Elisabeth Thurlow

Elisabeth Thurlow

Last updated on 22 November 2021

Elisabeth Thurlow is the Digital Preservation & Access Manager at the University of the Arts London.

As we challenge the long-held myth of neutrality within libraries, museums and archives, and diversify our collections, how do we avoid making decisions in support of digital preservation, which risk reinforcing historic biases? How do we select and prioritise our preservation actions whilst ensuring we are not duplicating existing biases? As well as the potential social impact of digital preservation, how green are our often IT-intensive digital preservation actions? How do we assess and minimise the environmental impact of our digital preservation programme?

These are not new discussions for my library and curatorial colleagues, who have been engaging in similar conversations in relation to their collections management practices over a number of years. But the inclusion of digital preservation in these recent discussions over the last two or three years is a strong indicator that digital preservation is becoming more embedded in our institutional culture. Collaboration is at the centre of many of these conversations - which is also central to the success of any digital preservation programme and our work at University of the Arts London (UAL).

Since 2018 UAL has been engaged in an IT-led project to preserve and provide access to the University’s growing digital archives and special collections, to allow these rich digital resources to be leveraged for teaching, learning and research. Earlier this year the first phase of this project came to a close, following the implementation of a digital preservation programme. This saw the significant move of digital preservation from a live project to a business-as-usual activity for the management of our digital archives and special collections, providing an opportune moment to consider the impact of our digital preservation activities.  

This cross-UAL project has already achieved a lot, but the growing awareness of digital preservation and its inclusion in these wider discussions on improving collections management practices, is one of the most exciting and encouraging developments.

Assessing our environmental impact

There is a growing interest within the digital preservation community around the environmental impact of digital preservation activities. The publication of the influential 2019 article by Keith Pendlegrass, Walker Sampson, Tim Walsh and Laura Alguna, and the subsequent webinar from the authors, hosted by the Digital Preservation Coalition in April, proved a catalyst for discussion at UAL.

Following the webinar a small number of our staff came together to reflect on UAL’s current practices around digital preservation and digitisation, and future improvements that could be made.

This collaborative, cross-college working group aims to make recommendations for positive changes or improvements that can be made to UAL’s approach to both digital preservation and digitisation practices to help meet the University’s commitment to improving its environmental sustainability. UAL’s environmental policy outlines our wishes to minimise the adverse environmental impact of the delivery of our services, which includes the management of our resources to take into account environmental impact, and implementing environmental best practice procedures throughout the University. This provides a framework for discussion on managing the environmental impact of our digital preservation activities.  

The working group has already produced a number of procedural documents to support future digitisation projects and encourage us all to consider the environmental impact. These include: a ‘Do I Digitise?’ workflow; an assessment model to aid the prioritisation of digitisation projects; and a digitisation project planning checklist, which includes digital preservation planning guidance. These practical documents are currently in draft but we look forward to colleagues testing these in practice.

However we recognise that this conversation does not exist in a silo and we need to take a more holistic approach. The documents therefore also prompt us to consider other issues relevant to how we prioritise our digital work, including whether the digitisation project will highlight a lesser known or marginalised collection.

Critical view of preservation actions

There is a growing amount of writing looking at critical archiving, to address the biases found within current and historic collections management practices. This recognises that archives and collections only show us what has been preserved, and that this is only a small amount of what has been created. The material that has been preserved often relates to groups which have held power. This means often only a narrow demographic of people or activities are represented within collections, reflecting the dominant narrative. Underrepresented groups in archives and collections broadly mirror marginalised groups in wider society.

Important work is being done to address gaps in collecting. But this is not limited to collecting, and the way in which archives and collections are managed can also be biased, with greater resources given to the preservation or promotion of certain material. This is also true of digital preservation. Technology is not neutral, nor is our application of it.

When making decisions about the prioritisation of digital preservation activities this is something that we need to consider. Within our limited staff resources, how do we prioritise our digital preservation work and who makes the decisions around what is preserved for the long-term? How do we consider our digital collections in relation to our work to decolonise UAL’s physical collections?

We don’t necessarily have all the answers yet, but it is really encouraging to see digital preservation being brought into these wider conversations taking place across the University, and beyond. As we move away from seeing digital preservation as a ‘project’, or digital as somehow ‘other’, we are seeing it become more embedded into our wider collections practices and the wider work of the University.

We are currently engaged in the development of a dedicated user interface for our growing digital collections, which will bring further discussions around how we forefront certain collections. We look forward to continuing these conversations locally and joining wider conversations, beyond the University.

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