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On Monday I attended the What to Preserve? The Significant Properties of Digital Objects conference at the British Library conference centre, jointly organised by JISC, the BL and the DPC. It was particularly nice to meet some people there whom I had previously only known through email. Here are my own notes on some of what was discussed on the day.

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The Koninklijke Bibliotheek in the Netherlands has produced a report Evaluating File Formats for Long-Term Preservation, available here, which introduces an evaluative scheme for assessing the fitness of a file format for preservation, and which then applies this scheme to two example formats, specifically MS Word 97-2003 doc format and PDF/A. Of course, identifying the winner of these two particular formats is easy (it might have been more interesting to see a closer contest such as ODF vs PDF/A) but it’s still an interesting exercise. The report was written by Judith Rog and Caroline van Wijk.

The scheme

Each file format is awarded a score on a particular criterion, such as “adoption: world wide usage” or “robustness: support for file corruption detection” and so on. The scores are weighted and then added together to give a total score. This total score then provides a quantifiable evaluation of how useful the format is as a way to preserve digital information for the long term.

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beagrie1.gifNational Digital Preservation Initiatives: An Overview of Developments in Australia, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom and of Related International Activity. Commissioned by the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, Library of Congress; report by Neil Beagrie, April 2003. Copublished by the Council on Library and Information Resources and the Library of Congress. Available on the Council on Library and Information Resources website here.

Neil Beagrie did his report as an independent consultant, and drew on selected non-USA projects which were taking place in 2002, specifically in the UK, Australia, France and the Netherlands. One of his key findings was that good digi pres practice depended not just on technology but also on having in place a coherent, flexible organizational framework.

Report highlights:

Underlying trends

None of the four countries surveyed had (in 2002) a single national initiative for digi pres. Instead, already-extant institutional missions were being extended to cover the digital realm.

Institutions receive no additional or core funding to address digi pres issues. Winning project grant funding for preservation is often more difficult than winning it for access. It is usually easier to win funding for partnership prjects, so the digi pres world contains some notable examples of collaborative projects and organisations (DPC, PADI etc) – see below. The drawback of all this, however, is that becomes far too easy for an organisation to sideline digital preservation into becoming a special, time-limited activity. In reality, digital preservation should be integrated into an organisation’s core responsibilities.

There is decreasing clarity over who has responsibility for archiving. Digital activities take place on a non-geographic scale, outside the traditional national/regional/local breakdown. IPR issues further confuse this. Many institutions do not hold physical copies of works, but instead license access to them.

In the digital environment the distinction between ‘publication’, ‘manuscript’, ‘record’ etc is blurred. Libraries and archives may need to overlap more.

Collaboration

Although there has been much collaboration on research, models etc there has been little practical collaboration on coordinating actual collections. Beagrie could only identify PANDORA as a working example. Collaboration could be extended to develop effective strategies in other areas, such as a preservation technology watch, shared services, or even a distributed network of digital archives.

Collaboration takes some effort, though. It cannot be used as an escape route for your own insititution to evade its responsibilities to understand digi pres, or to train up staff skills in that area. All good collaboration involves an investment in diplomacy and relationship-building.

Beagrie’s recommendations

Make a start on a small defined scale, and build in a feedback mechanism for contnuous learning. “Let experience, practice, and policy evolve and inform each other.” Get behind only one initiative rather than attempt to get involved in lots.

Build on the people and skill set you already have. “Digital preservation cuts across a wide range of activities and departments. Awareness and capacity must be built internally so that a wide range of staff can contribute to digital preservation as part of their daily activities.”

Integrate digital preservation into the centre of your organisation, rather than get sidelined as a project luxury.

Get involved with your stakeholders, especially the creators of documents. Know them face-to-face, if possible, and work with them. Preservation intervention needs to occur at a much earlier stage with digital records than with paper ones.

Published by the National Council on Archives, 2005. The only reference to digipres I can see is section 2.3.3, Ensuring appropriate developments in electronic preservation.

“‘Born digital’ and digitised materials provide a new challenge to the domain. Electronic records are a reality in 21st century Britain with distinct characteristics that archives must be able to deal with. There are complex issues that need to be addressed to ensure the safe keepingof these records and The Digital Preservation Coalition was set up in 2001 to co-ordinate action. The NCA is co-ordinating a working group of key partners on digital preservation which is producing a digital preservation handbook and advocacy document in autumn 2005. There is a danger that funders consider these records to be too ‘new’to warrant a substantial outlay of resources to ensure their preservation. However, the nature of these materials mean that there are important preservation issues to be considered from their creation, such as whether information needs to be migrated from proprietary software to open standards and what are the best storage methods for the materials in the short and longer term.

Establishing basic capacity to achieve this is clearly an issue for core funders. There have been some positive steps forward, for example in 2004 The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) awarded grants of over £1 million to nine UK educational institutions and their partners to support digital preservation in higher and further education, however there is scope for much more work to be done. The NCA would welcome further additional funding into the domain to address these issues and to demonstrate commitment to preserving current records for posterity.”

OK. The case study given is TNA’s Digital Archive, launched 2003. Full report is here.