John Pelan

John Pelan

Last updated on 3 November 2021

John Pelan is the Director of the Scottish Council on Archives

The digital archives of community groups were added to the DPC’s Bit List under ‘Critically Endangered’ in 2019 due to a number of identified aggravating conditions. These included: poor documentation; lack of continuity funding; dependence on small number of volunteers, conflation of backup with preservation; and distrust of official agencies, e.g., local authorities and national collecting bodies.

If you throw into this mix, lack of expertise and confidence with technology and terminology, as well as the average age of community group members, it is not too difficult to envisage the conditions for data vulnerability and loss. This data can sometimes reflect years of work which, due to computer failure or reliance on one volunteer, can be lost in an instant. Community groups are very aware of this risk and ask for support and guidance in how to manage and protect their digital assets, much of it in the form of images, audio and video files.

My organisation, the Scottish Council on Archives, appointed a community engagement officer in 2018, whose work has involved running training sessions in all aspect of archives for community groups, including digitisation and digital preservation. During these sessions it was clear that many groups were struggling to know where to start with their collections, which could encompass a range of assets including artefacts, paper documents, books, digital and printed photographs, and oral history recordings. We have emphasised the importance of cataloguing collections properly, using a template with, at least, the mandatory fields as set out in ISAD(G). SCA is exploring the possibility of creating a basic spreadsheet template which groups can use. The main benefit of this will be that the descriptions can be exported, if preferred, to an external portal, e.g., the new resource which SCA is developing to aggregate collection and item-level descriptions from repositories across Scotland. Your Scottish Archives will launch in late 2022.

However, cataloguing is only part of the issue, particularly in relation to born-digital records which many groups are now struggling to manage. It is all very well to have a properly catalogued collection of digital photographs or oral history recordings but if the assets are only stored on someone’s PC at home, then when either the PC or the holder ‘retires, all is lost.

Understandably, the volunteers within community groups can feel daunted by the responsibility of looking after their digital archives. This sense of helplessness can lead to inaction and lack of ownership of the problem. One of the barriers (reflecting the Breaking Down Barriers theme of WDPD2021) is, undoubtedly, the terminology used by the digital preservation community. I was very fortunate to have been able to attend the 2019 iPres conference in Amsterdam but, although I really enjoyed it, I struggled to understand much of what was been discussed and presented. While use of technical jargon is fine for professionals working in the sector, it is extremely off-putting for anyone who doesn’t. For older representatives of community groups, words and phrases like checksums, lossless compression, MIME, XML and Open Archival Information System will only result in blank faces, glazed eyes and suppressed yawns.

Even the term ‘digital preservation’ doesn’t mean very much to most people. If we can find a simple way of communicating the importance of digital preservation to these lay audiences then there is more chance of the message sticking.  For example, you could say, ‘you have a wonderful collection which is of huge interest to your local community. Let us help you catalogue and manage it, so that everyone can access and enjoy it for many years to come.’ ‘Just as importantly, let’s discuss how we can protect your digital photographs, oral history recordings and other scanned documents and explore the options for depositing them with an official repository such as your local authority archive.’

The task and the technology are complex, but the method and the message don’t have to be.

Scroll to top