Sustainability is more than saving the bits

Sustaining-our-digital-future-FINAL-31The subject of the JISC/SCA report Sustaining our digital Future. Institutional strategies for digital content. By Nancy L. Maron, Jason Yun and Sarah Pickle (2013),  is the sustainability of digitised collections in general, illustrated with experiences of three different organisations: University College London, The Imperial War Museum and the National Library of Wales. I was especially interested by the fact that the report mentions digital preservation, but not as a goal in itself (“saving the bits”). Instead, the authors broaden the scope of digital preservation with activities that are beyond bit preservation or even beyond “functional preservation”.

Nowadays a lot of digitisation projects are undertaken and interesting material comes to life for a large audience, often with a fancy website, a press release, a blog (and a big investment)  and attracts immediately  interested public. But the problematic phase starts when the project is finished. In organizations like universities, with a variety of digitisation projects, lack of central coordination of these projects could cause “disappearance” of project results, simple because hardly anyone knew about it. We all know these stories, and this report describes the ways these 3 organizations try to avoid that risk.

Internal coordination seems to be a key factor in this process. One organisation integrated more than a hundred databases in a central catalogue, another draw together several teaching collections. Both efforts resulted in visibility of the collections. But this is not enough to achieve permanent (long term) access.  The data will be stored safely, but who is taking care of all the related products, that support the visibility of the data? In other (digital preservation jargon) words, who is monitoring the Designated Community and their changing environment?

The report describes interesting activities.  Take for example this one: the intended public need to be reminded constantly of the existence of the digitized material by promotion actions, otherwise the collections will not be used at all. Who is planning this activity as part of digital preservation? That the changing environment needs to be updated sounds familiar. But there is more reason to do this apart from technical reasons. Websites need to be redesigned to be attractive, to adapt to changing user experiences. And who is monitoring whether there might be a new group of interested  visitors?

Or, as Lyn Lewis Dafgis of the National Library of Wales said, there is an assumption that

once digitised, the content is sustainable just by virtue of living in the digital asset management system and by living in the central catalogue.

And this need to change.

Not seldom digital preservation is seen as something that deals with access to the digital collections somewhere in the future. Permanent access, which is the goal of digital preservation, is often seen as solved by “bit preservation” and if you do a really good job “functional preservation”. This report illustrates with some good examples what more needs to be done and is coloring the not always well understood OAIS phrase “monitoring the Designated Community”.

© 2024 Barbara Sierman