Welcome 2019 – digital preservation promises

Today, when people are starting to phrase good intentions for the New Year, it is a nice moment to draw the attention to a report that was published in October last year. Oya Y. Rieger from ITHAKA S+R wrote an “issue report” about the “The State of Digital Preservation in 2018. A Snapshot of Challenges and Gaps”. The purpose of the report was “ to survey the preservation landscape within the context of evolving research workflows and the scholarly and cultural record”. So looking back and looking forward. She interviewed 21 digital preservationists from all over the world and discussed with them 5 questions related to what is working well so far and which challenges we need to solve in the future. As was also the conclusion in the panel at iPRES 2018 we have achieved a lot since the last 20 years: more community building, better collaboration, shared standards, availability of preservation systems and a willingness to share experiences, to name just a few.

But there are still issues that need to be solved. Based on the interviews the report describes an overview of various issues, varying from the increasingly unclear role of research libraries in an university environment (I wonder, is that also the case in Europe where they have a role related to implementing the FAIR principles? ), the ambiguity of roles and preservation responsibilities in libraries, the impact of cloud storage both from a financial perspective as well as the facilities they offer, the interaction between preservation systems and digital asset management systems. But also the (limited) use of web archives by researchers and the concerns about the usability of research data are issues that are a risk for digital preservation in general. Reading these issues I was wondering, could one say that we think digital preservation is now mature, but that we still need to find the right role in the world in which we operate?

These and other similar interesting issues led to three potential research areas. These areas are not new and in various discussions people have talked about them. Although we have reached a lot and “awareness raising” is less necessary, we still need to find a general acknowledgement of the role of digital preservation. The increasingly complexity to preserve digital material in context requires us to collaborate more and in a structured way. “what seems to be missing is a cohesive and compelling roadmap to guide the international community in knitting together the advances made and addressing the gaps based on the characteristics of the new digital realm”. Two years ago Richard Whitt suggested a similar approach . But we also need to have a better insight in the roles and responsibilities related to preserving digital material of all the stakeholders involved in digitial preservation, both from the creators perspective as well as of the preserving organisations. And last but not least we need the “story”, or to cite the report a “strong set of value propositions (both from the public good and economic viability perspectives) and articulate the risks involved in potential loss”. Related to this last point I welcome your stories on the Atlas of Digital Damages.

We have another 365 days ahead of us to work on this! Happy New Year!

The cost of doing nothing

800px-De_geldwisselaar_en_zijn_vrouwLately there was much debate on the fact that over the years the digital preservation community mastered to create a collection of more than a dozen of cost models, making the confusion for every one starting in digital preservation even bigger. May be this is part of the way things are going: everyone sees his own situation as something special with special needs. The solution? Tayloring an existing model or developing a new one. We can expect help from the recently started European project 4C ,”The Collaboration to Clarify the Costs of Curation”. In their introduction they state that “4C reminds us that the point of this investment [in digital preservation] is to realise a benefit”. Less emphasis on the complexity of digital preservation, and more on the benefits.

Some people think that talking about digital preservation in terms of complexity and costs sounds more negative than thinking in terms of opportunities (or challenges) and benefits. But in both cases, you will need the same hard-core figures about the costs you make as an organisation and the benefits that raise from it. The latter is not easy to do, but the work of Neil Beagrie and his team shows that it will be possible to measure the benefits.

If we would have better figures of the benefits of preserving digital material, we are in a better position to estimate what it will cost us if digital material is not preserved. Of letting digital objects die, be it intentionally or not.  How much damage is done to society if crucial information is not preserved?  Recently the question was raised that some interesting websites, containing the research results of a project that lasted for several years,  might not be harvested and preserved in a digital archive. Consequence of this would be a tremendous loss for the community in the related research discipline. This is clearly an incentive for preservation!

I remember that when the Planets project was proposed, it was argued that the obsolescence of digital information in Europe,  in case no action to preserve it would be taken, could cost the community an astonishing amount of 3 billion euro a year. I could not find a source for this assumption, only a reference to some articles. One of them described the amount of data that was created worldwide. The other article described the costs for an organization if lacking proper tools to manage data (getting access, searching,  not finding etc). It could be that the Planets assumption derived from this information was used as an illustration to make the case for digital preservation (the amount of stories in the Atlas of Digital Damages does not prove this assumption).

But in essence, it are these kind of figures (and their related evidence) we also need to have at hand. Not only demonstrating the costs of digital preservation, but also demonstrating what it would cost society if we did not preserve things.

Stories of digital incidents

At conferences about digital preservation, we often hear the same stories about things that went wrong first and (in some cases)how it was repaired afterwards: ” Luckily some of the lost bits were saved”. The Domesday book, the Viking mission to Mars etcetera.

On the  Atlas of Digital Damages I collected some of these well known stories. However the list is limited. The incidents I found so far, mainly occurred in the US, and quite often more than 5 years ago or even longer. I doubt whether there were no incidents in the last 5 years or so.

Apart from the fact that I might need to refine my search question on Google, could it also be the case that we zipped up our lips from the moment we started to take digital preservation seriously? Incidents with digital material are never welcomed, but they do happen. To keep silent about it, is understandable in one way. No one would like to put the reputation of an organisation at risk, or admit that something very stupid happened (although on the risk list number one is:  human errors!).  But not every incident is related to a “stupid error”, there is a whole range of activities that can lead to loss of information. Both the DRAMBORA list of risks and the RAC standard offer a wide range of areas, for which the community is now determining the do’s and don’ts of digital preservation.

Often these risks are described on a high level. What we need are examples that we can relate to situations in our own repositories . To hear about decisions that were made and proved wrong.

So I challenge you to contribute to the Stories in the Atlas by sending your story to info@atlasofdigitaldamages.info . I leave it to your discretion how detailed your description is.

Welcome atlasofdigitaldamages.info

When writing my blog in september I did not expect that the idea of an Atlas of Digital Damages would trigger so many people! The Flickr group was started and even The Signal cited my ideas. Time for action, not only did I try to convince people at iPRES 2012  and whenever I could find an opportunity, but I also created a website, as promised.

May I invite you to have a look at atlasofdigitaldamages.info

Atlas of Digital Damages

Currently there is only limited content, but I hope my idea about the Atlas is clear:  every topic consists of an issue, one or more images, an explanation of the situation on the image (with preferably some technical background) and advice how to avoid this “damage” of digital material.  I have many ideas on adding related material and referring to other work done.  This is just a start.

So if you like this and want to contribute,  please send your material.

It will help all of us in making the need for digital preservation visible!

Update on the Atlas

The idea of an Atlas of Digital Damages was well received and some people already placed some examples on The Atlas of Digital Damages on flickr, thanks! In the mean time I’m arranging a URL and host, with the goal that we can turn this into a nice atlas – digitally. This should show the original correct document , a version of what went wrong and description (if possible) why it went wrong. Simple and clear. Not especially for the digital preservationists, but to make our case.