I had a day at the Society of Archivists’ Conference 2010 in Manchester last Thursday; rather a mixed bag. I wasn’t there in time for the first couple of papers, but caught the main strand on digital preservation after the coffee break. It’s really good to see digital preservation issues get such a prominent billing (especially as I understand there few sessions on digital preservation at the much larger Society of American Archivists’ Conference this year), although I was slightly disappointed that the papers were essentially show and tell rehearsals of how various organisations are tackling the digital challenge. I have given exactly this type of presentation at the Society’s Digital Preservation Roadshows and at various other beginners/introductory digital preservation events over the past year. Sometimes of course this is precisely what is needed to get the nervous to engage with the practical realities of digital preservation, but all the same, it’s a pity that one or more of the papers at the main UK professional conference of the year did not develop the theme a little more and stimulate some discussion on the wider implications of digital archives. However, it was interesting to see how the speakers assumed familiarity with OAIS and digital preservation concepts such as emulation. I suspect some of the audience were left rather bewildered by this, but the fact that speakers at an archives conference feel they can make such assumptions about audience understanding does at least suggest that some awareness of digital preservation theory and frameworks is at last crawling into the professional mainstream.
I was interested in Meena Gautam’s description of the National Archives of India‘s preparations for receiving digital content, which included a strategy for recruiting staff with relevant expertise. Given India’s riches in terms of qualified IT professionals, I would have expected a large pool of skilled people from which to recruit. But the direction of her talk seemed to suggest that, in actual fact, NAI is finding it difficult to attract the experts they require. [There was one particular comment – that the NAI considers conversion to microfilm to be the current best solution for preserving born-digital content – which seemed particularly extraordinary, although I have since discovered the website of the Indian National Digital Preservation Programme, which does suggest that the Indian Government is thinking beyond this analogue paradigm.] Anyway, NAI are not alone in encountering difficulties in attracting technically skilled staff to work in the archives sector. I assume that the reason for this is principally economic, in that people with IT qualifications can earn considerably more working in the private sector.
It was a shame that there was not an opportunity for questions at the end of the session, as I would have liked to ask Dr Gautam how archives could or should try to motivate computer scientists and technicians to work in the area of digital preservation. Later in the same session, Sharon McMeekin from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland advocated that archives organisations should collaborate to build digital repositories, and I and several others amongst the Conference twitter audience agreed. But from observation of the real archives world, I would suggest that, although most people agree in principle that collaboration is the way forward, there is very little evidence – as yet at least – of partnership in practice. I wonder just how likely it is that joint repositories will emerge in this era of recession and budget cuts (which might be when we need collaboration most, but when in reality most organisations’ operations become increasingly internally focused). Since it seems archives are unable to compete in attracting skilled staff in the open market, and – for a variety of reasons – it seems that the establishment of joint digital repositories is hindered by traditional organisational boundaries, I pondered whether a potential solution to both issues might lie in Yochai Benkler‘s third organisational form of commons-based peer-production: as the means both to motivate a community of appropriately skilled experts to contribute their knowledge to the archives sector, and to build sustainable digital archives repositories in common. There are already of course examples of open source development in the digital archives world (Archivematica is a good example, and many other tools, such as the National Archives of Australia’s Xena and The (UK) National Archives DROID are available under open source licences), since the use of open standards fits well with the preservation objective. Could the archives profession build on these individual beginnings in order to stimulate or become the wider peer community needed to underpin sustainable digital preservation?
After lunch, we heard from Dr Elizabeth Shepherd and Dr Andrew Flinn on the work of the ICARUS research group at UCL’s Department of Information Studies, of which my user participation research is a small part. It was good to see the the twitter discussion really pick up during the paper, and a good question and answer session afterwards. Sarah Wickham has a good summary of this presentation.
Finally, at the end of the day, I helped out with the session to raise awareness of the UK Archives Discovery Network, and to gather input from the profession of how they would like UKAD to develop. We asked for comments on post-it notes on a series of ‘impertinent questions‘. I was particularly interested in the outcome of the question based upon UKAD’s Objective 4: In reality, there will always be backlogs of uncatalogued archives.” Are volunteers the answer? From the responses we gathererd, there does appear to be increasing professional acceptance of the use of volunteers in description activities, although I suspect our use of the word ‘volunteer’ may be holding back appreciation of an important difference between the role of ‘expert’ volunteers in archives and user participation by the crowd.