Sunday, 9 September 2018

Museums and Digital Memory

On Monday 3rd September, Chris Awre and I travelled to the British Museum to contribute to a conference titled Museums and Digital Memory which was a jointly organised by the British Museum and the Digital Preservation Coalition

Over 300 people attended which shows the level of appetite within museums to start getting to grips with digital preservation. Julie Allinson (lead developer at CoSector) and I presented a keynote paper introducing the City of Culture digital archive and talking about our journey towards a digital archive system then Chris and Steph Taylor (senior consultant at CoSector) lead a packed workshop about identifying paths and options to choosing a digital solution. 

Despite there being obvious alignments of value between archives, libraries and museums I have to admit that I didn’t know a lot about the inner workings of the museums sector. I was surprised to learn then, that museums are generally quite far behind the curve when it comes to digital preservation. 

Surprised because I had assumed that the conversations my own profession is always engaged in around how we ensure that future generations are able to access what is being created today would be reflected in the museums world - which after all has similar aims in capturing the way we live.

Surprised also as it’s plain to see when you visit museums that many are doing sterling work in finding creative and intelligent ways to improve access to their existing collections through digital means. There are clearly a lot of incredibly digitally literate people working in the sector but it would seem their skills have not yet been turned to preservation.  

There was a lot of talk throughout the day about digitisation. Digitisation is the process of scanning or otherwise capturing an analogue object so that you end up with a surrogate digital object (e.g. scanning a photographic print so that you have a jpeg file, or converting a VHS into a digital format such as mp4). This is a good way to ensure that that analogue original is handled less (especially if it’s something you expect a lot of people to access) and is therefore liable to last longer; however, we have to make sure we are always asking the question: how do we make sure that digital surrogates have any kind of longevity?

It is a sad fact that in the last 20 or so years (essentially since digitisation technologies have become more affordable and accessible) museums and archives have invested a truly monumental amount of time and money into digitisation projects but often with little strategy when it comes to preserving their output. 

I had an illuminating conversation at lunchtime with someone who has just started working at an institution that has done a lot of digitisation projects over the years. Their job now is to track down what had become of the output of these projects and implement a digital preservation solution. They are finding that hard drives used in 10-15 year old digitisation projects are failing (as we would expect - hard drives do not last forever) and are having to commission costly data retrieval as the contents weren’t even backed up at the point of creation. You have to admit there is a certain irony in memory institutions being so short sighted!

Julie presenting about the City of Culture collaboration
The good news is that museums don’t have to start from nothing: libraries and archives have been developing the field of digital preservation for a significant amount of time now and so there is a wealth of research and experience to draw upon. Digital preservation systems, once only found in national institutions are becoming more affordable and user-friendly and there is an established community who are more than happy to share expertise and advice. 

We received some really good feedback from other attendees and the conference organisers who were especially pleased with how we managed to deliver a presentation that was interesting to digital preservation old hands and newbies alike. We’re really proud of the work that has gone into the City of Culture digital archive so it was a great opportunity to share our enthusiasm and talk to others about how they could potentially go about tackling their own digital collections.  

There was appetite on the day for this conference to be repeated next year and I think it would be really interesting to find out what steps in implementing digital preservation attendees have taken by then.

Laura Giles
City of Culture Digital Archivist