Thomas Shaw

Thomas Shaw

Last updated on 4 November 2020

Thomas Shaw is the Assistant Director of Digital Innovation and Research Services at Lancaster University

It is undoubtedly both a truism and an understatement that these are unprecedented times.  Universities, along with other types of knowledge-intensive organisation, have experienced seismic shock and uncertainty due to the current pandemic, ranging from uncertain student recruitment to detrimental impact on research projects.  Add to this the consequent financial effects, and the resulting circumstances do not appear to be conducive to making the argument for the importance of digital preservation and the need to invest in it.

In universities, there are currently two key barriers to making the case for digital preservation:

  • Financial constraints and uncertainty – the need for institutions to manage very challenging financial circumstances creates barriers to investment in either staffing or infrastructure for digital preservation. In most institutions, now will not be a good time to request new investment.

  • Organisational focus is elsewhere – universities have had to respond rapidly and adapt to the challenges of the pandemic. Institutions have had to transition to digital and blended modes of teaching, whilst managing key activity in other areas, such as preparation for the Research Excellence Framework. Consequently, senior leaders are unlikely to be receptive to calls for action on digital preservation at the current time, especially with so many other competing challenges.

Even beyond the current pandemic circumstances, making the case for digital preservation can be both straightforward and challenging in equal measure.  I have found that senior leaders can easily appreciate the basic risks associated with not acting on digital preservation, especially when the threat to important data assets and organisational memory becomes apparent.  Indeed, highlighting ‘worst case scenarios’ or distinctive examples from the past (such as the 1980s Domesday Project on laserdisc: can be particularly effective in making the initial point that digital technology is not in itself secure and reliable in perpetuity.  However, it is also an area where it can be very challenging to achieve practical action and deliver meaningful progress.  It’s very easy for digital preservation to be perceived as ‘tomorrow’s problem’, which doesn’t need action or expenditure today.  Given the immediacy of challenges such as transitioning to online teaching, there is significant risk of digital preservation being pushed down the agenda at the current time.

So the circumstances are clearly even more challenging than usual.  However, I firmly believe that abandoning digital preservation as ‘too difficult’ or ‘too expensive’, or deprioritising it as a ‘problem for another day’ would be a serious mistake.  As a consequence of the pandemic, digital is now more important and more centre stage than it has ever been.  And hence good digital preservation becomes even more vital.  We need only think of the perception of those in years or decades to come, who have to live with the consequences if we fail to act when we could and should have done.

At Lancaster University we are currently navigating these challenges to set a new course for the Library’s activity on digital preservation.  Lancaster University Library has an excellent track record of engaging proactively with digital preservation, which puts us on a sound footing to move forward.  But we also need to be realistic about what we can achieve in the current circumstances.  As part of our annual planning process, we are, to borrow a phrase from the green movement, Thinking Globally and Acting Locally.  We are retaining our vision and ambition for the importance of digital preservation across the full range of the Library’s services, whilst acknowledging that we can’t preserve everything for everyone overnight, and that we need to focus on how we can continue to deliver incrementally at a local level.  Over the next the next 12 months we will develop a revised plan for the Library’s role in digital preservation.  We will undertake greater prioritisation and will break down priorities into smaller and more achievable units.  We expect to focus activity on key areas within the Library’s remit – research data and electronic PhD theses in particular – in order to define deliverables that are realistic.  A key area in the current environment will be the preservation of data from research into Covid-19, of which there are many examples throughout the institution.  We will also maintain our focus on the initial capture and storage of digital assets to ensure that assets such as research data are always deposited in the most appropriate locations.

So our motivation is that it would be wrong to abandon or ignore digital preservation, and that it has become more important than ever.  But equally, we need to be realistic about what we can deliver.  Moreover, it is far better to deliver something to an acceptable standard in some areas, than deliver nothing because we couldn’t make it perfect in every way.  At this challenging time we may not be able to achieve all of the preservation ambitions we know to be so important, but we can still keep this vital topic on the agenda, and still deliver genuine outcomes and impact.

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