OAIS: a cage or a guide?

Last week I gave a presentation at the Pericles conference Acting on Change: New Approaches and Future Practices in LTDP in London. This is what I told during the panel about OAIS.

OAIS as a cage?

Is the OAIS standard a cage, with the preservation archive inside as a captivated bird? With clipped wings, unable to fly away, but kept inside by the functional model, the data model and metrics in OAIS and the related standards like the audit and certification standard?oais-cage-klein

OAIS is out there for 20 years and we cannot imagine where digital preservation would be, without this standard. It is like a life safe vest: you can always cling to it, to discuss preservation by naming the related functions and meta data groups. The terminology is our Esperanto in the DP world.

But not for everyone. New comers or people that work in small teams on digital preservation (and who does not feel every now and then that he or she works in isolation?) especially however often find OAIS intimidating and complicated and difficult to explain to outsiders. The language is not so accessible despite that every one around them seems to understand it. The standard lacks a link to implementation, to a translation they can use in their daily practice, but when they raise this point in despair, they get the reply: it is a conceptual model, not an architecture for implementation.

In my opinion OAIS is basically a lot of common sense put into a standard. The essence of OAIS consists of the not always explicitly repeated thoughts and starting points behind the standard. Part of it is reflected in a short piece in the beginning of the standard: the responsibilities of the archive. Phrased in somewhat abstracts terms it basically describes the self confidence an archive should show to its producer – we will take care of it and we know how to do this, but you as producer should enable us to the maximum to do it.

At the other end these responsibilities stimulate the preservation archive to develop a careful way of thinking about the consumer of the preserved objects: not only the contemporary users but also future users. How can the preservation archive meet their requirements in an optimal way?

The responsibilities paragraph reflects in my opinion the “spirit of OAIS” . Keeping this “spirit” in mind will offer you a way of dealing with the standard without constantly asking yourself “do I comply to the letter with the standard”.

Still however we have the problem that there is a gap between the OAIS standard and a practical implementation. The audit and certification standard, ISO 16363, is meant to explain how compliance can be achieved, at least this is a first attempt to describe this. I myself participated in writing this standard with the intention to turn the abstract OAIS concepts into a more practical approach: hence why we added the “evidence” paragraphs, hoping that people were able to recognize their own organisations and way of working in it.

Many organisations are using this standard to assess their own organisation, with no intention to start a certification process, but with the intention to get an answer to the question Am I doing it right? The same way you could use the DIN standard or the recently renewed DSA standard.

So rather at looking at the OAIS standard as a set of prescriptions and a cage in which we are imprisoned, I would like to see OAIS as a guide.

OAIS as a guide


A guide and a conversation piece, like you see these birds doing: twittering and chirping. Birds like us,  representing the preservation archives, talking to each other, freed from the cage.

I have been in several panels about OAIS, not only where English was the official language but also with Dutch and Belgian participants (and language does matter!). High on the wish list of every participant is information, the opportunity of peeking over the wall, knowing how others are doing it, distilling from these examples their own approach. How have other people in the same domain solved some issues? What does an AIP looks like of an organisation with similar content in their archive?

In my opinion there is a task for the preservation community to evaluate regularly whether the standards they are using are still relevant in the changing environment. In order to be able to do this, we need more than a regular 5 year review.  We need a continuous debate, like birds do at 4 o‘clock in the afternoon, telling each other that they are still alive and well and have a safe shelter for the night.

We need evidence that the implementations of OAIS are really the best way to do digital preservation – for a variety of domains and a variety of digital objects. We need practical implementations, we need an overview of arguments and we need proof of what worked and what did not work. Based on these practical implementations we can adapt standards, together. Similar like they do with the Premis standard.

And there is an opportunity to do so with OAIS as well, in a more or less structured way.

A group of people related to DPC tried to make OAIS more of a conversation piece, by setting up a the DPC OAIS community wiki. Everyone  in the digital preservation community is invited to put his or her thoughts related to the practical implementation of OAIS and start the discussion here. We would welcome evidence like documentation and questions and answers. Our vision is to make this a central place where you can find practical information around our preservation standards, starting with OAIS. I hope to meet you there.

© 2024 Barbara Sierman