Michael Day

Michael Day

Last updated on 4 November 2020

Michael Day is the Digital Preservation Research Lead at The British Library

In the not-so-distant past, if the digital preservation community in the west ever paused to think about the effects of viruses on digital collections and operations, I suspect that most would have been mainly thinking about computer malware or similar nasties. In fact, a couple of years ago, the digital preservation team at the British Library hosted Evanthia Samaras, from the Public Record Office Victoria and the University of Technology Sydney, to undertake a PhD placement to look at this very issue. Our research at that time didn’t find that much evidence of malware-risk in the Library’s collections, although we did find that we held a copy of a late-1990s computer magazine cover disk that had been published with a computer virus named “Marburg,” itself named after a human virus outbreak in Germany during the 1960s..

The British Library’s vulnerability to human viruses was not within scope of that particular study, but the implications of a global health pandemic became apparent very quickly during March this year. The Library’s physical sites were closed on the 26th March, part of a UK nationwide lockdown.

Almost overnight, the Library became a largely-virtual organisation, with staff, readers and visitors only able to connect via technology. The Library tried to play its part in supporting readers while the sites were closed by adopting a digital-first strategy, i.e. continuing, wherever possible, to provide access to collections, learning resources and other services online. Despite the shutdown of its physical sites, the library was determined to remain open online for everyone, wherever they might be in the world. Openness is a key theme of the Library’s recently refreshed vision and strategy, Living Knowledge for Everyone.

There were many manifestations of this determination to remain open. For example, colleagues implemented an “Available Online” search filter for the Library’s Explore catalogue, allowing users to limit results to digital content that was available remotely. The Library’s digital scholarship team also made sure that digital content continued to be made available for public-facing crowdsourcing initiatives, e.g. the transcription of historical playbills for In the Spotlight, the classification of articles from nineteenth-century newspapers for the Living with Machines project, or the annotation of Siberian photographs from the Endangered Archives Programme.

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The British Library Simulator Bitsy game

For anyone missing visiting the Library’s sites in person, there was also the British Library Simulator, a mini game built by our Curator of Digital Publications, Giulia Carla Rossi, using the Bitsy game engine, enabling anyone to wander around a pixelated version of the St. Pancras building.

With more direct relevance to the pandemic, the Library added many links to Covid-19 material to its catalogue and developed a collection guide listing freely-available resources that might help support researchers and policymakers, as well as the general public.

Furthermore, as part of the UK Web Archive, the British Library and the other UK legal deposit libraries started to collect UK websites relating to the pandemic, which will in due course be made available as part of the UKWA’s Pandemic Outbreaks topical collection. UKWA colleagues would always welcome suggestions for additional content that could be added to this collection. The UKWA is also working on developing an international Covid-19 collection in collaboration with the International Internet Preservation Consortium (IIPC). The UK Web Archive’s annual Domain Crawl of the UK webspace got underway in September, and it is expected that the pandemic will feature strongly in the content collected this year.

One of the things that the pandemic has brought to the fore has been the importance to society of mobile devices and apps, e.g. apps for collecting information on Covid symptoms or for contact tracing. Covid-related apps have been downloaded in the millions, but are not currently systematically collected by any UK organisation. Even if the apps were actually able to be collected, their dependencies on specific hardware or the existence of external data sources make them tricky candidates for digital preservation -- as some of the Library’s existing work with emerging formats has taught us. While the British Library may not currently be in the position of being able to collect the apps themselves, the UK Web Archive may be able to capture contextual information about them, e.g. the descriptive pages on Google Play or the App Store, or news items and commentary.

The digital preservation team’s initial role during this difficult period was to ensure that the Library’s digital collections were safe while most colleagues were not on site, and to continue to monitor the outputs of our automated fixity checking tools. It was also important to make sure that the team could continue to work safely and efficiently while in remote off-site mode. This was perhaps less of a challenge for the digital preservation team, whose split between the British Library’s two main sites meant that we were already broadly familiar with conferencing technology (if not Zoom).

There were a few advantages as well. The digital preservation team realised early on that it would be impossible to hold our usual annual introductory training courses on site, so the course was revised and delivered online via Zoom, and, with just under 100 participants, was able to boost significantly the number of colleagues able to attend. We also recorded the sessions so that other colleagues would be able to go through the presentations in their own time. This has led, in turn, to Library colleagues consulting the team on specific digital preservation issues. By using Zoom, the team also learned a lot about the pros-and-cons of delivering training events online, which we can carry forward into our other outreach work.

Some of the British Library’s reading rooms began to re-open to the public in a controlled way from the 22nd July, and additional capacity was added until the Library’s sites were obliged to shut down for a second time from the 5th November. During the period the sites were open to the public, the Library’s galleries and exhibition spaces were available for those booking in advance and we will open them again as soon as we are able to. In accordance with the national guidance, Library colleagues remain working to some extent on site, e.g. doing important work in collection care or the digitisation studios. The digital preservation team has also recommenced its programme of disk imaging at Boston Spa. The renewed closure of the Library’s sites shows that the situation with the pandemic is still fluid, and it seems clear that some of the new ways of working that we had to adopt in March, pretty much overnight, are going to be here-to-stay.

The compulsory shutdown of our sites is a reminder of the increasing importance of the British Library as a digital library. The Library’s digital collections are different in scope and form to our physical collections, but they have much to offer in way of supporting innovation in use, research, and outreach. For example, just last month, the Library released around 18,000 public-domain images from the King George III Topographical Collection via Flickr Commons.

As this post hopefully makes clear, the digital preservation team is just one of the many teams at the British Library that is responsible for keeping the Library’s digital content safe and available to our users. In these challenging times, we will continue to do whatever we can to preserve the Library’s digital content, regardless of pandemics and site shutdowns. For good.

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