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sl1.jpgPublisher: John Wiley & Sons (23 Jan 2004) ; ISBN-10: 0471453803. Available from Amazon.

OK, so it’s a book about digital security, not about digital preservation. But if there was a book on digital preservation as well written as this then I doubt we would have any problems in getting our message across. Well worth reading.

There are two particular aspects which jumped out as being indirectly relevant to digital preservation concerns, both to do with the interaction of humans with computers:

There is no such thing as a computer system; there are only computer-with-human systems. Well I’m paraphrasing Schneier there, but it’s the sort of thing he would say, and he argues that it is the case. It is pointless to buy a digital security package and then leave the password on a Post-it note gummed to the monitor. It is pointless to invest in 128-bit encryption if the password you choose will be your cat’s name. It is pointless to set up a cutting edge firewall if you pay your staff so little that they will be bribed by a guy in the pub to burn the data onto a CD anyway. Schneier is making the point that an ICT system, by itself, is meaningless: it exists in a world full of humans, and we need to make sure the human elements are as trustworthy as the technical ones. This strikes me as being indirectly relevant to digital preservation. We argue lots about technical aspects – emulation, migration, file formats, metadata, XML etc – but we need to train ourselves up in human pyschology and understand exactly how people will interact with our proposed systems.

Humans don’t do work on data; only progams do. (Another paraphrase there.) Schneier’s explicit point is about encryption, such as PGP. Very often you read statements like “Alice encrypts a message with Bob’s public key, which Bob can then decrypt because he has his own private key.” But in reality, nothing of the sort ever happens. Instead Alice presses a key on her computer. An application then encrypts the message. Nor does Bob decrypt. Instead he presses a key on his own computer, and the computer does the decrypt. Alice is trusting her computer, her OS and the app to do their job, and trusting that the encryption software company haven’t rigged up a backdoor. Bob, too, is trusting a whole load of people that he has never met, purely because he has bought their software.  

There is an analogy here with digital preservation, as Schneier’s point can be extrapolated across to migration and emulation. When someone says “we can emulate X on Y” what they actually mean is “there is company claiming that X can be emulated on Y, and I am trusting them.” Or: “there is a company claiming  that their software can automatically migrate 1,000,000 files from file format X to file format Y with no loss of information content, and I am trusting them.” Or: “there is a company claiming that their checksum software proves fixity in refeshing data, and I am trusting them.” Ultimately we do not trust the technology, we have to trust the people behind the technology.

Most creators of digital records do not care tuppence about the long term preservation of their documents, which is why people in the digi pres field continually try to raise awareness of the issues.

Which prompts a question – does successful emulation undermine our efforts? If the creators of records believe that someone 75 years from now will create a succesful emulator which will run Excel 2003 (say), then there is no pressure on them to create their records now in any other format, is there? Creators can carry on creating records in closed, proprietary formats, to their hearts’ content. Every new report of a successful emulation project is yet another nail in the coffin of trying to persuade creators to use different formats.

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.


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.

jsa1.jpgArticle by Steve Bailey of JISC, in JSA vol 28 no 2, October 2007.

Bailey says that much of the debate about digi pres has been led by technical issues, such as media degradation, bitstream preservation, and emulation vs migration arguments. “Far less attention has been paid to developing technologies for deciding what of the vast volume of information we create must be kept, for what purpose, and for how long” (p119). This means that selection and appraisal becomes crucial. You would think that, in a world where massive volumes of information are created, the ability to sort the wheat from the chaff woud be valued, but this does not seem to be the case. Indeed the trend seems to be to keep everything, and Google for what you want, rather than classify and file. Bailey suggests that this sounds the death-knell for EDRM systems.

He also points out that archivists have long had a problem with physical preservation anyway. Paper and parchment preservation problems are dealt with by conservators, not by archivists, few of whom understand the hard science of the subject. And even before e-records were invented archivists had decided to deal with non-direct media, such as video or sound recordings, by treating them as “special collections” cases. “Digital records are perhaps the latest and most extreme example of our reluctance to get our professional hands dirty (p119).” The difference now is that digital records are simply too ubiquitous for archivists to fob off onto someone else.

I’m not aware of any costings which have actually been done, but my gut feeling is that the balance digital vs. paper comes out in favour of digital. (By “paper” I’m including parchment, photographs etc too.)

1. The biggest single ongoing cost in any repository is staffing. A paper-based archives service has to run searchrooms for users to consult the materials, where users are supervised and security is ensured. So, paper-based repositories have to employ receptionists, searchroom assistants, relief staff to cover when other staff are away etc. A digital repository which makes its assets available over the web does not incur any of these costs.

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The lesson I learned from trying out the old spreadsheet software is that it is very difficult to think oneself back into how applications worked 20 years ago. Trying to operate a spreadsheet which does not support a mouse or ctrl+v etc hotkeys is really hard. This is another problem with emulation. We are expecting our searchers fifty years from now to use an app dependent upon interface devices like a keyboard, a mouse etc, whereas the human-computer interface of 2057 might look nothing like that. Our users won’t know how to operate the application. They will have to sit down with the manual and try to learn a clunky old system, whereas 95% of the time all they want is the raw data. They possibly won’t even be able to copy the data out of the historic 2007 app and paste it into their 2057 app, anyway.