To celebrate World Digital Preservation Day on 29 November, the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) hosted the monthly meetup for the Australasia Preserves community of practice, supported by AARNet.
The speakers were Jaye Weatherburn, Data Stewardship Coordinator at the University of Melbourne and Dr Ross Harvey, adjunct professor at Monash University, Melbourne, co-authors of Preserving Digital Materials, 3rd ed. (2018). They were joined by Gerald Preiss, Manager of Preservation Digitisation, Audiovisual Media at AIATSIS.
Gerald Priess gave detailed insights into the substantial audio and video digitization effort at AIATSIS. Much of this collection is not held elsewhere, the product of its research program over decades.
Gerald described methods used to stabilise and prepare tape media that is fragile and deteriorating, and the dependency on diverse playback equipment maintained by the Institute. Fragility of the tape often allows only a one-time opportunity to digitize. AIATSIS has established principles and practices to ensure care in the assessment, preparation and processing of the physical media through the digitization workflow.
Jaye Weatherburn’s theme was digital preservation for everyone: “not just for the biggest, well-resourced institutions but finding ways to support those who don’t have the means or ability to fully support the preservation of their digital assets”.
Jaye emphasised the importance of a shared language for digital preservation to encourage a unified workforce in an organisation across a wide variety of people and skills required to effectively preserve digital assets. She emphasised collaboration as one of the most important strategies to improve the practice.
Jaye also discussed the needs for sustainable digital preservation and proposed that long-term stewardship is beyond the capacity of small to medium cultural heritage organisations and that even large organisations have trouble scaling their operations.
She shared examples from Denmark and the Netherlands of how collaboration and sharing have made digital preservation at small archives possible, living up to established practices while being economically feasible.
Jaye offered other examples of tools, guidelines and education to support individuals and community-based archives:
Jaye concluded with “there is no perfection and no universal standard” for digital preservation, and that doing something is always better than doing nothing. She referred to the Digital Preservation Business Case toolkit and the tiered recommendations of the NDSA Levels of Digital Preservation as good starting points for organisations.
Ross Harvey defined digital preservation as “how to manage material in digital form for use in the future” and expanded on Jaye’s theme, suggesting that current practice is too overwhelming or threatening for many individuals and organisations, even unrealistic and unable to scale up to deal with growing quantities of material.
While asking if we have been doing digital preservation wrong, Ross proposed that “new ideas are coming from people new to the field who bring new ways of thinking, who challenge the received wisdom, who are brave enough to experiment”.
He notes that for the first time it’s possible to purchase effective digital preservation systems that have been developed in collaboration with vendors and customers. However, he warned that many tools, systems and practices take little account of the reality of most organisations, particularly in terms of resourcing and access to infrastructure.
Ross advocates for the need to go back to basics and asks “who is it for?” He suggests that our current understanding of best practice is unrealistic and unaffordable and urged us to fully embrace parsimonious preservation: “A series of small, simple and affordable steps [that] can be taken by institutions to ensure the long-term survival of vital digital data.” He emphasised the imminent threat of poor capture of digital material and the importance of safe and secure storage.
He advises that bad habits that have developed as the digital preservation field has matured and challenged the value in committing time and resources to maintain these efforts. As an example, he pointed to the increased ease of emulating an original software stack as a viable preservation strategy to counter format obsolescence.
Ross offered some advice to get started on sustainable digital preservation and notes that the aims of digital preservation will change, more people will participate and the places where preservation occurs will expand, for example involving activist and community organisations.
In closing, Ross put forward a call to action to start now by engaging new and diverse stakeholders and promoting collaboration. His proposal for the future is that durable digital objects be created with preservation actions baked in, rather than something added after the fact.
The questions he asks challenge established practices and the work of institutions. He advocates a back-to-basics refit: “a mindset change is needed … where all people who create data are the primary actors in digital preservation, not just the big organisations”.
World Digital Preservation Day is an initiative of the Digital Preservation Coalition, held on the last Thursday of every November to create greater awareness of digital preservation that will translate into a wider understanding which permeates all aspects of society – business, policy making, personal good practice.
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