Archive for July, 2008

This article was written for the Society of Archivists ARC magazine, October 2008

It was pleasing to see a good number of archivists at this event, organised by the Digital Preservation Coalition (http://www.dpconline.org/) in conjunction with the European digital preservation research consortium, Planets (http://www.planets-project.eu/). The day was billed as an informal and interactive workshop, allowing attendees to share knowledge and experience of digital preservation policy and strategy, together with a hands-on session using PLATO, Planets’ automated preservation planning tool.

There was considerable interest in the morning session in Natalie Walters’ account of the Wellcome Library’s Digital Curation in Action Project (http://library.wellcome.ac.uk/node288.html). The Wellcome is typical of many collecting archive services in the UK in that it has little control over the types of material offered for preservation by its private depositors, but the Digital Curation Project is an excellent example of how traditional archival practice can be successfully adapted to the digital world in a practical setting. As Matthew Wollard from the UK Data Archive pointed out, one cannot hope to construct a sustainable digital preservation policy from a purely theoretical point of view: both UKDA and the Wellcome approach digital preservation planning as a strategic imperative for the organisation and its user community, coupling this with a solid understanding of relevant standards and the technological and legal constraints, something which can only really be gained from practical experience of actually working with digital archives. The continued relevance of archival practice in the digital realm should offer encouragement to those just setting out to address the digital archives challenge. Our professional training provides a sustainable platform from which to build capacity and understanding in handling digital material.

PLATO is an online tool designed to help organisations identify, evaluate and select the best preservation methods for individual types of digital object. It is designed to enable comparison of the various strategies (migration, emulation etc.) available, and experimentation in the use of third-party preservation tools. The experiments can then be uploaded into PLATO and stored for re-evaluation at a later point. The process starts with a detailed mapping of relevant object characteristics (content, structure, context, appearance etc.) for a representative collection sample within a specific institutional and user community setting. Only after this very detailed planning does the tool proper come into play in assessing alternative strategies for preservation.

There are concerns, certainly, about the scalability of the PLATO tool. For my own local authority archive service, for instance, the bulk and variety of digital archives we can expect to receive would make the detailed utility analysis overly onerous to use on every occasion, even selecting a small sample of records for planning purposes. The intention is to build template solutions using the tool, for organisations facing similar type problems to adopt, and one of the options being considered for the sustainability of PLATO itself is to develop the project into a third party preservation service, into which external partners could submit their own custom-built tools as a community resource.

It occurred to me, however, that perhaps the greatest value from the PLATO tool to smaller archive services derives not so much from the output results as from the discussion and debate which informs the experiment definition. Throughout the day, contributors to the workshop emphasised that successful preservation planning required input from a wide range of stakeholders – creators, curators, IT staff, users, managers etc. This reminded me of the Revisiting Archives approach to cataloguing. At West Yorkshire Archive Service, I hope to adapt the PLATO approach to preservation planning into awareness raising and training sessions emphasising the need for a rounded community effort to help preserve our local digital heritage.

All the presentations from the workshop are now available at http://www.dpconline.org/graphics/events/080729PlanetsBriefing.html. You can find out more about PLATO and register at http://www.ifs.tuwien.ac.at/dp/plato.

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