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.