Working with many of the techniques of Digital Forensics, Digital Preservationists are moving to the forefront in many institutions, bridging the gap between archivists, technologists and records managers.

Following the official Thursday, August 9, kick off of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) 2012 annual meeting in San Diego, I attended a marvelous session on digital preservation that relied heavily on digital forensics, a preconference workshop I attended earlier in the week.

In short: I had enough context to appreciate the war stories shared by the moderator and her panel:

  • Shannon Zachary, Session Chair (University of Michigan Library, Preservation and Conservation),
  • Kari Smith (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Library, Institute Archives and Special Collections),
  • Sam Meister (University of Montana, Missoula, Mansfield Library), and
  • Jennifer Hain Teper (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, University Library, Preservation and Conservation).

Ms. Zachary introduced her speakers, commenting, “I think preservation didn’t really have a home as late as ten years ago. Dramatic changes are occurring with the mix of born-digital media.” With that brief statement, Ms. Zachary introduced Ms. Smith.

Landscape and Context Setting/Ms. Kari Smith

At MIT, one of the main things we look at and think about is the DCC life cycle approach. It’s fun to hotly debate amongst ourselves, 'When do we need to think about preservation activities?' We don’t want to preserve records at the end of their life cycles when we accession; we want to preserve nearer the records’ creation moments. In addition, we’re engaging content producers, curators and archivists in our preservation activities. We find that partnership between curators and preservation is extremely beneficial -- after all, preservation is a value-add, depending on what you do with your material.”

The challenge, said Ms. Smith, is that the field hasn’t codified preservation skill sets. Job advertisements in preservation are all over the map, none are the same.

“If you could hire one new full-time preservation position, what would you ask for?” she questioned rhetorically. “A technologist with preservation and archival skills? An archivist with technical skills? Does your current content types influence your answers? Does your ability to form partnerships change your answer?”

She recommended preparing an advertisement the right way: study open job postings and position descriptions; review available training; perform a gap analysis to determine partnership development. But ask, are these functions and activities appropriate for this job?

Fold emerging preservation functions such as conservation, preservation, curation, archival processing and digital forensics into the advertisement. Hint: for inspiration, see the Matrix of Digital Curation Knowledge and Competencies. The matrix will help you create a preservation dream team of Records Management, Legal, Marketing; metadata and content specialists, repository managers, IT, and programmers; and the Digital Preservation Officer.

Ms. Smith transitioned her presentation to the kind of questions that keep her up at night. Does reformatting equal digital preservation? Conservation for digital material, whether performed via in-house solutions or outsourced, needs an organizational home. How does archival staff form a partnership between the archives and technology? How do archivists partner with colleagues within the organization so ways of working mirror each other?

“It helps to remember the essentials,” she advised. “Maintain representation information, fixity, provenance, reference context (including administrative, structural and description).”

Conversations about preservation metadata propel discussions forward. “I’m convinced this is a big area for growth. Certainly, within the team opinions on preservation management may vary; sure, good preservation partnerships mean a combination of skill and strategy; yes, concentrate on functions and outcomes rather than roles."

Ms. Smith illustrated three partnership examples at MIT that are driven by the type of record:

  • Administrative Records: IS&T, Library IT, Curation & Preservation Services, Institute Archives, Office of the President;
  • Special Collections (material digitized for conservation): CPS, LASC, Document Services, Media Transfer Vendor; and the
  • Noam Chomsky Papers: Professor Chomsky, Administrative Assistant, Linguistics Administration, CPS, the Project Archivist, the Digital Archivist, IS&T.

The Kitten Effect, or Why Archivists Should Lead the Digital Preservation Charge/Mr. Sam Meister

At the University of Montana, the Conservation & Preservation (C&P) section reports into Archives & Special Collections. Until recently, the C&P effort focused mostly on paper-based, circulating library collections. The Mansfield Library is looking for unique ways to build preservation foundations.

Activity One: Acquisition → Accession → Arrangement & Description → Discovery & Access

In the past year, Mr. Meister has built a policy framework and workflow guidelines that include the following considerations:

  • using tools and workflows from the digital forensics community to transfer records from donors to the archives (in order to maintain records authenticity and integrity and therefore eliminate the risk of loss),
  • preserving records while minimizing potential contextual loss during transfer to secure storage and
  • unquestioned authenticity thanks to sound arrangement and description practices.

Activity Two: Reviewing Digitization Workflows in the Library

When Mr. Meister arrived, the Digital Initiatives Librarian had already departed, creating a significant fissure in leadership and almost no digital preservation presence in important organizational committees. Strategy being the next step, Mr. Meister embedded preservation actions into library workflows. He took advantage of the opportunity to perform a gap analysis that would facilitate an integrated program from a digital preservation perspective. He had a huge list of recommendations of preservation activities, but here are a few examples:

  • collect technical, administrative and preservation metadata
  • ensure a team approach with cooperation from many departments to create a robust technical infrastructure
  • remember bibliographic reference services
  • look to administration for leadership.

The Mansfield Library is considered a smaller institution, which has a number of advantages. Layers of bureaucracy don’t impede progress. Mr. Meister creates relationships more quickly. He engages in digital preservation conversations regularly. Processes move forward.

