Digital preservation – some reflections

Digital preservation scenarios

Some personal reflections

One of the downsides of being freelance is having no collections to work-on. Working with a range of clients does bring exposure to multiple situations that often have more in common than you’d expect. To broadly summarise my experiences, to date can I present two scenarios: 

Scenario 1: Services with lots of digital content 

When I went freelance in February 2020 (see New Beginnings post) I hoped there would be a number of organisations needing assistance with digital preservation. I have been fortunate to support colleagues in both local authority and university archive services who have a growing collection of digital content and need guidance on how to begin their digital preservation journey. Such efforts are often driven by the need to demonstrate progress under Archive Service Accreditation.

The rollout of the Novice to Know-How online course in April 2020, coinciding with the covid-19 lockdown, provided a huge opportunity for colleagues to increase their awareness and familiarity with key concepts and terminology. I initially thought this would reduce demand for my services – but this has not been the case. More people are now more familiar with digital preservation, but often lack the confidence to take their first steps. A key tool I use to bridge this gap and provided support for clients is the DPC-RAM self-assessment. Inviting them to complete this exercise and to identify their current position, future ambitions and the issues as they see it creates a crucial baseline and  also serves as an excellent conversation-starter.

Scenario 2: Services with little digital content

Something I have noticed in working with clients in recent months (I am sure it was already the case, and I just hadn’t picked-up on it) is the importance of records retention schedules. In discussing with some archives services who are aware of the need to develop digital preservation capability, we often consider the transfer (or not) of material to the archives. On more than one occasion I have found that the existence of a retention schedule on the institution’s website is no guarantee to their implementation, let alone transferring appropriate material for permanent preservation.

These situations require a two-pronged approach – preparing the archives to receive digital material AND advocating records retention across the institution. Showing the relationship between these two aspects and the benefits and impact to the institution requires patience and deployment of full advocacy skills!

Fundamentals

Key to both approaches is the demystification of digital preservation. It is complicated when you start to think about the specifics surrounding the permanent preservation of critical digital content from a range of sources and file formats. Alongside tools like DROID and DPC-RAM and collating details about digital material in a digital asset register are two other fundamental aspects; aligning possible approaches to existing archival practice – for example cataloguing at series level is commonplace with bundles of letters and simply talking about digital preservation – why it is important that we do something now. 

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