Niklas Zimmer

Niklas Zimmer

Last updated on 24 October 2019

Niklas Zimmer is Manager of Digital Library Services at University of Cape Town Libraries in South Africa

In this brief overview, I hope to share with you some of our experiences, activities and challenges around digital preservation at the University of Cape Town, at the southern tip of Africa. Presently, expertise in digital preservation is growing only slowly in South Africa: relevant training opportunities remain rare because many institutions have yet to recognise the fundamental issues, and get started with sustainably resourcing solutions. While some of our needs may be about driving appropriately funded and structured projects forward, even more important to our capacity-building efforts will be to convene a local digital preservation community of practise that is vitally connected to global exchange of ways of knowing and describing the world.

In September this year, I was asked to speak about digital preservation at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Special Collections Preservation Conservation Conference entitled ‘Disaster Prevention Preparedness, Response & Recovery of Collective Collections and E-collections,’ and while the slides from this talk are publicly accessible (see:, I thought it useful to also provide a brief narrative in the form of this blog post, to share more widely what digital preservation activities we are busy with at Digital Library Services in securing the University of Cape Town’s digital legacy.

The Digital Library Services (DLS) department at UCT Libraries (UCTL) is a partner in the UCT eResearch centre, providing Digital Scholarship, Data Curation and Research Data Management (RDM) services to the UCT campus community. As such, we are confronted on a daily basis with concerns around long-term access to UCTs digital assets, both in terms of their functionality as well as their form. We have recognised that the questions go significantly deeper than what can be solved by standard metadata description and backup solutions, and must include considerations of the future obsolescence of hard- and software, file formats, database structures and data registries, to name but a few.

We have by now gained a lot of experience in imaging-based digitisation of text documents and photographic items, which since around 2013 was primarily driven by a requirement for university theses and related items to be made openly accessible on an institutional repository as pdfs. By contrast, the digitisation and curation of multimedia items for long-term preservation - including a wide variety of legacy tape- and disc-based AV media formats -, started only about 4 years ago. Since then, we have not only created roughly half a million digital files (in open formats) presently weighing in at around 75TB, but also started amassing a sizable collection of old 5 14-inch and ​3 12 inch floppy disks, CD-Rs, as well as other born-digital content from all over campus. For now, many of these data are still patiently awaiting curation, recovery and preservation actions in BitCurator, and Arkivum Perpetua’s Usability and Preservation modules (respectively also known as the Open Source AtoM and Archivematica platforms), now locally branded as ‘Izolo’ at UCT.

The DPCs BitList 2019 leads us to ask which digital materials at UCT are at risk because skills, infrastructure or resources don’t yet exist to support digital preservation? Presently, pretty much most of them! At DLS, we are busy preserving materials stored in UCTLs Special Collections, including AV tapes and discs, portable media, and community archives. Very soon, we aim to be able to start preserving research outputs, including some sensitive and/or mission critical data at pilot projects in Health Sciences.

There are still data that we are not yet ready to preserve, such as: apps, Email, games, media art, social media, and website content. This, despite the fact that use cases keep presenting themselves in greater numbers, often directly in conjunction with first ideas for possible solutions. A technical example: Why not use the WayBackMachine for government websites? A financial example: Why not co-fund preserving less ‘flashy’ holdings from finances released for securing our ‘hot’ collections, such as legal case data?

Furthermore, in the ‘definitely maybe’ category are other archival collections and administrative records located across the UCT campus, as well as engineering data. Regarding the latter, first project-collaborations have been challenging in terms of the complexity and size of the data sets, but nevertheless presented a successful first collaboration between DLS and 3-D imaging creators in the Faculty of Engineering, namely the Zamani project.[1]

Presently, expertise in digital preservation is growing only slowly in South Africa: relevant training opportunities remain rare because many institutions have yet to recognise the fundamental issues, and begin with sustainably resourcing solutions. According to Hemmje,‘The common feature between Memory Institutions (MIs) and Business Corporate Enterprises (BCEs) is the record-keeping aspect,’[2] which could explain why in the hybrid context of research-intensive higher education institutions, digital preservation may be falling between the cracks. These cracks may arguably be located between central IT services and the libraries respectively, but there are many other key role players (e.g. Finance, HR, IP Unit, Research Office, Faculties) who share in the responsibility of ensuring business continuity, including mitigating operational and reputational risks to the institution.

