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Archive for June, 2008

Having read through the original LIFE project documentation, I was looking forward to the project conference for the follow-on research, LIFE2. It is all too common, unfortunately, to hear doom-laden rumours being peddled about the supposed high costs of digital preservation, often in contexts where this truism becomes a convenient excuse to avoid addressing the real challenges of digital curation and preservation. Chris Rusbridge argued in an ARIADNE article that digital preservation being expensive is simply a fallacy. For the local government archives context at least, it seems to me that there is simply insufficient evidence to either support or discredit the assertion. Would LIFE2 offer us an objective tool to assess the likely costs of developing and running a digital preservation service for local government?

LIFE2 promised a revised lifecycle costing model, including mappings to relevant digital preservation standards such as OAIS, clearer element descriptions, and a new set of case studies, including an examination of non-born digital newspaper material. This case study was designed to allow for the comparison of analogue and digital lifecycles and to begin a cost comparison.

Whilst the revised LIFE2 model is more closely aligned in terminology to OAIS, and the elements now appear in a more logical order, I admit I was disappointed that the model does not seem as transferable to the local government archives context as I had hoped. As Neil Beagrie pointed out in his presentation of the costs of curating research data, the decision to exclude infrastructure costs such as the start-up costs of building a digital repository or of maintaining a technology watch service means that the tool could not be used in business cases making the comparison case for or against curating digital material in-house or for outsourcing – the major decision facing me at West Yorkshire Archive Service – although some attempt to address this shortcoming is being made with the development of a Generic Preservation Model (GPM), which will be released at the end of the LIFE2 Project.

The newspaper case study also ran into difficulties around differing patterns of access and the problems of retrospective costing. Although the case study continued using a per entity costing model to assess the relative costs of preserving a digitised newspaper collection with a year’s analogue curation costs of legal deposit newspapers, the results, although interesting, are not truely comparable.

I had hoped I might be able to use the tool to compare the not inconsiderable costs of building and fitting out an archives building for traditional materials conforming to BS5454, with the costs of developing automated tools and digital storage and management capacity for born-digital and hybrid collections. There was discussion at the end of the day about how the LIFE project might progress in a next phase, which – promisingly – included the development of a predictive tool for costing, further case studies and scenario building, and a proposal that comparison studies are made between the costs of a shared preservation service versus an in-house digital repository.

There was also extensive discussion during the panel session about the need to demonstrate the value of digital preservation, particularly to funding bodies. The LIFE tool offers a method for digital repositories to assess costs; different kinds of value assessments are required to convince funders. The point was also made that the more significant properties of digital objects a repository attempts to preserve, the greater the cost – making me ponder on the potential for integrating the lifecycle costing models into preservation planning tools, such as PLATO.

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A useful sneak preview of the PLATO preservation planning tool, something I’d heard about but not really understood how it might fit in to a practical digital preservation context.

PLATO is designed to help organisations identify, evaluate and select the best preservation methods for individual types of digital object. It is designed to enable experimentation on sample objects of the various strategies (migration, emulation etc.) and tools available (eg DROID). The experiments can then be uploaded into PLATO and stored for re-evaluation at a later point.

I’m not really sure how practical a tool this will prove to be (in its current state of development) in the local authority archive service. The bulk of digital records we can expect to receive might make the detailed utility analysis approach overly onerous to use, even selecting a small sample of records for planning purposes. Nevertheless, one to keep an eye on. There is a DPC Digital Preservation Planning event in London later in July which will give an opportunity to discuss and experiment with the tool in more detail.

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At the DELOS Summer School on Preservation in Digital Libraries, which so far more than lives up to my expectation that it will provide an excellent overview of current and emerging digital preservation research and practices.

A comforting thought for local government Archive Services from the presentations on day 1:

  • that digital preservation is as much about organisational and cultural challenges as technical ones. Something we can all start to address – now.

And also a rather more concerning one:

  • the emphasis in OAIS on serving a designated community, something which is in any case hard to determine for traditional record offices with geographically defined collection policies. Priscilla Caplan also points out that the OAIS requirement that material preserved in an archival system should remain understandable to that community has not usually been part of the mandate of ordinary libraries or archives.

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