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Kate McCarthy

Kate McCarthy

Last updated on 3 November 2021

Kate McCarthy is Special Collections Librarian and manager of digitisation projects at the Houses of the Oireachtas Library

It’s late in the evening. Do you know where your children are? And by children of course I mean all those digital files you’ve happily brought into existence in recent years. The documents, images, and datasets. The hundreds of thousands of tiffs, jpegs, pdfs, mp3s, mp4s and xml files. Are they under the supervision of a digital preservation system? Hanging out on a Cloud account? Loitering on a local server? Idling on an LTO? Waiting to be collected from an external hard drive in a desk drawer that you haven’t opened for two years?

The format and location of digital files is just one aspect of digital preservation that the Oireachtas Library is focussed on today. Since 2010 the library has digitised millions of pages of documents, books, maps, newspapers, and archival material dating from the 16th century, including the collection of documents laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas since 1922. We have been able to open up unique and distinctive collections to a global online audience.

As managers of the parliamentary procedure of laying documents, we also digitalised a century-old paper workflow, meaning that thousands of born digital files are now submitted to our repository by government departments and public agencies every year. Our digital repository of documents laid before the Houses is of vital importance not just for the work of parliament, but for the daily work of public servants, solicitors, journalists, and academic researchers throughout the country.

Other parliamentary units are undergoing a similar rapid digital revolution. Parliamentary output such as debates and proceedings are now primarily circulated and consumed in digital format. The first parliamentary archive is in development, which will hold an extensive collection of digitised and born digital files. The benefits for transparency, openness, accessibility, research, and innovation are clear. But how will we ensure the ongoing integrity of this data, the persistence of links, the successful migration from one system and storage medium to another?

The most important step for the library has been to form an internal digital preservation working group. From this base we have set out to identify and break down the barriers to action. We’ve embarked on a rapid upskilling of team members. We’ve joined the Digital Preservation Coalition and are already making significant use of their resources and training courses. We’re meeting with peers from neighbouring institutions to discuss their approaches to managing digital content. We attend webinars and share notes with each other.

We’re drafting our first ever digital preservation policy. We’ve compiled an action plan, prioritising tasks, and have already embarked on specific digital preservation projects in collaboration with our ICT unit and system suppliers. As information professionals, we have years of experience as collection managers, and we will advocate at the highest possible strategic level to promote an organisation-wide approach to digital preservation.

It has come around fast, and it is late in the evening for digital collections. But the Oireachtas Library is committed to responsible guardianship in the decades to come.

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