Digital preservation at The University of Melbourne in 2016
A shortened version of this presentation was given by Jaye Weatherburn at the University of Melbourne Library Staff Forum, 1 December 2016, at the Sidney Myer Asia Centre (Yasuko Hiraoka Myer Room).
Hi everyone, I’m here to share some information about the work from the University of Melbourne’s digital preservation project so far this year, and also explain what I’m working on now as we look ahead to next year.
Whenever the problems we come across seem to be edging towards the “too-hard” basket, I remind myself that long-term digital preservation is an
incremental, ongoing, and ever-shifting set of actions, reactions, workflows, and policies.
This quote by J. Gordon Daines III (full citation at the end) is used in a great paper worth reading if you’re interested in this area: From Theory to Action: Good Enough Digital Preservation for Under-Resourced Cultural Heritage Institutions . This quote makes it clear that we can never rest when it comes to effectively preserving our digital stuff. I’ve been talking a lot about digital preservation this year, in fact, a big part of my role at the University has been raising awareness about the ongoing maintenance required for digital objects – whether they be digitised or born-digital.
A lot of people have said to me,
Oh, digital preservation, that’s digitising stuff, right? You do the digitising?
Which is a great starting point for me to launch into one of my favourite stories: Digitising: the birth of a digital object is just the beginning. When you digitise something, it’s like it’s being born into a new lifecycle that requires attention. Just as our physical and analogue collections are subject to various threats and risks like fires, floods, mould, insects – our digital materials are subject to their own various threats and risks. One example is that digital files can become corrupted, rendering the content inaccessible or completely unrecoverable. Another is that digital files are dependent on different software and hardware configurations to render them accessible, and as these environments are superseded by new and fancier versions, or become altogether obsolete, the content that requires particular operating environments can become completely inaccessible.
Sharing this awareness remains one of the main challenges for the digital preservation project at the university – advocating to a wide range of people with different interests that this work is ongoing, or at least it will be ongoing for as long as we have digital stuff that we care about maintaining.
Last week I live streamed the keynote presentation by Eric T. Meyer (Professor of Social Informatics and Director of Graduate Studies at the Oxford Internet Institute) Memory Institutions as Knowledge Machines, at the National Digital Forum New Zealand 2016. If you missed it, you can watch the video (highly recommended, especially for the great story about the longevity of humpback whales and the issues this presents for long-lived data sharing practices).
Eric used this iceberg diagram (used also in the OECD paper, Big Data for Advancing Dementia Research) to highlight the challenges that exist for data sharing – when I saw this, I realised that it describes perfectly some of the same challenges that face long-term digital preservation. Technical challenges are just the tip of the iceberg and can be overcome, but underlying issues such as understanding the research ecosystem and how it functions, advocating for sustainable ongoing funding, increasing skills, providing incentives for long-term preservation, and perhaps hardest of all – changing entrenched mindsets – are some that we are attempting to tackle with our project.
If you haven’t yet seen the ten-year strategy and the roadmaps that guide the work for the project, you can find them at this link. We’re focusing now on what we can achieve in the next six to twelve months for improved stewardship of digital content.
Because digital preservation touches on so many aspects of a research ecosystem, we’re working across four areas: culture, infrastructure, policy, and organisational aspects, and the digital materials in scope are research outputs, research data, university records and cultural collections.
The digital preservation panel that was put together for the University Services Professional Staff Conference inspired a broad audience from many different areas of the university to start thinking about the challenges we’re facing in trying to determine how to support long-term preservation of digital materials. The knowledge and passion from the panel (Kathryn Dan from records, Katrina Dean from Archives, Elise Grosser from the Faculty of Business and Economics, and Andy Tseng from Research Platform Services provided their stories and passion for advocacy on a wider level, something that’s on my mind as we further develop our communication and engagement plans.
Several groups of people from so many areas across the university approached us after the panel session, saying:
I’ve never thought about digital stuff on this level before, it’s so involved, it’s so big!
Which was really encouraging and great to hear.
Another highlight for me was putting together a review of research data management support and the implications of the current state for digital preservation planning, by interviewing 40-odd staff in our research support areas.
The importance of personal communication emerged quite strongly from this review. It was widely acknowledged that taking the effort to build relationships on that personal level is a good way to achieve shared outcomes. It can also help to establish “safe” spaces, where robust discussion can happen – and I think that robust discussion does need to happen in this space to ensure that a wide range of different stakeholder voices are heard.
The process is one of active listening, finding out about the issues and challenges each discipline has around long-term preservation, and trying to get a sense of what exactly they think is worth keeping – and why they think this.
This case studies work is aimed to help identify pilot projects, or “test sites” that can begin to shape directions for processes and infrastructure for long-term digital preservation next year. Once we understand the various designated communities in our research ecosystem, we can start to plan what long-term preservation of their stuff will involve.
So, what I’m looking for in the case studies is:
- A range of disciplines, ideally covering all ten faculties at the university
It would be great to get a spread of different situations, such as:
- Cases where digital preservation is working well
- Cases where digital preservation assistance or advice will be received well
- Cases where digital preservation assistance or advice might be less well received
I have some great leads I’m following up at the moment, but if you come across any projects or stories around experience with data loss, or examples of digital preservation activities for research outputs, please get in touch with me. I’m always happy to connect and share information about what I’m doing in this space as well.
So this is us in a nutshell: our project leadership and project staff. We are a very small team attempting very big things.
I think of this project as not just one focused on long-term sustainability of the university’s digital assets, it’s also focused on building and sustaining the relationships between people that make the whole research ecosystem revolve.
The vision of the digital preservation project at the University of Melbourne is a bold and ambitious one, and I’m very much looking forward to helping to build the business case next year that will see this project through to 2025, and beyond.
Daines, J. Gordon III. (2013). Module 2: Processing Digital Records and Manuscripts. Archival
Arrangement and Description, ed. Christopher J. Prom (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2013)