Friday, August 27, 2010

International scope

I mentioned 'market demands' for digital asset management (I'm going to bite the bullet and start calling it DAM from now on), as well as my interest in international cultural heritage and development, so it seemed worthwhile to get rolling with an examination of these related topics.

At a conference on The State of Digital Preservation: An International Perspective which took place in Washington, DC in 2002, 'international' seemed to be limited to the EU and Australia, outside of the United States. This was probably a reflection of those institutions employing best practice in digital preservation at the time, but since then, digital preservation has expanded exponentially; digitisation projects seem to be taking place almost everywhere, from the Tibetan Digital Library Project creating copies of endangered Tibetan manuscripts in India, Nepal and Bhutan, to the Afghanistan Digital Libraries (see below) and World Digital Library. Concurrently, internet usage has become as free and widespread as ever, providing the digital preservation community with one of its greatest challenges: the preservation of the world's web content.

The demand for digital assets in the developed world seems clear enough, and the digital influence on education is especially noteworthy, where even US higher education institutions are seen to be falling behind in digital provision for students (though I don't think that I can pass up the opportunity to highlight an example from the opposite end of the spectrum: the Boston prep school that removed all of its books in favour of digital learning). But what use is DAM elsewhere, such as in countries with a developing digital infrastructure?

As a starting point, a lot can be done right here to enhance cultural relations, and one project that I witnessed recently that was particularly exciting was the Islamic Heritage Project managed by Stephen Chapman of Harvard College Libraries, with the support of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia. This provides free access to Islamic manuscripts, maps &c. from Harvard's museums and libraries, and provided its own unique challenges as a project (metadata for Arabic and reverse script, for example). But, in a developing country, how much digital infrastructure is required for DAM to be useful?

Some regions get more attention than others, certainly, but in terms of establishing digital infrastructure the Afghanistan Digital Libraries is a collaborative project between USAID, the University of Arizona and Afghan higher education institutions to digitise and provide access to what they term 'unique Afghan records'. While previously I discussed some distinctions between the preservation of hard-copy and digital preservation, projects such as this (and the Tibetan Digital Library Project) are perhaps the best chance, overall, to preserve rare and vulnerable hard-copy.

It's encouraging that key standards for digital preservation have already been embraced internationally - OAIS has been an ISO standard since 2003 (ISO 14721:2003 OAIS) - and certainly within Europe, groups such as DigitalPreservationEurope exist to promote 'collaboration and synergies' amongst the various digital preservation efforts occurring throughout the EU. There's a great deal of very open dialogue going on, which makes sense, since we all share the same problems, and this bodes well for international digital preservation projects.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Some definitions, and distinctions

Very quickly the need has become apparent to take a first stab at some definitions of the terminology already peppering this blog. What, for example, is 'preservation'? This word alone, when used across different disciplines, has the capacity to induce instant confusion.

One example of this from my own experience is the digitisation process. This is a moment where hard-copy meets digital and two theories of preservation collide - one is 'traditional' preservation, the other is digital preservation. While the preservation of born-digital items seems inherently understood from its context (digital items need digital preservation), the problem comes when you apply the word (preservation) to collections of digitised materials themselves - is hard-copy 'preserved' by being digitised?

While the digital image data files of these digitised collections have entered the domain of preservation in the digital sense and become 'digital assets', the original hard-copy has not in fact been preserved as an object in its own right. Take the extreme example of digitised documents being discarded in the name of economy of space, only to find that the digital image data files have become corrupt, or the system required to interpret them has become obsolete. All evidence of the documents are then lost - they were never preserved. It seems important to make this distinction.

Certainly, stories of the ephemeral nature of digital assets are legion, and businesses are still forced to retain hard-copy. The problem of the previous example is as old as sound recording technology, well summarised in a Wired article on Digital Archaeology from 1993, when CD-ROM was becoming firmly established. Nevertheless, my impression at this early stage is that the digital asset manager is primarily concerned with born-digital material since, once a digital data file is created from hard-copy, that is the creation of a new asset (in addition to the original hard-copy) that enters the domain of digital preservation, just like any born-digital asset.

Once a digital data file is created, the term 'preservation' can then be comfortably applied within this understood digital context. For what that might then mean, I've just been introduced to OAIS (Open Archival Information System) designed by the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems after the data migration problems that befell NASA after the Apollo Program (also mentioned in the Wired article). OAIS identifies two divisions of digital preservation: the preservation of digital data as it is migrated across media and across formats; and the preservation of access services to digital data as technology changes and software is ported (adapted) to new systems, including emulation. A pithy explanation of OAIS itself can be found here.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Going Digital

I've just accepted a place on the UK's first course in digital asset management at King's College London. Until earlier this summer, I had been working in paper conservation (that is, repairing and preserving paper-based artefacts for museums, libraries and archives). Why go digital?

To begin, this is not so much a departure from traditional preservation as a complementary set of skills that also embrace the worlds of information technology and management. At the same time, while a foundation in preservation theory via conservation is most welcome, going digital represents a great leap, without doubt, and there are several reasons why I've chosen to do this.

I wasn't really aware of digital assets and their management in a cultural heritage context until I attended the Mellon Symposium in Conservation Science at Harvard Art Museums earlier this year, entitled Technical Conservation Issues of Time-Based Media. The keynote speaker, Pip Laurenson, Head of Time-based Media Conservation at Tate, put forward two simple facts: first, Tate (and other large modern art galleries) now acquire more time-based media than traditional media - that is, over 50% of their total acquisitions each year; second, there is currently no formal training to deal with the preservation demands of time-based media (for a definition of time-based media, and further discussion, see here). I've also been drawn to the ubiquitous nature of digital assets and the wide potential for the application of the skills associated with their management and preservation, and my next prompt came from a very different source.

For some time I've been interested in preservation concerns beyond the museum, gallery or library institution, specifically in relation to cultural heritage in developing countries. Such concerns took me to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard where I had the pleasure of meeting Rory Stewart, then Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and founder of the Turquoise Mountain Project, and his colleague Gerard Russell who, following diplomatic service in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last seven years, has dedicated himself to promoting cultural understanding and interaction between the English-speaking public and the Arab/Islamic world. These conversations, in conjunction with discussions amongst conservators strongly engaged in the international cultural heritage and development arena, lead to a realisation of the limited application of traditional conservation to said arena, yet also clearly highlighted its potential as a foundation to be built upon in order to tackle wider preservation concerns.

These are just a couple of the reasons I have for venturing into digital preservation, to which I might briefly add an acknowledgement, on a less philosophical note, that digital asset management inevitably appears to meet current market demands. I now hope to use this opportunity to document a brand new formalised training process at King's that attempts to meet the growing demand for this skill set. Indeed, the first step is knowing exactly what that skill set should be, and the possibilities seem numerous. At the same time, I also want to explore the relationships between traditional and digital preservation, information technology and management practices, all the while keeping an eye on their potential implications for international cultural heritage and development concerns.