In September this year Dave Thompson of the Wellcome Library asked a question by Twitter, one which is highly relevant to digital preservation practice and learning skills. Addressing digital archivists and librarians, he asked: “Do we need to be able to do all ourselves, or know how to ask for what is required?”

My answer is “we need to do both”…and I would add a third thing to Dave’s list. We also need to understand enough of what is happening when we get what we ask for, whether it’s a system, tool, application, storage interface, or whatever.

Personally, I’ve got several interests here. I’m a traditional archivist (got my diploma in 1992 or thereabouts) with a strong interest in digital preservation, since about 2004. I’m also a tutor on the Digital Preservation Training Programme.

As an archivist wedded to paper and analogue methods, for some years I was fiercely proud of my lack of IT knowledge. Whenever forced to use IT, I found I was always happier when I could open an application, see it working on the screen, and experiment with it until it does what I want it to do. On this basis, for example, I loved playing around with the File Information Tool Set (FITS).

When I first managed to get some output from FITS, it was like I was seeing the inside of a file format for the first time. I could see tags and values of a TIFF file, some of which I was able to recognise as those elusive “significant properties” you hear so much about. So this is what they look like! From my limited understanding of XML – which is what FITS outputs into – I knew that XML was structured and could be stored in a database. That meant I’d be able to store those significant properties as fields in a database, and interrogate them. This would give me the intellectual control that I used to relish with my old card catalogues in the late 1980s. I could see from this how it would be possible to have “domain” over a digital object.

There’s a huge gap, I know, between me messing around on my desktop and the full functionality of a preservation system like Preservica. But with exercises like the above, I feel closer to the goal of being able to “ask for what is required”, and more to the point, I could interpret the outputs of this functionality to some degree. I certainly couldn’t do everything myself, but I want to feel that I know enough about what’s happening in those multiple “black boxes” to give me the confidence I need as an archivist that my resources are being preserved correctly.

With my DPTP tutor hat on, I would like to think it’s possible to equip archivists, librarians and data managers with the same degree of confidence; teaching them “just enough” of what is happening in these complex processes, at the same time translating machine code into concrete metaphors that an information professional can grasp and understand. In short, I believe these things are knowable, and archivists should know them. Of course it’s important that the next step is to open a meaningful discussion with the developer, data centre manager, or database engineer (i.e. “ask for what is required”), but it’s also important to keep that dialogue open, to go on asking, to continue understanding what these tools and systems are doing. There is a school of thought that progress in digital preservation can only be made when information professionals and IT experts collaborate more closely, and I would align myself with that.


It’s Open Access Week ( hashtag – #OAWeek2014 ) and around the world everyone is talking about the importance of sharing, of re-use and of people having free access to content. Although it started as a movement focused on scholarly publications, Open Access as a concept has made big waves. The move from paper to online has made the possibility of much greater openness attainable. Since the first Open Access Week took place in 2009, the movement has developed to promote the benefits of sharing in academia far beyond scholarly publications, to include research data and teaching and learning resources.

So what role, in all this excitement of sharing and re-use and collaboration, does digital preservation play? A very central one, we would say. Peter Subar’s definition is a good place to start -

“Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions

OA removes price barriers (subscriptions, licensing fees, pay-per-view fees) and permission barriers (most copyright and licensing restrictions)”

- but to keep something digital and online, that something needs to be part of a well-managed digital preservation programme. Putting it out there is only half of the job. Deciding what content stays available, and for how long, and how digital content will continue to be accessible over time is fundamental to the ongoing success of the OA movement.Without digital preservation taking place, content can become inaccessible over time as file formats change, as hardware needed to view the content becomes obsolete – for any number of reasons that can damage content or make it inaccessible over time. So, digital preservation has a role in keeping OA content in an open and accessible state after the initial publication.

