Reflections on iPRES 2014

Perseverance Hotel, Brunswick Street, Melbourne

Perseverance Hotel, Brunswick Street, Melbourne

Recently after 22 hours of flying I attended the iPRES 2014 conference in Melbourne, which was an awesome experience. How often does one have a chance to discuss aspects of the profession of digital preservation with no need of explaining the obvious? Meeting 200 colleagues, gathered in the beautiful State Library of Victoria, was an excellent opportunity to exchange ideas. And because there is no top ten of the buzzwords and no evidence of what was discussed during the breaks, the lunches and the dinners, I will summarize some highlights that inspired me.

First of all: everyone is worried about the fact that we constantly need to defend ourselves. Even in large organisations with mandates to preserve digital material, repeatedly higher management need to be persuaded to think about the consequences of this mandate. What is wrong? I personally wonder whether we use the right language, or as I said in the panel on Friday, maybe we lack the skills of framing digital preservation properly. How to describe an abstract concept of long term preservation to the non-initiated? Our message is often too complicated, speaks of problems and high costs without sketching the clear benefits and does not appeal to the imagination. This is a threat for our profession, as many colleagues agreed.

The second topic was about involving other disciplines in digital preservation, like the industry and science. Mixing ideas from different disciplines might lead to new ideas and innovations. It is important to convince these disciplines of the importance of digital preservation for their business, research or simply their sustainability and our knowledge can help them to get up to speed, while they can help us to make the next step forward. For this we need to develop a language understood by all parties. ( I’ll ignore the fact that the week started with a discussion about whether it is digital preservation, digital curation, data science or whatever term you could use – in my view this discussion distracts us from the main problem.)

But we all expected great benefits of more collaboration amongst the current preservationists, although there are some aspects that need to be taken into consideration. Collaboration without a clear benefit for the participants is doomed to fail. Sometimes projects might lead to good results, but these projects require an organisation and funding. Chances for these kind of projects are little in the current economical climate. But on a smaller scale the magic of the conference atmosphere led to new initiatives between a few individuals to exchange information, do something together or to really start working on an old idea.

The final buzzword on the conference was the DPTR: the Digital Preservation Technical Registry. An initiative to develop a file format registry, with a new data model and filled with information from existing registries. Currently it is a proposal under Horizon 2020, based on work done by the National Library and Archive New Zealand and National Library of Australia. There were mixed feelings about this initiative. One the one hand all agreed that the current registries fail for various reasons and that a good format registry is an absolute must. But what are the “lessons learned” about the previous – not so successful registries? Were these lessons incorporated in this new proposal? And was this new proposal not another example of technique first and then use cases?

It were the presentations  – which will be published soon – that gave us new food for thought but I’m convinced that the discussions during the breaks really gave us renewed energy to proceed with the challenge of digital preservation, although it took another 20 hours flying before I was back home!

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