Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Digital preservation as a requirement for the use of the digital cultural heritage of today and tomorrow

 Computer Catalog : Consolidated/Convair Aircraft Factory San Diego Equipment, San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive, 1950s, No known copyright restrictions.

Discussing digitisation of the cultural heritage is often very complicated. There are many and various debates regarding digitisation processes and digital access, often concerning difficulties caused by different types of material in different cultural heritage institutions. However, when talking about digital preservation there is an overall agreement about the importance of it. In the responses received from departments and agencies which served as a basis for a work process preceding the national strategy for digitisation, digital access and digital preservation established by the Swedish Government in 2011, there was an overall agreement on the necessity of a coordinated solution for long-term digital preservation for the cultural heritage sector.

We in Digisam are now considering what is needed in order to create coordinated preservation solutions. As a first step we arranged a seminar about digital preservation together with professionals from the National Archives.  We examined the way in which National Archives deal with digital preservation today, something they started with already in the 1970s when the first digital deliveries of archive material from government agencies begun.

The first issue to address is what digital preservation actually is. Usually, in the cultural heritage sector, we talk about ​​digital long-term preservation. But behind this term there is a whole variety of concepts and choices. Sometimes we also talk about short and medium term digital preservation solutions.

There are several different definitions of long-term digital preservation, often depending on the context. The LDP Centre (Centre for long-term digital preservation) website contains the following definition (originally in Swedish): which I think sums up the complexity in a good way: "Long-term preservation: A time period that is longer than the lifetime of the system (hardware and software). Preserving with a thought of "the next generations." Nowadays the average lifespan of digital systems is considered to be between three to seven years."

The LDP-center definition points out the essential question – that digital content managent should be done in the same strategic way as the preservation of analog information. In Swedish archival context, there is no upper time limit for the public documents that the public administration shall keep, which means that the freedom of information legislation  is not time limited. Much of the problem is that software and hardware only have a lifespan of a few years because of the fast development of technology. This means that you constantly need to migrate the digital information to ensure that it can be preserved for the future.

To handle the information in the future you also need to have comprehensible technical metadata of various kinds, not only in regard to the content itself but also metadata describing the structure and context. The archives sector often use conceptual models as the OAIS model, where the "archive packages" of metadata describes how the information should be read and also how the technological environment in which the information was created looked like. In recent years, several EU projects played an important role for working with digital preservation, including CASPAR, PLANETS, etc. The National Archives has also participated in the work on digital preservation in various European contexts, for example as a coordinator of PROTAGE, a research project that was about the application of agent technology in digital preservation.

EU project DC-Net has published a study on services for digital preservation: "Digital preservation services: state of the art analysis" which is available as a pdf from the project website. The report is based on the analysis that provides an overview of 190 available tools and services that support digital preservation. DC-Net project has also published "Service Priorities and best practices for digital cultural heritage", which also can be downloaded as a pdf file from the project website. It points on the long-term digital preservation as the most important priority.

In our dialogue with representatives of cultural heritage institutions, several expressed a desire to investigate whether a centrally managed cloud solution could be an option. It is almost certainly more cost-and resource-efficient, as opposite to all institutions investing resources in expertise, staff and building their own technological solutions. But to make it possible, it is extremely important to define the needs for preservation at different institutions in order to select the most suitable preservation solution. All digital information is not to be preserved "forever" but the preservation aspect is crucial even before the digitisation process starts. We have just begun our work with this complex issue and will write continuously as our work progresses. Do you work with digital preservation in the cultural heritage sector? Please send us your feedback!

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