The EU funded Pericles project held its final project conference in London on 30 November to 1 December. PERICLES (Promoting and Enhancing Reuse of Information throughout the Content Lifecycle taking account of Evolving Semantics – http://pericles-project.eu/) is a collaborative, interdisciplinary project aimed to address the challenge of ensuring that digital content remains accessible in an environment that is subject to continual change. I have been lucky enough to be tangentially involved in the project, injecting (as you would expect) continuum ideas.
At the conference, I was asked to speak on two panels, one on OAIS (Open Archival Information Systems) the influential standard defined by the space community and now due for systematic review, and on Risk Assessment. Inadvertently I was part of an all women expert panel – how good is that! – along with Kara van Malssen (AV Preserve), Angela Dappert (British Library), Pip Laurenson (Tate) and Barbara Sierman (National Library of the Netherlands), all moderated by William Kilbride of the DPC. My comments (in abbreviated form) on OAIS are below:
I present a view from the archives/records community. This isn’t my specific area of expertise, so I ventured forth to check the validity or otherwise of my views from better informed digital archives colleagues, including Adrian Cunningham from QSA, Ross Spencer from Archives NZ, Richard Lehane from State Archives and Records NSW and Andrew Waugh from Public Record Office of Victoria. I don’t speak for them, but I did try to benchmarks my remarks against their experience and opinions.
OAIS operates effectively as a ‘lingua franca’. The OAIS reference model is designed as a conceptual framework in which to discuss and compare archives. The high level reference model approach and terminology is (kind of) foreign to all disciplines, so we all have to translate our practice into that expression.
- This has been particularly useful when dealing with the genuinely different approaches to digital preservation across disciplinary boundaries, encouraging a common language for communication between cognate disciplines and dealing with practical implication of institutional mergers etc. The model as lingua franca is useful because digital preservation MUST be inter-disciplinary.
- Beyond that, at the level of detail, there is mixed use and mixed response from the recordkeeping community.
- There is some wariness that the language is also something of a barrier to communication. Used wrongly, it can be a bit snake-oilish – our technology creates SIPs, AIPs and DIPs – digital preservation problem solved! Yes, well not quite. And clearly there are specific disciplinary issues in how each discipline defines the detail of the SIP, AIP and DIP.
OAIS has an inherently custodial world view (perhaps a bit like the term data curation which generally speaking doesn’t resonate well in the recordkeeping space).
- It presumes that the object of digital preservation is stored in a custodial repository – for recordkeeping, we are increasingly aware that we need to be non-custodial in a distributed environment.
- It has some preconceptions about what is being preserved – a fixed, static (end product) object view. This is problematic for managing digital objects. Records are objects plus their metadata. And what is a record is often a packaging of ‘cascading inscriptions’ (Latour) linked to their ever evolving contexts, at multiple and different levels of aggregation, relationship and complexity.
There are some issues, and different views, on what the boundaries of OAIS and digital preservation are or should be:
- OAIS assumes that things are already there and ready to go as SIPs. This is not usually the case for archives/records. Lots of intensive work is commonly required before a SIP-ready thing can be assumed. Is the answer to create a work-around, or to introduce a pre-ingest phase, as some have suggested? I think that the necessary inter-disciplinary nature of practice means that this will be problematic. Lowest common denominator, or approaches driven by one loud disciplinary voice, will not suit all. This might be a particular matter for individual disciplines to address and then seek to harmonise?
- Superficially the OAIS model applies to a single system – of course, it doesn’t have to be read that way, but it commonly is. Different functions can be (and in reality, are) handled by different systems – the business system of an archives supports much more than creating and managing AIPS or DIPS, but these can certainly be part of the larger system. The constructs of SIPs, AIPs and DIPs are useful for thinking about interfaces to other systems.
- Archives (generally) don’t perceive everything within the frame of a single OAIS but rather as modular components – the archival descriptive system is and will continue to be separate from the digital preservation component. The multiple ways that existing systems need to be interfaced in changing ways over time needs to be respected. Metadata needs to be moved into different systems, to serve different purposes.
- Not all metadata are simply preservation metadata – some are part of the creating environment, some are part of the archival descriptive system, and some are specific preservation metadata. There is endless discipline-specific detail on metadata requirements. The metadata for digital preservation are part of that discussion. In recordkeeping environments, we are managing metadata in independent systems. The OAIS metadata model is not prescriptive, but implicit. Even if we expand it to include PREMIS metadata, it is only part of the requirements for recordkeeping. We have complex requirements and ongoing issues about representations of relationships in recordkeeping that we have yet to find a definitive answer for (if one exists!).
- The function of access is common ground to all OAIS disciplines – but is this digital preservation? This is a well worn argument. In the archives/records discipline I would assert that they are intimately related, but not the same thing. It is a specialised component, and again, if the thinking is modular rather than monolithic, then the OAIS model requirements are valid.
- Some of the conceptualisations are irritating and wrong from a recordkeeping perspective. Of particular irritation value is the documentation of preservation actions. These are records – they are critical records for preservation, allowing us to assert the authenticity and integrity of the objects being managed. But in OAIS, these records are squished into ‘administrative functions’, really a substantial misconception here. Such records are part of the systematic recording of the ‘recordness’ of an object. What, of the functionality buried in the administrative or event components of OAIS needs to be managed as records? Appraisal thinking is conspicuously absent in the model as it currently stands.