A reflection on the value of the global digital preservation community


I presented the following as a talk as part of #WeMissiPRES on Thursday 24 September 2020.

I was fortunate to undertake a research travel project in August and September 2019. Funded by the Gordon Darling Foundation and supported by the State Library of New South Wales, this allowed me to travel to Europe for the first time and visit organisations across the United Kingdom and Ireland, culminating in attending my first iPRES in Amsterdam.

My research project aimed to investigate how cultural institutions abroad are acquiring, preserving and providing access to born-digital collections. As an early career practitioner, this was an exceptional opportunity to meet and learn from professionals on the other side of the world by visiting galleries, libraries, archives and museums and discussing challenges, workflows, tools and progress in dealing with complex born-digital collections.

I appreciate and acknowledge the time, experiences and knowledge shared with me by those who facilitated and participated in my visits. I would also like to thank the National Library of Ireland for an invitation to Dublin and the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC) for facilitating communication with their members.

Picking up the threads of 2019, it is strange to think of my travels in our current world climate. This year, I have only left home to go to the office once a week over the last month. While on 24 September last year I was boarding a plane back home to Sydney after visiting 20 organisations across 5 cities over 4.5 weeks.

This project included a lot of firsts for me. First time applying for a grant, first time travelling overseas solo and first time conducting professional visits with other organisations. My itinerary included London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Amsterdam and Dublin – a speedy introduction to each city with limited time for exploration outside of appointments and iPRES.

To guide discussion during my visits, I developed a set of research questions to help understand and identify digital preservation practices, challenges and objectives. This was influenced by my work at the State Library, as well as the Digital Preservation Peer Assessment template from the Northeast Document Conservation Center that provides questions to prompt staff at cultural heritage institutions to think critically about their digital preservation activities.

Discussions on working with born-digital collections and digital preservation during my research trip were diverse. From corporate archives, museums, galleries, university or government libraries and everything in between, it was interesting to see where each organisation was in their digital preservation journey and how that related to the Australian context.

Topics discussed included:

  • The significance of physical outputs from digital design processes
  • Sharing and documentation of knowledge within teams, particularly on project-based activities
  • Ingest workflows and digital preservation infrastructure
  • Strategies and organisational commitments to digital preservation
  • Sensitivity of records in corporate archives
  • Complexities of working in environments of continual change
  • Creation of policies and other first steps to drive cultural change within organisations
  • How digital objects are seen in organisations with long history of managing physical objects
  • Challenges with implementation of digital preservation systems
  • Making born-digital part of everyday, normal processes
  • Digital preservation as an environment, or combination, of people, processes, software, and tools
  • Seeking accreditation as a driver for digital preservation

Whether it is copyright, access rights or technical problems, access to born-digital collections was identified as a challenge for everyone. The use of digital preservation systems for both preservation and access was highlighted as an issue, as well as the requirement for resourcing to tackle the ubiquitous ‘backlog’ of born-digital collections that require action.

The last question I asked on my visits was whether the organisation was involved in any digital preservation communities of practice or collaborative projects outside of their organisation, and if so how beneficial they are. Every organisation was involved in some form of community of practice or collaborative project, highlighting their importance and benefit. This was also demonstrated by how generous everyone was with both their time and knowledge. While some of my visits were only for an hour or two, or half a day, there were also several where I spent the entire day with one visit.

Those with digital preservation systems engaged with their associated user community, noting the benefits of sharing experiences, and joint lobbying for roadmap enhancements from suppliers. Outside of organisational memberships, collaborative and research projects were also discussed. 

Many were members of the Digital Preservation Coalition or expressed interest in becoming one. Membership was highlighted as beneficial for those at the start of their digital preservation journey, with consultancy and training, while for others it provided an opportunity to share their knowledge and collaborate with the community in working groups or committees.

Australasia Preserves came up as part of discussions on communities of practice during my visits, which is a digital preservation community of practice for the Australasian region. With members from a wide range of domains across Australia and New Zealand, it was established in 2018 by the University of Melbourne, where the need for a community of practice in our region was evident from the very first meeting. Over the last two years it has facilitated networking, collaboration, connection and learning over our wide geographic area. As a co-organiser for Australasia Preserves, it was great to hear that there was interest in what we have been doing on the other side of the world, and an indication that while a community of practice may be local in its aim it can be global in its reach.

Despite the challenges we have all faced over the last 12 months, progress has still been made within the global digital preservation community to connect and share. The Digital Preservation Coalition opened an Australasian office in Melbourne earlier this year and here we are online for #WeMissiPRES, in lieu of a face-to-face conference, discussing digital preservation.

My experience with the global digital preservation community over the last two years, and particularly during my travels last year, has been welcoming and inclusive, often backed up by codes of conduct that highlight we are a diverse community from a wide range of social, cultural, and professional backgrounds. 

Sharing your work with the community provides an opportunity to reflect, hearing about projects, tools and processes from others can reinforce learnings, strengthen decisions or provide avenues for further investigation within your own context. There is value on both personal and organisational levels to invest time, resources and commitment to collaboration and our global digital preservation community – As William Kilbride noted during my visit with the DPC prior to iPRES last year, digital preservation is a global problem that we cannot solve on our own.

The opportunity to meet so many engaging experts in the field of digital preservation and digital collecting across the United Kingdom, Netherlands and Ireland in 2019 was an undeniable privilege. Scheduling iPRES at the tail end of my travel was rewarding, where a lot of those I met along the way were also in attendance. 

The global digital preservation community of practice is an important resource for us all, so thank you to everyone for being a part of it and sharing your knowledge and experience. And finally, a big thank you to everyone involved in organising and running #WeMissiPRES!