Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian at the University of Oxford, has made an impassioned plea to organisations to implement open policies and practices to preserve our digital memory. He argues that the preservation of digital information is a cornerstone of good policy and that organisations also need leadership, resources and collaboration in order to succeed. Many solutions are being developed though open communities, including software, standards and tools, such as JHOVE for validation and format identification. We all need to take action if we want to avoid losing our collective social memory and not fall into a “digital Dark Age” (see also post, "An Information Black Hole?", 14 February 2015).
Archivists and librarians across the globe are facing a mounting emergency in their efforts to preserve digital data. They are accepting deposits of electronic archives which may already be on the brink of technological obsolescence or, indeed, already have unreadable digital material within their collections, and the problem is growing exponentially. Unlike paper, digital degradation does not follow a steady curve. Even the best IT experts do not know the degradation paths of some formats.
Harvard has adopted a new process to preserve its digital content. Using digital forensics, which was developed to create authentic, unimpeachable data suitable for use as evidence in criminal trials, the archivists retrieve data from obsolete formats using three components: the hardware, the software, and the technician. The first step is imaging which creates a copy of the source medium and replicates the structure and contents independent of the file system. Once the content has been taken from the carrier it can be processed. Then a decision is taken about access, which will be by migration or emulation. Even when the content is retrieved the original media may be retained as advancements are starting to allow the retrieval of content on formats that were previously written off. The archivists are agreed, however, that the problem of obsolescence will not disappear as technology continues to race ahead.
I was interested to hear Jeff James, Chief Executive of The National Archives (TNA) on BBC radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme this morning, responding to Vint Cerf’s comments. Cerf, President of Google, had been speaking at a conference in the USA about the dangers of ‘a hidden century’ in which he highlighted the ever-growing problem of digital preservation. He warned that old computer files could become ‘useless junk’ and even suggested that if we want to preserve our digital photographs we should print them out! The phrase ‘technical obsolescence’ has been around for years with little interest shown by the media except for occasional scare stories. Who remembers the ‘Millennium Bug’?
Now, because of who Cerf is, everyone is starting to take note, which is good. However, what most of the press coverage failed to report was the work that has been going on in this country for many years to try and address this issue, in many cases with limited resources. James was right to flag up the lead that TNA has been taking, producing tools such as PRONOM to map the compatibility of different versions of software. Sterling work is also being done at King’s College and by the Digital Preservation Coalition.
Let’s hear it for some home-grown innovation for once!
The Wedgwood Collection, which was under threat of sale to meet the pension deficit of its parent company, Waterford Wedgwood, has been saved thanks to thousands of members of the public who responded to an appeal by raising £2.74 million within one month. Waterford Wedgwood Potteries collapsed in 2009 with a £134 million pension debt and the museum contents, including over 80,000 works of art, ceramics and archives, were threatened with sale at auction to help meet the deficit. The public donations will be added to the £13 million raised with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and a number of private trusts and foundations. The collection will be gifted to the Victoria & Albert Museum but remain on display, as a long-term loan, in the museum at the Wedgwood factory site in Barlaston, near Stoke.
But why did it have to come to this? Why aren’t such pre-eminent collections, which are a key part of Britain’s heritage, better protected? The Wedgwood Collection was held as a trust. Yet, in December 2011, the High Court ruled that the collection could be sold to pay the company’s creditors. Nearly two years later the Administrator agreed a value of £15.75 million for the collection and gave the Art Fund one year to raise the amount to keep the collection intact. Selling the collection would have meant splitting it into lots and being scattered across the globe. How have archives come to be treated as a commodity to be bought and sold in such a cavalier fashion and to have such high prices put on them? How vulnerable are other collections that have moved to trust status, believing that this afforded them some protection?
Last month Arts Council England (ACE) published its revised vision for the Designation Scheme. In a report entitled Pearls and Wisdom, ACE asserts that it plans to go back to the scheme’s founding principles of “quality and national significance” to celebrate and help safeguard vital collections for current and future generations. ACE is keen to move away from the perception that Designation is a form of quasi-standard akin to Accreditation, so the revised application criteria will no longer include an assessment of the applying organisation’s performance. It is due to re-open for applications in spring 2015.
ACE is also exploring what measures it could take to step in when Designated collections are at risk following several high profile cases in the museums world in recent years, which will be great news if ACE really does have the “clout” to tackle such issues. This was one of the requests from stakeholders in a consultation last year, as was the desire to put public benefit and engagement at the heart of the scheme.
Pearls and Wisdom – http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/news/arts-council-news/pearls-and-wisdom-our-vision-future-designation-sc/
My thoughts, views and musings about what's happening in the world of archives and records management, information and governance, heritage and culture