Monday, September 6, 2010

Dynamics of the repisitory

'Going digital' doesn't seem to be a progressive movement in cultural institutions anymore, but rather a necessity. When even very focused collections, such as the Folger Shakespeare Library, are now holding digital collections, the question isn't whether an institution should go digital or not, but how they should do it.

Digital assets, whether born-digital or created through the digitisation process require management and the logical place to start would seem to be through a repository system, perhaps Tessella's SDB (Safety Deposit Box) developed with the UK National Archives. You have, after all, just doubled your collection by creating digital versions of analogue, hard-copy materials; by acquiring any digital material at all, you have at the very least added a significant additional conceptual dimension to an analogue archive.

Given the complexities surrounding digital collections, it's interesting to find that there is as yet no certification regarding their actual implementation and management. In 2002, a joint report by the Online Computer Library Center and Research Libraries Group concluded that there was a need "to develop a framework and process to support the certification of digital depositories". While certification soon arrived for a conceptual framework governing digital archives (ISO 14721:2003 OAIS), and repository systems like SDB now comply to that standard, there is essentially no agreed best practice for the management of digital collections.

This situation remains perhaps due to the complexities of the practical implementation of digital asset management protocols. A good example is the question of agreed formats (succinctly described by Dave Thompson in his article here), and tackling this problem forms the foundation for a viable digital acquisition policy. The fact is that appraisal of formats prior to acquisition is very much up to the individual institution: most libraries and digital asset managers prioritise intellectual content, while galleries and conservators would concern themselves with preserving hardware. A system like SDB cannot begin to answer such complex questions, which can border on the philosophical: is there loss of artistic integrity in migrating 16mm film to a digital medium? Who cares about the format as long as the information is there? What's the significance of converting Office Documents to PDF? It would seem that, even at the input stage, there are limitations to what a repository can do.

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