UCT Libraries have recognised that the institution can not afford the risk of losing primary data assets to disasters or neglect (e.g. active data management), while relevant drivers from national policy remain vague or missing altogether.[3] This lack of clarity in national policy, while perhaps understandable in view of rapid changes in information technology, seems altogether unnecessary considering South Africa’s UNESCO membership: the Director-General 2009-2017 (Bokova, I.G.) states in the Recommendation concerning the Preservation of, and Access to, Documentary Heritage Including in Digital Form[4] that ‘... the preservation of, and long-term accessibility to documentary heritage underpins fundamental freedoms of opinion, expression and information as human rights’ (p.2), and furthermore that: ‘For each State, its documentary heritage reflects its memory and identity, and thus contributes to determine its place in the global community’ (p.6). Further to this cornerstone document, there is an abundance of policy drivers globally that directly underpin and/or require digital preservation.[5]

Meanwhile, there may be hope in the ‘4IR’ trend that is currently sweeping the conference venues at HEIs locally, to give a new inflection to the literally ancient, i.e. persistent  requirement for bringing data under management. Such a new frame may bring a much-needed renaissance into the environment of ‘digitisation initiatives,’ which has presented us with some monumental failures: a fair question is how much we have to show for all the heavily funded digitisation efforts of the past two decades? It appears that much of the data created remains inaccessible - indefinitely - because these projects were lacking a whole host of components that were not considered central to ‘digitisation:’ contracts, release forms, digital rights management, ethics, security, backup, format migration, file fixity, to name a few … in essence everything that we understand ‘digital preservation’ to mean.

Will the same myopic approach hamper upcoming ‘4IR’ projects in the near future? We can hope that the Internet of Things will only work with sound digital curation practises firmly in place. Nevertheless, the danger of new shortcuts taken around the less thrilling pursuits involving bringing data under management, especially regarding IP and copyright, could lead to litigation cases of as yet unseen proportions, with the potential to close down entire organisations.

Recognising that a national preservation framework will more likely be grown from discrete, localised efforts rather than being provided for from the top down, our new ED Ujala Satgoor tasked DLS, together with the Special Collections department, with drafting a Digital Preservation strategy for UCT Libraries. This document, together with relevant MoUs, MTAs etc. serves as a pilot framework to appropriately coordinate the complex, institution-wide effort of describing and securing the vast amount of valuable information being produced at UCT every day, in service of future generations of students, educators, researchers and administrators. In the near future, we hope that an institutional Digital Preservation policy, to dovetail with the Intellectual Property (IP) policy (2011) the Open Access (OA) policy (2014), and the Research Data Management (RDM) policy (2017), will serve to ensure that our current efforts remain sustainably resourced from the highest level of the university.

On the way there, we would be very excited to join the DPC, sooner rather than later, to become part of an international community of practise, and join our voice to a multilateral exchange of ways of knowing and describing the world. As with the discussions currently taking place at national level around an RDA node[6] for South or Southern Africa, we would welcome a consortium membership for Higher Educational Institutions nationally, to ensure that none of the less well resourced institutions are left behind. It is crucial to recognise that only if all of us work together, by using interoperable standards and systems, can we ensure that South Africa’s heritage is made ‘... permanently accessible and re-usable by all without hindrance. (To) provide the means for understanding social, political, collective as well as personal history. (To) help to underpin good governance and sustainable development.’[7]

In this brief overview, I hope that I have been able to share with you some of our experiences, activities and challenges at the southern tip of Africa, at UCT. While some of our needs are about appropriately funded and structured projects, even more important to our capacity-building efforts will be to build a local digital preservation community of practise that is vitally connected to global discourse.

[1] See:

[2] Hemmje, Matthias L. (2010) Drivers for Digital Preservation. (Online) Accessible:

[3] National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper (2016); National Archives and Records Service Digitisation Strategy (2013); SAHRA / National Heritage Resources: Legislations and Regulations (1962 - 1999); Intellectual Property Rights from Publicly Financed Research and Development Act (2008).

[4] See:

[5] To mention but a few: G20 Anti-Corruption Open Data Principles (2015); Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities (2003); The FAIR Guiding Principles for Scientific Data Management and Stewardship (2016).

[6] See:

[7] See:

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