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Musings from the Digital Preservation Government Assembly

Part of my week was given to the ever fascinating subject of digital preservation. I was chairing a Government Assembly on Digital Preservation coordinated by a commercial conference provider. I don’t often do the commercial conferences anymore, but this one was a topic that continues to fascinate.

Digital preservation buttons

Image: Anna Quinn, wlef70 Digital Preservation Buttons, 30.4.2011

The presentations were diverse (and not publicly available, sorry) as speakers showcased their digital project experiences. One of the presentations was an overview of the National Archives of Australia’s business transformation project by the Assistant Director, Digital Preservation Program, Karen Horsfall. Known as Project Chrysalis, this project illustrates some interesting trends in ways of thinking about digital preservation. And to me it fell to find the digital preservation strings to bind the day together.

Discussion through the day revealed some themes. Here’s my interpretation of some recurring themes (and none of it is too surprising):

  • The real impact of going digital comes when the business processes begin to change and transform to take advantage of the digital. And digital preservation planning should be built into this transformation too!
  • There is a long transition period. Some failures are to be expected (but let’s hope your organisation/project isn’t one).
  • There is still a lot of confusion out there between digitisation and managing born digital records, but once digitised, those records, where they replace the paper, need the same degree of preservation planning that born digital records.
  • The money to do digital preservation or even digital recordkeeping can be difficult to obtain. Digital recordkeeping is seen to come with a big price tag, and digital preservation is seen as the end of ‘life’ and too far away to worry about it. Convincing management of a business case based on efficiency may work, but a better way of swinging the arguments may be to explore opportunities and digital as an enabler for the business.
  • Preservation and access go hand in hand – you really can’t think of one without the other.
  • The risk points are clearly those that we already know about – new systems, machinery of government change, ignoring the reuse and asset value of data.
  • The dilemma of open: open access, open data, open source. Just what is meant in your organisation and how well is it understood?
  • Are we concerned with objects (the content object) or the system (the environment/system)? And the answer to this depends on the disciplinary slant that professionals bring to digital preservation. Recordkeeping bodies are clearly concerned with the systems, not just the single objects, and that also includes plenty of recordkeeping metadata.
  • Should all formats be normalised or is emulation possible: what to do when migrating a file, will the authenticity be compromised – how should this be assessed?


All these were great things to think about, and many have been addressed, and are continuing to be addressed, in the fabulously rich research arena. The table posted in an adjacent blog post, was produced to guide people through some of the available resources and to look at where work has been done and is ongoing.

So some of the ‘answers’ that we discussed during the day were:

  • There is no right answer. There are options and doors shouldn’t be closed off. This doesn’t mean that organisations shouldn’t do anything. They must do something. But be aware of the alternatives and plan to be flexible in not cutting off approaches should they emerge as key stages (for example, migrate but also keep the original format of a file, so that it might be able to be emulated in future)
  • Build modular and extensible. The digital preservation community have great open source tools that are available for reuse. They may be small and kind of fragile. So not for everyone, but for those who can work with them they’re a great resource.  To make this strategy viable, you’ve got to have solid analysis of what you want to achieve as you string the tools together.
  • This isn’t simple stuff! We need to recognise the complexity but also find good narratives through the complexity to tell the stories to the right funders.
  • Data quality is never going to be perfect, despite the fact that people want it to be (kind of magically because they don’t want to spend time or money on cleaning data up!).
  • Standardisation in data is something to strive towards, but this doesn’t invalidate needing to accept and work with dirty data.
  • Digital preservation planning tools need to be more widely known – it’s not just the ‘cultural’ agencies that need to deal with this. With cycles of technology obsolescence this needs to be moved forward into the workplace concerns.
  • Just transitioning to digital is the beginning, not the end.

Barbara Reed is Director of Recordkeeping Innovation and has been involved in the digital preservation community, from a recordkeeping perspective.