strength of our programme’s work is that it involves a strong skillset drawn from across the UOL; librarians, archivists, IT experts, and digitisation specialists are all contributing. At time of writing, the team remains agnostic as to a choice of “solution”; personally I think it extremely likely that we will be fulfilling many different preservation and access needs, and that finding a “single system” that can meet all requirements is unlikely. That said, I believe there is potential in joining up with our ICT’s cloud storage programme, especially since recent improvements in checksum validation and geo-redundant distribution of copies look very encouraging from a preservation standpoint.

In these few paragraphs, I hope to have shown that “preservation challenges” are much more than file formats and datastreams, and that the organisational challenges must be addressed head-on; issues that impact on workflows, ownership, stakeholders, locations, and expected use of the materials.

Next steps

As previously noted, this is a significant piece of work, and is necessarily going to take some time to fully implement. In terms of next steps, following on from the survey, five projects have been selected to be taken forward for proof of concept work. These mini-projects include content from across the University, and range in subject from traditional collections to digitised and institutional records. In order to take each project forward, their content owners will be interviewed and a detailed use case drawn up. From there, the more technical elements and challenges will be considered, and we will begin to develop a prototype solution.

A separate piece of work around research data, and its broad requirements, has also been commissioned. As noted above, research data is a key activity for academics within the School of Advanced Study, and it is vital that the Digital Ecosystem is capable of meeting research needs once implemented.

Another key point is communications and advocacy. If we are to produce something that benefits the entire University, we need to raise awareness of the Programme across UoL. We are now working with a comms specialist in order to help engage staff across the institution, and especially those at a high-level, with our work and what we are trying to achieve.

Over the next year, we hope to build a prototype solution using sample data from our proof-of-concept projects. If successful, this can then act as a foundation for the Ecosystem, and we can demonstrate its usefulness to key stakeholders within the University. Once we reach that stage, our goal to create a culture of digital best practice, with a clear, strategic mandate for preservation, might be closer than we think.

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