Digital preservationists and IT colleagues

Title page Cinderella's Stick

A recurring theme in the discussions of preservationists is their delicate relationship with IT people and it was no surprise that recently Scott Prater published his article “How to Talk to IT about Digital Preservation” (or here) in which some tips and trics are described to improve the conversation between preservationists and IT people.

But if you really want to help your IT people, train them in digital preservation with a fairy tale book! A few months ago, Yannis Tzitzikas (University of Crete, Greece) asked me to have a look at the manuscript he and his colleague Yannis Marketakis (FORCE-ICS, Greece) wrote. Recently the book was published as Cinderella’s Stick. A Fairy tale for digital preservation. Springer Nature, 2018 ISBN 978-3-319-98488-9 (eBook)

The authors have chosen a very original perspective to explain digital preservation: they took the Cinderella fairy tale and turned it into a modern version whereby the main character is Daphne, an undergraduate student of Computer Science. The marriage with the prince is replaced by the challenge to be nominated as female CEO of a computer company MicroConnect. The nomination will take place via a competition.  Daphne – although not possessing the right credentials to participate – is able to join the competition under a fake name with the help of a friend. The slipper of the original fairy tale is Daphnes USB stick which she left in the computer on which she participated in the contest. And this is the only trace that will lead to winner of the competition. If only the content of the USB stick was readable and understandable… Hence all preservation problems in a fairy tale. With a happy end.

As the intended audience of the book are not only digital preservationists but also engineers, computer scientists and software designers, the fairy tale is accompanied by an explanation of the digital preservation problems that are faced in the story. All ingredients of digital preservation are described: migration, emulation, metadata, characterization etc. etc.  The authors give a technical background of each preservation challenge in the episode as well as links and references for each topic. While the story develops, the technical challenges are getting more complicated and the explanations more detailed.

Chapter 18 is the most technical part and explains the view of the authors on a general approach for digital preservation. This approach is based on the idea of a digital preservation pattern. A pattern “corresponds to a commonly occurring problem in digital preservation”.  Like the pattern 1 “Storage Media: Durability and access” has the desired task to read the bits of a storage medium. Tasks will have dependencies in order to do their job. This model was published before and the examples of the fairy tale helps to make it familiar.

Overview of the pattern model

Both authors participated in European projects like CASPAR and APARSEN (where I met Yannis)  and it is nice to see that even if it might take some years, European preservation projects still show their impact.

Crystal clear digital preservation: a management issue

Digital Preservation of awareness for digital preservation was a frequently used phrase when I started in this field ten years ago (never regretted it, hurray!). We preservationists have made progress. But the story is still not explaining itself. So I like reading how others persuade and convince people. Recently I found a book that really does the job. In crystal clear language, without beating about the bush and based on extensive up to date (until 2014) literature, digital preservation is explained and almost every aspect of it is touched upon. Edward M. Corrado and Heather Lea Moulaison have done a great job with their Digital Preservation for Libraries, Archives and Museums , Rowman and Littlefield, 2014. ISBN 978-0-8108-8712-1 (pbk.) — ISBN 978-0-8108-8713-8 (ebook)

In fact, I should start this blog post with “Dear manager, I have found a book that tells you all you need to know about digital preservation. Spare some time and read the chapter that is dedicated to you (part II) , the sooner the better” [preservationist, please forward this to your manager, they might even read the rest of the book!]

The book starts by explaining what digital preservation is not ( like “backup and recovery”, access, “an afterthought”). Followed almost immediately by the (positively phrased) starting point, that guides the whole book:

“ensuring ongoing access to digital content over time requires careful reflection and planning. In terms of technology, digital preservation is possible today. It might be difficult and require extensive, institution-wide planning, but digital preservation is an achievable goal given the proper resources. In short, digital preservation is in many ways primarily a management issue”.

The red line/ metaphor in the book is the authors “Digital Preservation Triad”. The triad is a new variety of the Three legged stool of Nancy McGovern and is symbolized by a Celtic knot. The knot is used in order to better symbolize the interrelated activities.


