Blog: DAH student Orla Egan reflects on the DPC Student Conference

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On 22 January 2016, UCC DAH student Orla Egan attended the Digital Preservation Coalition’s annual Student Conference, facilitated by a scholarship granted by the DAH programme and the Digital Repository of Ireland. In this blog post, Orla reflects on the conference and its relevance to her experience as a Digital Humanities student.


Entering the Digital Preservation arena can be scary – it is a place full of “fancy words and acronym bingo.” (Sharon McMeekin)  However, the DPC 2016 Student Conference ‘What I Wish I Knew Before I Started’ offered some reassurance. Speaker after speaker stressed the fact that you don’t need to know everything, that it is impossible to be an expert in every aspect of digital preservation and that no-one has all the answers.  Collaboration is the key – asking questions, sharing information and learning from failures as well as successes.

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Steph Taylor

Collaboration and information sharing are particularly important as digital preservation is a fast evolving and changing field. As Steph Taylor from ULCC,  put it: “It will all change.  You learn useful things, but it all changes. It is fast moving and changing all the time.” Her advice is to just do it, get started and have a go. “Don’t wait for perfection; you learn a lot from failure as well as from success.” Learn basic technical skills and play: “It should be fun, not scary.” And share what you are doing so that we all continue to learn from one another.

It is important, however, to think critically about models and approaches to Digital Preservation.  As Steph Taylor cautioned: “One size doesn’t fit all.  It might not work for you or your project even if it is good.” You have to judge what is the best approach for you depending on a number of factors, including your content, what is available to you in terms of staff and resources and what your users want.  You have to remember, however, that Digital Preservation is not just backing up!!!!

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Matthew Addis

Similarly Matthew Addis from Arkivum emphasised that what the big organisations can do isn’t necessarily what you are in a position to do. He warned that Preservation Envy (not being able to do what the big guys do) can lead to Preservation Paralysis, which can lead to Digital Data Dereliction! Explore what you can do now, even with meager resources – be thrifty. The sooner you start the better as the longer you leave it, the more expensive and harder it becomes. He recommends Parsimonious Preservation – based on the paper by Tim Gollins “Parsimonious preservation: preventing pointless processes! (The small simple steps that take digital preservation a long way forward)”  In this paper Tim Gollins states that “By applying the principle of parsimony to digital preservation, institutions can find ways forward that are incremental, manageable and affordable, and which achieve the goal of securing our digital heritage for the next generation.”

Matthew Addis recommended that you start small and move up, do the basics first and move on. You need to know what you have got, and keep it safe. He recommended a number of tools and resources that can help. Data Asset Framework provides assistance and tools to help organisations to audit and manage their research data assets. DROID is a software tool developed by the National Archives to perform automated batch identification of file formats. Exactly is a tool which will generate checksums and enables the safe storage and transfer of digital data. Archivematica provides open-source software tools that allows users to process digital objects from ingest to access – a one-stop shop! Arkivum provides a range of data archiving services and supports for projects with a budget to pay for it.

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‘Practical Digital Preservation’ by Adrian Brown

Adrian Brown, author of the popular and practical handbook Practical Digital Preservation, noted that digital records are hugely diverse and that they often don’t come in nice, standard, complete, discrete packages; the challenge then is how to make sense of them.  He pointed out that Ingest accounts for up to 90% of digital repository activity – getting the data in and understanding it. Characterisation is a key task – understanding what you have got. Metadata should be kept as simple as possible. Adrian emphasised that digital preservation is not just (or mainly) about technology – it is also about people, processes and policies.  There is no one right way to do digital preservation – you have to find what works best for you and your project.

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Glenn Cumiskey

Glenn Cumiskey from the British Museum stressed the need to build the human, technical and knowledge infrastructure needed to support the important digital resources that we are working with.  Don’t be afraid, he advised, as no-one knows everything about digital preservation: support networks and collaborations are important. He highlighted the importance of developing your soft skills, your communication skills, in order to get buy-in and support from managers and key decision makers and also to be able to effectively engage with user communities.

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Helen Hockx-Yu

Helen Hockx-Yu‘s advice was to remember that you can’t be a perfectionist; you have to do the best you can and keep learning.  It is challenging, but is rewarding when you come up with a solution.

Ann MacDonald, University of Kent Archivist, emphasised the benefits of connections and collaborations between collections and archives. She advised that you “connect to other collections when you can’t collect yourself.”

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Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson, Wellcome Collection, advised “Preservation by a thousand little actions.  Preservation is not a single thing;  it is the summation of 1000s of little things we do every day.” We need to be clear about what we are doing and why: “With purpose and passion comes clarity.”  We need to ask questions:  what is being preserved, for whom, what materials, why?  We need to use our imagination: imagine how the data will be used.

Data is used by people: Digital preservation is a social activity, not just about technology.  “Digital preservation is not a technical problem, it is a social opportunity.”  Dave Thompson stressed that you need to make your data sociable – available in ways that it can be widely used, and in forms that it can be widely used, and with clarity about the right to use it.  His advice was to try to make the steps for preservation an easy activity so that it will be done and is not too much of a burden.

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Senate House, London

The key messages emerging from the conference are to link in and keep learning. There are lots of resources and training available to help with this process. Twitter was advocated as a useful means to keep up to date on an ever-changing field. You could join the Digital Preservation Coalition and engage in their various events and access their resources. The DPC Technology Watch provides a useful way to track developments in the digital preservation field.  And the Digital Preservation Handbook provides an overview of the key elements of digital preservation. DigCurV provides a curriculum framework for training in digital curation. The University of London Computer Centre are offering a free online course in OAIS.

In the Irish context, the Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI) offers a wide range of supports and resources for digitisation projects. For example, Caring for Digital Content identifies exemplars of international repositories, repository projects and organisations with expertise in the management of digital data. The Guide to Choosing Content Management Technologies helps organisations and projects decide which management system is right for them. First Steps in Digital File Transfer and Storage provides a step-by-step guide to this process. The DRI Guide to using Dublin Core is valuable for anyone using this internationally recognised metadata standard. DRI also produces a growing body of valuable Factsheets and How-to guides, including information on file formats and long-term preservation.

At times I felt like an interloper at the DPC 2016 Student Conference, What I Wish I Knew Before I Started – it seemed to be geared primarily for students on archival courses.  There were barely a handful of DAH (Digital Arts and Humanities) students in the room! I also felt that it would have been more beneficial to have had more time and opportunity for discussion and engagement rather than a day full of papers and presentations. Yet I came away with a head full of useful advice and links to further information and resources.  Sincere thanks to the Digital Repository of Ireland and the DAH PhD programme for the scholarship which enabled me to attend the conference.

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