Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Entering the IT jungle

I had the opportunity last night to attend a meeting of the Data Management Specialist Group of BCS, the Chartered Insitute for IT. I wish my classmates had been there because my learning outcome from this experience was special indeed.

With three talks taking place at BCS simultaneously, I had to peer through cracks in the wall in order to determine the correct venue for An Evening of Metadata. There was an acronym on the door that I didn't recognise, and the evening went from there. Arriving as the talks began, the only accessible seating was on the front row, where I noticed on either side of me some interesting gadgets that I hadn't actually seen before - someone's large personal microphone connected to a digital recorder, that seemed disproportionate to both the size of the venue and the occasion, and a computer writing tablet of some description.

Shortly into the first talk, I felt confident that I had no idea what was being communicated here. I couldn't tell you what metadata this was, or what it was for; I couldn't tell you who had designed it or why; I certainly didn't know how it functioned. It was a strange feeling of registering every word that was being said, writing most of that down in my notebook, and yet not understanding the meaning behind any of it. While the talk was in English, I had so little grasp of any context that I may well have benefitted as much had I received the talks in an antique dialect of the jungles of Yucatan.

So, was a semester of metadata a total waste of time? I had, after all, registered for this event at the recommendation of my tutor. Actually, for me, feeling like some kind of undercover agent about to be smoked out if he opened his mouth, there was something much more interesting going on here. In a simplistic way, DAM lies at a convergence between traditional information science and information technology. It would seem that both are employed more or less equally, with some solid management thrown in. I've already thought a great deal about the meeting of traditional preservation and digital preservation - I see it all the time (it's in my last posting, in fact). But until last night, I had never engaged with the IT sector in any way. My realisation was that, if one drew a line between the traditional information sciences and IT, then I was very much clinging to the former extreme, and much more so than I had realised previously.

This is important, because I feel that DAM needs to operate amongst all of these sectors. Increasingly, I am beginning to appreciate the importance of mediation in DAM. It's hard to imagine communicating the content of last night's event to a rare books librarian, for example, but at times, that's exactly what you need to do. We're 'migratory animals', as my colleague put it, and a good understanding (or sensititivy, at least) for information science, IT and business is just the beginning. From there, you can get on with the actual task of doing your DAM job.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Digital Preservation Coalition: Getting Started in Digital Preservation

This event was hosted by the Digital Preservation Coalition and British Library Preservation Advisory Centre (all the presentations I mention are available on the DPC website here). Its purpose was to provide an introduction to the main issues of digital preservation. Part-way through a course in Digital Asset Management, an awareness of digital preservation is something that I’m trying to cultivate and this course provided a useful way in to a difficult subject. The rest of the audience was composed of information professionals trained in traditional library and archive environments, their common link being that they had found themselves responsible for digital collections, but lacked the digital preservation literacy to tackle that challenge.

The workshop also addressed another problem: how do you break down something as complex as digital preservation for an institution with no in-house expertise or funding to buy it in? Before solutions were presented, the point was made several times that traditional collections management can deal with most of the conceptual hurdles brought up by digital preservation. There was a sense here that many of the delegates would not be engaging with digital material if they had the choice.

William Kilbride, Executive Director at the Digital Preservation, therefore began by making three key points on digital preservation that probably cannot be overstated:

1. It won’t go away.
2. It won’t do itself.
3. You already have many of the skills you need.

He then pointed out that digital data have value and create opportunities. This seems obvious, particularly as a student of DAM, but it’s frequently surprising to hear proclamations from relatively senior members of the cultural sector who seem unaware of modern research methods and user behaviour. Of course, the real value is based on access, or, as William put it, “It’s not about the data.” Coming from an ‘analogue’ background (in my case, conservation), it’s a new mindset that shifts primacy from the physical object to the information that it carries.

Patricia Sleeman, from the University of London Computer Centre, did an excellent job of introducing the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) in a genuinely engaging way. Because digital problems are larger than any one institution (or sector), OAIS was presented as a common shared vocabulary to support collaborative solutions. This is never more pertinent than for those institutions which lack digital resources and OAIS carries the potential to provide community support and direction. The flip side of OAIS, judging from the room’s response to a visual representation of the model, is the barrier of its apparent complexity. It does take some dedicated time and effort to appreciate its usefulness, and unfortunately this is only one of several tools, models and standards for digital preservation which share that characteristic.

Following on from useful models, Bram Van Der Werf of the Open Planets Foundation presented their preservation planning tool, Plato. Open, non-proprietary tools like Plato provide access to digital preservation planning for anyone with a sincere interest and Bram emphasised the need to serve diversity in the community, speaking out against standardisation as a solution for long-term access challenges. His reasoning was that digital preservation was pushed along by technical innovation and development, and therefore beyond such controls, adding that ‘best practice’ was fine if you could trust the group providing it, but if we all follow, then we all make the same mistakes. There is probably a middle ground here, but Bram’s team do seem to be making a particular effort to accommodate a diverse group, including those with the least available resources to carry out digital preservation.

Ed Fay of LSE Library concluded the day with a candid discussion surrounding his institution’s efforts to audit and preserve their digital content. As he put it: “Digital preservation is hard!” Indeed, this is one of my personal lessons from the day: the sheer complexity of variables involved in any digital preservation plan, and the time and effort involved in learning how to deal with them. Ed’s closing advice was to learn by doing. Digital preservation is intimidating, but the level of support is also high and the communication channels are open. Without previous experience, Ed managed to come up with a stripped-down model of OAIS to suit his institution, while also employing DRAMBORA for risk management and Archivematica to characterise their collections; he’s now starting to use Plato for long-term planning with a Fedora repository. In other words, Ed provided an inspiring example of what's possible.