These activities are divided into :

  • Management-related activities,
  • Technological activities and
  • Content-centred activities.

Each set of activities is further explained in a dedicated chapter. The chapter about Management activities immediately starts to explain the basics of the OAIS model. Clearly showing that this is the essence of digital preservation. Knowledge of OAIS should be present on management level of an organisation. Only then management can deal properly with aspects like human resources (skills and training), and sustainable digital preservation (costs etc).

The Technology part is more concerned with metadata and file formats and the technical infrastructure or repository, which is closely related to mechanisms of trust (audit and certification).

The last part of the book discusses aspects related to the Content, like collection development.

The text is based on a large literature list in which many recently published conference papers, (EU) project results and reports are used. The authors are well informed about what is going on and do not restrict themselves to the US.

What I liked in this book is the very practical approach and the unvarnished description of digital preservation (‘not easy but doable’). The authors stress that preservationists should convince over and over again management “that digital preservation is important to the overall mission of the organization”, and not just “an experimental technology project” and “communicate the multiple ways in which digital preservation brings value to the organization.”

One of the barriers in this process, at least in my experience, it that people often try to connect their experience in analogue preservation with that of digital preservation. Sometimes this leads to monstrous analogies. This book does not try to map the two worlds, but clearly states:

“The digital item created and made accessible as part of a digital preservation system is fundamentally different from an analogue item. Period.”

Unavoidably some recent developments are missing, like the Cost model work that was done in the 4C project and the work on Preservation Planning and Policies in SCAPE.

But if you still need to convince your management, point them to this book – also available as an epub!

“Materials contain the seeds of their own destruction” . A preservation handbook.

harveyRegularly I have discussions whether digital material and analogue material can be treated the same way or whether the digital aspect requires special treatments, sometimes even resulting in different working processes, staffing and policies. Quite too often this discussion takes place with participants that are either representatives of the digital or of the analogue view. The polite way of trying to understand each other by finding analogies often lead to simplified views and unsatisfying outcomes and nobody gets the wiser. Therefore I was triggered when a new digital preservation handbook exactly raised this issue by stating “This book is based on the philosophy that there are preservation principles that apply to all kinds of materials, whether digital or not.” For a preservation handbook this is a realistic perspective, as organisations have both kinds of materials. The authors present this book as the first example of  ” the essential tools and principles of a preservation management programme in the 21st century – one that addresses the realities of diverse collections and materials and embraces the challenges of working with both analogue and digital collections.”

This being stated, the authors start addressing the different issues related to digital versus analogue and refer to the fact that digitization in the past led to destruction of the related physical objects by assuming that “the information” was saved in the new digital object, a debatable point of view nowadays (see Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold. Libraries and the assault on paper. 2001) . They come with a set of shared preservation principles, for both analogue and digital material.

harvey-2Four principles describe the context and aims of preservation, amongst which the needs of the user is mentioned (a point of view we also see in the OAIS model) as well as “Preservation is the responsibility of all, from the creators of objects to the users of objects“. A set of 8 general principles focus on “collaboration”, “advocacy, “active, managed care” and the preference for actions “that address large quantities of material over actions that focus on individual objects” [ although this is highly dependent on the value of these objects I would say] . The following principle describes the key of preservation: “Understanding the structure of material is the key to understanding what preservation actions to take, as materials contain the seeds of their own destruction (inherent vice)”.

This set of Preservation principles and practices is the red line for the rest of the book, which contains a wealth of information. I can recommend this book to both the digital and the analogue preservationists, as it will contribute to mutual understanding so desperately needed! And don’t complain about the price (90 dollars) : this book might be expensive, but a one day course is more expensive and almost all the rest you want to know about digital preservation is freely available on the internet!

The preservation management handbook: a 21st-century guide for libraries, archives and museums. [Edited by] Ross Harvey and Martha R. Mahard. Rowman and Littlefield, 2014. ISBN 978-0-7591-2315-1 (also available as e-book)