Digital preservation also has an important role to play before content is published in an OA way. Content is created, and that content needs to be preserved so that it can become open and accessible. If a researcher, for example, has created research data as part of a research project, then written a research paper based upon that data, intending to share their entire research output under Open Access, there is usually a period of time before both are ‘live’ and publicly published. Making sure that all research outputs are managed well from a digital preservation perspective is crucial. Without digital preservation taking place, digital objects can and do become inaccessible. To be able to open up content as Open Access, that content needs, by definition,  to be accessible. A desire to share will not overcome such issues as bit rot,  file corruption, content that can only now be viewed on unavailable software or any of the other many ways that digital objects can become inaccessible and/or degenerate over time.

The theme of the OA Week for 2014 is Generation Open. So this seems like the perfect year to raise a awareness of  digital preservation and how it supports and underpins the aspirations of the Open Access movement. If you’d like to know more about digital preservation, there are some useful resources out online. We’ve compiled a short list if some key resources, below, which you might find useful.

This blog is a good place to start, and we also run training courses in digital preservation, catering for the beginner with our ‘Introduction to Digital Preservation’ course and to the more experienced practitioner with our ’Practice of Digital Preservation’ course, running in November and December 2014 respectively.

The Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC), is a membership organisation that supports digital preservation. Their site is a wealth of information on all things digital preservation, including Tech Watch Reports, news, training and even jobs (if you get carried away!),  this is a great starting point. UK-based, they have members from all over the world.

The Open Preservation Foundation (OPF), is another international organisation. They support and open community around digital preservation and have useful information on tools, training and software and community events. Most useful when you have some basic knowledge of the subject.

The SPRUCE Project was a collaboration between the University of Leeds, the British Library, the Digital Preservation Coalition, the London School of Economics, and the Open Preservation Foundation, co-funded by Jisc. The aim was to bring together a community to support digital preservation in the UK. Although the project ended in November 2013, a live wiki brings together the top project outputs (all open, of course), including a Digital Preservation Business Case Toolkit and a community-owned Digital Preservation Tool Registry.

The Digital Curation Centre (DCC) is a centre of expertise in the curation of digital information. This is the go-to place for all your research data preservation needs, with useful case studies, how-to guides and training courses in this area.

For some tips and information on how the ‘big guys’ manage digital preservation, check out the British Library’s digital preservation strategy, which includes some useful links as well as the strategy itself, and ‘Preserving Digital Collections’ from The National Archives has lots of good information on digital preservation, including FAQs.

Enjoy Open Access Week 2014, and remember that sharing starts and ends with good digital preservation!

Watching Melissa Terras’s inaugural lecture on a Decade of Digital Humanities at UCL this evening made me think about the first time I engaged academic endeavours in the field. Courtesy of the Web Archive, here is a report I wrote after attending my first tip academic (or para-academic) conference, Digital Resources in the Humanities, at Glasgow University, September 1998. It was originally published online in the National Digital Archive of Datasets (NDAD) Newsletter No. 4, November 1998.

On September 9th I travelled with Ruth Vyse, the University Archivist, and John Ralph, ULCC’s Computing Services manager, to Glasgow to attend DRH98, the third annual conference on Digital Resources in the Humanities. The conference was hosted by the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute at Glasgow University, and ran from Thursday 10th to Saturday 12th September. The conference focused on the use of digital technology to preserve our cultural heritage, and as such featured a wide variety of presentations about work going on in, and on behalf of, schools and colleges, museums and libraries, publishers and research organisations, mainly in the fields of the Arts and Social Sciences.

We were particularly interested to learn about developments in cataloguing data collections and providing access to computerized catalogues, and to hear what approaches and standards were being used in other large data storage systems.

A number of presentations were given by the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS), including a reception to launch their new web site on the Thursday evening. Of particular interest were the presentation of the recent AHDS report, Creating and Preserving Digital Collections, and presentations on the work of the History Data Service and the UK Data Archive at Essex University.

