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.

 

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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.

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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!

 

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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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This year I collaborated with Chris Fryer of Northumberland Estates on a project under the auspices of the Jisc’s SPRUCE funding. It’s ended up as a case study, and it’s an assessment of available digital preservation solutions. The main aim was to build outputs that would have value to smaller organisations, who intend to implement digital preservation on a limited budget; Chris in particular wanted something aligned very closely to his own business case, and local practices.

We believe that the methodology we used on this project, if not the actual deliverables, will have some reuse value for other small organisations. There are four useful outputs in our toolkit:

  1. A requirements shopping list – a specification of what the chosen system would have to do
  2. An assessment form – the same shopping list, expressed as a scored checklist to assess a system
  3. Example(s) of assessments of real-world solutions
  4. A very simple self-assessment form for scoring organisational preparedness for digital preservation, based on ISO 16363.

The Requirements Deliverable is essentially a “shopping list” of what the chosen system has to do to perform digital preservation. It was built from a combination of:

1. The OAIS standard (somewhat selectively)
2. US National Library of Medicine 2007 specification
3. Suggestions sent by Jen Mitcham (Digital Archivist at the University of York), QA supplier to the project

We wanted to keep the specification concise, manageable and realistic so that it would meet the immediate business needs of Northumberland Estates, while also adhering to best practice. The project team agreed that it was not necessary to adhere to every last detail of OAIS compliance. This approach might horrify purists, but it worked in this context.

The Assessment Form deliverable is a recasting of the requirements document into a form that could be used for assessing a preservation solution. We added a simple scoring range, and a weighted score methodology to add weight to the “essential” requirements.

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