My main point: I think that where the Digital Archivist position sits in the library’s organizational structure is an advantage. I think the archivist should lead digital preservation in the organization anyway -- it’s our house. But a team approach, 100 percent collaborative, is the best solution. We ensure authenticity of records and we capture content and structure -- because we’re well-positioned in principles and theory. Digital preservation is an opportunity to expand the role,” stated Mr. Meister.

He continued,

So, what does the future look like? The majority of our accomplishments have been inside the boundaries of the library. We’re cultivating new content streams, though. When we build our framework and technical structures we want to be able to respond and have an opportunity to engage further. We’re beginning with digitization.”

Partnerships, New and Old: Preservation in the 21st Century/Jennifer Hain Teper

Ms. Hain Teper spoke next. “Like most institutions, Illinois had a preservation program since the 1930s, focusing on book and paper materials. In the past few decades, book mending transitioned to an awareness of special collections’ needs. In 2000 ... Illinois enjoyed a preservation renaissance ... As we began our work in earnest, digital preservation became hugely important.”

She continued,

Digital preservation has changed our workload significantly. We’ve shifted our focus from massive collections support (13 million volumes) to special collections. Book treatments have dropped by 2/3. In addition, in the last decade we’ve had many retirements and there’s some advantage of recasting positions to meet the needs of the current library system.”

Digital preservation at Illinois was very distributed for a long time across many departments. Today the preservation program doesn’t report to the same person. It coordinates with IT and the archives, but that means prioritization is a big challenge (digital preservation is one of IT’s 66 high priority queues). The current tactic? Meetings, meetings, meetings; money; committees; talking with other programs and involving all staff. IT staff accompanies digital preservation staff on as many road trips as possible.

Meanwhile, the digital preservation staff debates the issue of access versus preservation. Should the list of items that should be preserved be flagged based on their own merit or because a patron requests the material? And Illinois has a lot of patrons! The current tactic: do the best we can as long as we can.

In short, like so many repositories and their programs, Illinois is doing what it can, when it can, and to the best of its ability.

Audience Questions

The audience stayed to ask questions.

Question 1: “There are so many digital assets formats out there to be maintained. What do your institutions prefer?”

  • Ms. Smith: “So, I’m going to punt this a bit, but the whole idea of preservation planning is obviously the critical point. That’s where you decide what formats are appropriate ... Ask yourself, ‘What am I preserving? Is it reformatted or original material? Do I compress down and keep the final product?’ ... What is the type of material you have and what are your needs? How often will you revisit? Digital preservation will always be iterative. Re-appraisal means looking at format types."
  • Mr. Meister: “We haven’t made hard decisions on formats. It’s a fluid time. I suggest you focus on the moment of gaining initial control. Make a decision on a given set of files, with all the potential varieties of formats on a group of disks. Do you normalize? Do you open format? Does keeping both make sense of size and scale of materials of born-digital materials? That decision may change as we face larger scale and different preservation service levels.”
  • Ms. Hain Teper: “We’ve moved to JP2 because of server space availability. For guidance on image files, we look to National Archives and the Library of Congress. Uncompressed AVIs and broadcast WAVs. Materials will be moved to access repository. We don’t want to change too often. We’ve been doing this now for six years. In digital forensics we ask what kind of repository? Are we just storing the bits? Or fully migrating and emulating? There is no clear cut answer."
  • Ms. Smith: “My one recommendation: don’t make everything a PDF.”

Question #2: “What about digital preservation storage in the cloud?”

  • Mr. Meister: “We’re not currently using the cloud, but we’re already considering the cloud as potential storage option. Exciting that it’s already there.”

Question #3: “How do you know when metadata is enough?”

  • The panel responded, preservation metadata is enough. It must be actionable, meaning this is the type of format, time to migrate, access to metadata to perform automated tasks. Do a vote: create a list and rank them. Can we actually populate those? Focus on the 15 that are most important.

Question #4: “What are the characteristics of people who do well in digital preservation over time?”

  • The panel laughed and collectively responded: we’re not absolutely certain, but flexibility, ability to not need micro-managing, to work well with others, not need to have all the answers, to understand that some folks do have the answer…those skills are hugely important. Because of the vast interest in digital preservation, the successful colleague will be required to engage in a number of communities. They should be almost engineers. Definitely they should be problem solvers. They must not have egos. They must share back. Also, they must be quick studies in a fast changing field. They must compromise and be ok with good enough.

Question #5: “The selection of objects for preservation -- what’s the policy?”

  • Nothing formal, the panel replied, but obsolescence rating is important. A recommendation: let patrons have time in the digital preservation lab to see or hear the object before reformatting it into a deliverable for them.

Question #6: “Do you have policies to retain original medium once reformatted?”

  • The three speakers on the panel have all written a digital policy statement in two parts. No. 1: Establish expectation. Do not commit to returning media in any specific timeline. No. 2: No matter the object count, the destruction of media is another concern. Determine the legal issues around effectively keeping custody.

The Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists continues through Saturday, August 11, in San Diego.

Editor's Note: To read more about the SAA 2012 meeting from Mimi Dionne:

-- Digital Forensics for Archivists #saa12