Also of interest was a TV film, Into the Future: On the Presentation of Knowledge in the Electronic Age, made for the US Public Broadcasting Service by Terry Saunders. It succinctly presented many important issues surrounding the preservation of digital data (but, perhaps invevitably, it was less forthcoming with answers to the problems). In one example, the film showed how the condition of magnetic tapes containing data from NASA’s Viking Mars Lander missions of the 70s and 80s had deteriorated to the point where many were unreadable. In the following discussion, Neal Beagrie from AHDS emphasised that the fragility of computer media, and the speed of technological change made early intervention essential for the preservation of digital records. Our work with the PRO and government departments has made the NDAD project team all too well aware of this issue.

It was encouraging to note that a number of well-supported standards and effective techniques are emerging for digital archives: in some cases this means that multiple catalogues on diverse systems can be searched with a single query. Most presentations concerned systems that were accessible, completely or in part, via the World Wide Web, indicating that the Web has quickly become a preferred medium of access to such resources. An ever growing array of digital resources, including databases, text, images, audio and video, is readily accessible by users at every level, from school-children to statisticians: the challenge for designers of such systems is to provide access tools and methods appropriate to their target audience.

Although NDAD did not make a presentation at DRH98, reference was made to other work that NDAD staff have been directly involved in, including Project Earl (networking UK public libraries) and the British Library’s Electronic Beowulf, which Charles Henry of Rice University spoke warmly of in his capstone lecture The Fire In Grendel’s Eye. We hope to make a presentation on aspects of the NDAD system at next year’s conference, DRH99, which will be hosted by King’s College London.

The conference organisation was superb, and delegates were impressed with the facilities of the Gilmorehill Centre and the ancient University of Glasgow. The Welcome Reception took place in the University’s Hunterian Museum, amongst impressive relics of Scotland’s past, including Roman milestones and the death mask of Bonnie Prince Charlie. On the final night, a civic reception by the Lord Provost of Glasgow was followed by a meal of traditional Scottish fare (Scotch broth, haggis and salmon) and ceilidh, all in the magnificent surroundings of the city’s Kelvingrove Museum . In our few spare moments we also took the opportunity to visit the Hunterian Art Gallery, with its reconstruction of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s house and large collection of Whistler paintings, and enjoyed the chance to travel on the “clockwork orange”, Glasgow’s underground railway. In all aspects of the Conference, the Glasgow organising committee set a very high standard: King’s College unbdoubtedly has a hard act to follow.



Two members of the ART team, Ed Pinsent and Steph Taylor will be attending this DPC event at the National Archives on 4th April 2014. The day is designed, as the name suggests, to help people who are just starting to work with digital preservation. It will be held at The National Archives in Kew. The Digital Preservation Coalition have put together a great programme to introduce the concepts of digital preservation. It includes useful ‘start up’ insights into tools, risk assessment and preservation planning. Some interesting case studies are also included, which will help to put it all into context.

Ed will be speaking about preservation planning, and we’ll be making his slides available after the event.

We’re also hoping to have chance to talk to people new to digital preservation and find out more about what kind of support and training they will be needing as they advance with their work in this area. We’re keen to listen to potential new delegates for the Digital Preservation Training Programme and to make sure we continue to create courses and workshops that will meet the needs of the digital preservation community. So please come up and say hello, and have a chat about your work to us.

Check back on Monday for a more detailed blog post about the day.

Photo by Ewan Munro , via Flickr & used under CC License, with thanks.


Here at DPTP, we like to keep things focused on the practical. The idea behind all our modules, all the talks and exercises and discussions, is to give delegates the tools they need to tackle digital preservation (DP) back in the real world, outside the cosy DPTP classroom. So day three started off by looking at some very real challenges  - the costs of  DP and the risks of preserving (or indeed, not preserving) digital objects.

