Monday, 2 October 2017

PASIG 17 conference - a few reflections

I am the recently appointed City of Culture Digital Archivist. This archive will seek to document Hull’s time as City of Culture in order for it to become a key part of the collective memory of the city and to inspire creativity and innovation for years to come. Largely digital in format, it will challenge us to develop new strategies, technologies and workflows for preserving and providing access to archival records. 

To assist with this, from 11th-13th September I attended the yearly meeting of the Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group (PASIG), hosted by the Bodleian Libraries & Digital Preservation at Oxford and Cambridge (DPOC) at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. PASIG is dedicated to advancing the practice of digital preservation and archiving.

Over the course of three days we were treated to more than 50 talks, panel sessions and vendor demos – so of course I won’t be summarising every single one! But there were certainly a few sessions that struck a particular chord with me that I’d like to talk about.

Oxford Museum of Natural History
Eduardo del Valle of the University of the Balearic Islands gave a talk about catastrophic data loss which served as a cautionary tale. Having lost 248GB of digitised files during a data migration, which amounted to three months scanning work on fragile, rare, unique books his university has now implemented Libsafe. This means that all NDSA levels of preservation are reached, providing the expectation that such a loss should not occur again.  He warned against taking assurances from IT services at face value and that it’s not worth taking risks with data as anything that can go wrong will go wrong! This talk underlined the usefulness of such standards as the NDSA levels of preservation and how they can provide a framework that protects valuable information.

Patricia Sleeman of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) gave what was, in my (and I think many others’) opinion, the standout talk of the conference. Opening her talk with a compelling video of the poet and activist Emi Mahmoud performing her poem “Head over Heels”, Patricia went on to speak with power and urgency about the crucial work of the UNHCR. When compared to the need to provide nutrition and shelter to displaced people it can seem hard to justify spending money on recordkeeping and archives, but as Patricia explained, the protection of culture and information is vital to the protection of a sense of humanity. Not only can the availability of authoritative and verifiable information assist in the battle against dangerous fake news, the preservation of cultural identities that oppressors have sought to destroy can help rebuild people, their lives and their memories. It was a sobering reminder that what we do is about more than bytes and boxes on shelves and that to loosely quote Patricia, “we have a right to be forgotten but we also have the right to be remembered”.

Whilst the conference covered a hugely diverse array of subjects, from storage trends to advocacy to certification and beyond, four overarching themes emerged to me:
  1. That in order to progress we must accept a degree of uncertainty. There is no way we can know the exact outcomes of new digital preservation activities before we try them – we mustn’t let that stop us though, as we can only learn by doing.
  2. Collaboration is key. Sharing insights and findings, successes and failures with the digital preservation community benefits us all immeasurably.
  3. It’s time to stop thinking about digital preservation and start doing digital preservation.
  4. We should be receptive to new ways of doing things. The archives profession has been comfortable with the ways of Hilary Jenkinson for nigh on 100 years – perhaps now is the time to be truly disruptive and start embracing new technologies such as machine reading and artificial intelligence.
It was great to learn so much about what is being achieved in the field of digital preservation internationally and to make contacts that I can hopefully collaborate with as we make progress with the City of Culture digital archives.

Laura Giles
City of Culture Digital Archivist

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