Wednesday, 27 January 2016

What I Wish I Knew Before I Started: DPC Student Conference 2016

Senate House, London. Where the event was held.
Photo courtesy of Lorraine Murray, DPC (@Lorraine_DPC)
On the 22nd of January I attended the What I Wish I Knew Before I Started: DPC Student Conference 2016 at Senate House, London. This free event was primarily aimed at Archives students or those fresh to Digital Preservation like myself to give a bit of an introduction to the area and listen to some advice from experienced professionals who have worked around Digital Preservation and Digital Archives.

Digital Preservation Basics
The day started with an introduction from the DPC covering what the basis of Digital Preservation are and the seven main challenges that you are faced with when trying to plan for it.
  1. Starting can seem expensive, and it can be difficult to know how to start
  2. Digital Preservation systems can be complex and themselves become obsolete
  3. Capturing and access, it is essential to capture sufficient documentation
  4. Technology continues to change
  5. Storage media can fail and have a short life, they are also subject to obsolescence
  6. Digital Resources are intolerant to gaps
  7. Resources can be tampered without a trace

We then moved on to focus on what can be doing to help solve or at least mitigate these seven challenges. There were then two talks that covered some practical examples of Digital Preservation and the issues surrounding them. There was also a lot of time spent on what kinds of tools there are available to help and in what circumstances each one would be useful for.

Things I wish I knew before I started / What I actually do all day

Adrian Brown about to start the What I Wish I Knew section.
Photo courtesy of Lorraine Murray, DPC (@Lorraine_DPC)
The second half of the event was by a group of professionals working within the Digital Preservation field with each one covering what it is they wish that they had known before they got started as well as a little more about what they actually do in their jobs. There were some very interesting points brought up around various misconceptions that people can have around Digital Preservation for example the idea they you need to be a software programmer or equivalent in order to deal with digital preservation when in fact many of the skills that you have as an archivist are the same as what you will be doing simply in a different context. 

What the most common aspects of Digital Preservation that you would be dealing with if you did work in that field was also covered with some surprising points like the generally around 90 % of dealing with Digital Records is the ingest portion (from the OAIS model) and that there is plenty of automation to trying to deal with the quantity of records. Digital Archiving is mostly about risk management (and ideally prevention) but even then it is not all technology/ format obsolescence there is also the security, access and control of the records that you have responsibility for.

Key Lessons
There are several key lessons that I have taken away from the event:

-Digital Preservation is not backing up.
While this is something that professionals are very much aware of it nonetheless can be a point that is difficult to convey to other parts of an organisation. So this is something that is going to come up repeatedly, just backing up a file does not mean that it is preserved there is far more to it than that.

-Innovation does not always need to be large, but lots of smaller ones do add up.
I think this idea is that by making lots of smaller innovations they will eventually add up into a large one instead of spending a vast amount of time and effort preparing for big change from the get go.

-Doing something even if it is only a little is better than nothing. Don’t get preservation paralysis.
This ties in with the previous key lesson in many ways, with Digital Preservation it can be very easy to look at some of the larger operations and realise that there is no way that you can have the policy, time or resources in place to equal what they can do. So sometimes you can find yourself in a kind of paralysis where you spend so much time trying to get everything to a level that you would consider comparable when in actual fact the entire time simply doing something would have been far more effective. As a professional you are not always going to have the budget, resources and time needed to get it perfect so instead just get it started and try to get it as right as possible along the way.

-Breakdown is an inevitability – mitigate the risk
The technology behind many digital archives is not going to last forever and when we’re storing things on the same type of media that we are trying to preserve this is something that we need to be aware of. Bit corruption, physical decay or even a complete hardware failure will eventually render some data unreadable. But as a Digital Preservation specialist you need to have plans in place to mitigate and avoid these problems as much as possible even if you can’t stop them completely. There is also the idea that this is not just referring to the actual archives themselves but also to the systems that we have in place to protect them.

-Connect not collect
This was something that came up as an interesting idea of what the future of digital preservation and digital archives may bring. In some cases as an organisation or an individual you may be unable to collect the relevant information. For example a collection you manage has a website that you have no way of storing appropriately so instead it can be worthwhile to instead link to somewhere else that can and has already done so if you know about it. For websites this could be the Internet Archive with the waybackmachine or even the British Library web archive if it happens to have a domain. This is an interesting idea when you consider how archives traditionally function, but having the information be digital does allow for this kind of connectivity and may be something that comes up more commonly as we move forward.
The speakers at the round table at the end. (Left to Right) Sharon McMeekin, DPC (@SharonMcMeekin), Helen Hockx-Yu, Internet Archives, (@hhockx) Dave Thompson, Wellcome Collection (@d_n_t) Steph Taylor, ULCC (@CriticalSteph) Adrian Brown, Paliamentary Archives (@realAdrianBrown) Matthew Addis, Arkivum (@Arkivum) Glenn Cumiskey, British Museum (@GlennCumiskey).
Photo courtesy of Lorraine Murray, DPC (@Lorraine_DPC)

Overall I found the event to be incredibly fascinating, there were plenty more key lessons and case studies that I just don’t have the space to mention in this blog post which I will definitely keep in mind as I start my Digital Preservation journey at the Hull History Centre. I think with a subject like this it can be very easy to discuss the ideas and concepts but to actually have someone who has worked with Digital Archiving and Digital Materials in that manner talk about their own experiences and what they actually do on a day to day basis really helps for a beginner like myself to understand a little better. 

One last idea that I will remember from the talks is just how much was impressed upon me that when it comes to something like this that there is nothing wrong with asking for help, and these days twitter seems to be the medium or choice for archivists. So if you do have a question don’t be afraid to to take it to twitter and ask people. I most definitely recommend and I would like to thank all of the speakers and staff who gave their time for it. I’ll be interesting to see how they match it with What I Wish I Knew 2017!

David Heelas
Transforming Archives Trainee

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