Money is a tricky business. Putting a value on DP is a very slippery task. The difficulties were brilliantly demonstrated by Sharon McMeekin of the  DPC, who used her mobile phone, the physical object, the data it contained and the technological tools it stores, to illustrate the huge impact, and associated costs, that can come from losing digital assets. Sharon tackled the thorny issue of business cases and building a strong case for DP within an organisation. Delegates were very keen to try out the ideas, applying them to their own organisation and preparing themselves to start up an informed conversation with senior management and other stakeholders back at base,

Sharon also covered the risks associated with DP, including the often overlooked risk of doing nothing. Delegates worked through a variety of scenarios, scoring risks, applying risk management strategies and then re-assessing the remaining risks after they had taken action. Bit rot seemed to feature as a high for two groups, who may have been as enamoured by the name as they were concerned about the risk. As with day one, delegates worked calmly through various ‘panic’ situations and learned how to handle them with confidence. Intervention saved the day, and DP stepped up to the challenge and saved, among others,  imaginary content on VHS tapes and the original copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (we obviously have a team of Douglas Adams fans among the delegates this time).

The final afternoon session was all about creative destruction. Here at DPTP, we firmly believe that you only truly understand something when you’ve broken it. With that in mind, delegates set about breaking the OAIS model we had all come to know and love since day one. Taking a real-life organisation and assessing OAIS against the current situation in that organisation with regard to digital preservation tested the model to the max. The aim was to break it. But to break it in such a way that it became a useful tool – one that could be adapted and changed. This broken, or, less dramatically, the evolved model would be much more useful in showing the highly individual situations that delegates would face when back at their desks, working in diverse organisations with very different needs and at very different stages of engaging with digital preservation.

Working in three teams, our participants took three real-life case studies and assessed them against the OAIS model. The feedback showed some very interesting outcomes, with delegates identifying gaps in the case studies where DP could be ‘broken’ – that is, where the DP cycle would not work smoothly, and were risks loomed large. These gaps were then bridged using the OAIS model as a starting point. Some gaps were created by internal processes and systems whereas others were more to do with planning that hadn’t included the entire DP scenario from start to finish. Although the teams couldn’t offer immediate fixes for everything, by identifying the problems and risk areas in each case study using everything they had learned over the past three days, they were able to suggest useful ways forward in each instance.

Participants had come to DPTP for many different reasons and were engaging with digital preservation at many different stages of development. This final exercise was a great showcase for the hard work they had all put into the work, and illustrated just how much they had learned about tools, techniques and strategies to take back to their own preservation projects.

The image above shows one of my favourite moments of the final exercise – the Queen Anne-style interpretation of the digital preservation three-legged stool!


Blog DPTP2

The second day of the Digital Preservation Training Programme (DPTP) was homework day. Delegates had prepared short presentations about a wide variety of digital preservation (DP) tools. With delegates being given a tool each on day one, we were able to cover 23 tools. Day two also saw us continuing to explore the OAIS model and also to look at rights management – the legal part of DP which often requires management of all kinds of rights in connection to the rights of both producers of content.

Fortunately, no dogs ate any homework, and we had a lively session learning about DP tools. Tools are not just technical systems or applications. At their most basic level, they are anything that help with the task of digital preservation, such as models like OAIS as well as more obvious applications that help with check sums and other DP tasks. There is even a board game, to help ease the pain of meticulous DP planning! The session started with ‘pin the tool on the OAIS model’, where delegates used post-it notes to show where exactly the tools they had researched would best fit in. It was great to hear the feedback from individual delegates who had assessed their tools in great detail. Some useful guidelines grew out of the session which could be applied to any DP tool you might consider using.

Our collective top five guiding questions were -

  • How much does the tool cost?
  • If there is a cost, is this a one-off payment or does it involve regular renewal payments?
  • Is the tool active and in use, with an active user community around it? (particularly important for free tools)
  • Would the tool save time and/or money?
  • Would this tool be compatible with existing systems being used?

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