Workshop Recap: Assuring Long-Term Access to Digital Collections

The following guest post comes from Rebecca Morgan, a graduate student at the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at Queens College, CUNY. She attended the first workshop in our Digital Preservation Workshop Series and agreed to share her recap here. 

The Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) hosted the first of a three-part workshop series focusing on the preservation of digital collections on November 4th, 2009. A wide array of professionals from a variety of institutions gathered to discuss the subject and learn from each other.

Tom Clareson and Liz Bishoff led the first workshop, “Assuring Long Term Access to Digital Collections:  An Introduction to Digital Preservation.” Both bring many years of experience as library professionals and each are currently involved with digital issues for regional library cooperatives. Bishoff is director of Digital & Preservation Services at BCR while Clareson serves as Senior Consultant at Lyrasis.

The workshop focused on the concept that "digital preservation begins at creation."  Clareson and Bishoff covered four key areas: 1) the state of digital preservation efforts in the world today; 2) discussion of the important concepts for preserving digital assets; 3) review of steps to implement a digital preservation program; 4) highlight of digital preservation tools and systems available to libraries and cultural heritage institutions—both open source and commercial.

By bringing together representatives from museums, special libraries, archives, galleries and academic libraries, the session offered a unique perspectives—and opportunities—for the attendees to problem-solve each other’s institutional challenges.

The State of Digital Preservation

Clareson and Bishoff have spent time surveying over 100 libraries and cultural heritage institutions across the nation. Their familiarity with the state of digital preservation in the nation’s institutions helped participants see how their initiatives compared with institutions nationwide. After sharing stories it became clear that the people who had come to the workshop were ahead of the curve in thinking about how to preserve their collections, though it was clear that there are still many questions institutions are wrestling with in the METRO region.

(Digital) Preservation

Why is digital resource preservation important today? Existing digital assets are at risk because many organizations have not yet tuned in to the ramifications of the pace of change—in both software and hardware—or the variety of data formats. To compensate, librarians and archivists must communicate with the content creators and emphasize the importance of non-proprietary file formats, metadata, and open source software, and perhaps most importantly, thorough documentation.  The workshop clarified the importance of recreating the traditional archive environment digitally.

The presenters stressed that the absence of a single solution makes digital preservation more challenging than analog preservation.  They pin long term success on how tightly integrated these efforts are in the organization’s culture, efforts that go beyond the standard data backup process.  The long term success factors included:  1) continued accessibility through long-term maintenance of binary content; 2) well-structured metadata to allow for easy retrieval; 3) digital preservation efforts folded into existing digitization and preservation structures and processes; 4) digital preservation processes (e.g. disaster plans, offsite storage) included in long term information technology disaster and maintenance planning.

Digital Preservation Begins at Creation 

The instructors outlined what they saw as the two main components of a digital preservation program: 1) the implementation of the technical infrastructure and 2) the creation of policies and procedures within the organizational infrastructure. They stressed the importance of bringing policy writers in at an early stage to ensure the intellectual investments do not “die on the vine,” and they emphasized the importance of organizational and legal commitments to the program effort. As it is rare for organizations to have a dedicated digital librarian, they continually underscored the need to work with the human and technical resources that institutions already have in place. In terms of digital preservation policy, they asked: How can you leverage existing institutional policies to include digital endeavors?

The issue of cultivating buy-in from content creators inspired a good deal of discussion in the workshop. Whether those content creators can be relied upon to willingly participate in digitization efforts or be forced through institutional mandates was identified as a potential challenge, and a participant from an academic library wondered how best to tackle this in her library. Suggestions for building support for policy strategy included initiating discussions among stakeholders that will shape the policy and working the trenches to build consensus among faculty and other stakeholders. Bishoff and Clareson stressed that academic departments responded favorably to the idea that digital preservation helps provide improved long-term access to their data that cannot be otherwise guaranteed.  They also recommended working with cooperative academic departments to develop a successful digital preservation pilot program to build widespread participation interest among other institutional departments. A pilot program that begins small with a limited range of file formats and contributors can later be promoted to generate participation interest among other departments.

Digital Preservation Tools and Systems   

The workshop provided a cursory introduction to some of the available open source and commercial digital preservation tools and systems, with the understanding that these systems would be covered at length in the third workshop of the series. Bishoff and Clareson mentioned ExLibris Rosetta System, OCLC Digital Archive Solution, LOCKSS and iRODS. This portion of the workshop also discussed the role that advanced in cloud computing play in digital preservation strategies. Although development continues to be done in this area, the cloud computing currently only provides storage, but could be leveraged to meet other digital preservation concerns in the not-too-distant future.

The class offered real life examples of the successes and issues that librarians around the area are facing in the creation and long-term maintenance of digital collections. This is all a work in progress – there is no digital preservation magic bullet at this point—and because this is a rapidly shifting landscape, Clareson and Bishoff recommended staying current with best practices and new initiatives via local and national discussion groups and listservs.

NOTE: Over 35 people attended the first workshop in the Digital Preservation Workshop series here at METRO on November 4. Couldn't make it to the first workshop? Not a problem. Participants who sign up for the sec ond or third workshop will receive access to an online portal of digital preservation resources to get up-to-speed.

Remaining workshops include:

December 16, 2009
Risk Assessment for Digital Collections
Instructors: Tom Clareson (Lyrasis) and Liz Bishoff (BCR)
Complete workshop details and registration:

January 28, 2010
Digital Preservation Tools, Systems, and Services
Instructor: Tyler Walters (Georgia Institute of Technology)
Complete workshop details and registration:
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