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Acting on Change: impressions of a recent digital preservation conference

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The Parliamentary Archives Digital Preservation Trainee, Grace Bell, gives us her take on the international ‘Acting on Change’ conference:

On 30th November and 1st December the Parliamentary Archives Digital Preservation team attended a conference at the Wellcome Collection Conference Centre, hosted by the Digital Preservation Coalition and PERICLES project. This conference brought people together from a number of different countries and a variety of organisations which allowed for several discussions to form a well-rounded overview of the problems within digital preservation, as well as the beginnings for possible solutions.

The conference began with a keynote from Kara Van Malssen who works for AVPreserve. I felt her keynote provided a well thought out alternative to using the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) model which so many in the digital preservation community appear to have troubles with. Kara’s idea was to ‘look outside the OAIS reference model’. She suggested focusing on maintenance, a topic which frequently popped up throughout the conference, rather than be distracted by innovation and the next shiny resource.

The OAIS discussion panel
The OAIS discussion panel

What became evident to me during Kara’s presentation, and the subsequent panel session, is that many do not necessarily like the OAIS model. This is a feeling which has been evident for several years, and yet what is most surprising is that a new reference model has not been established. Kara’s talk also highlighted a cultural difference within the digital preservation community. I noticed that many of the Americans in attendance were very pro-communication. Not to say that others were not, but that those from America had evidently spent more time thinking about how to open up communication with outsiders to digital preservation.

In the afternoon, several thematic sessions were held. My choice was the ‘Capability Gap’. The session saw five presentations which all seemed to cover the same basic issues digital preservation faces. But this made me think, if everyone is facing the same issues, and it is common knowledge that they are, where are the solutions? Additionally, I felt that unnecessary barriers were being pushed upon us. I felt this especially in the case of whether the digital preservation community trusts vendors. When the controversial topic was raised many seemed familiar with it but did not agree, and those in the room that were vendors were well-defended with strong arguments. They DO listen to the needs of digital preservation. They DO prioritise us. This left me confused as to why the question of trust was brought up when both sides do not feel the issue is as worrying as some may want us to believe.

Day two started off more reassuringly with a keynote speech from Matthew Addis (CTO of Arkivum) on ‘Preservation through the power of many’. I identified a main theme throughout Matthew’s presentation. The theme focused on the issues other organisations outside of digital preservation are having preserving their digital records, and how we, as the digital preservation community have the resources to help resolve these issues. The presentation encouraged my understanding of just how niche digital preservation is and how at the same time is urgently needed.

Matthew Addis gives his keynote speech
Matthew Addis gives his keynote speech

Businesses just do not know they need us yet. Alongside this, Matthew illustrated exactly what it was that he thinks people need to do to be successful in digital preservation. The first thing is to provide immediate benefit, to solve the issues that exist now. Secondly, a reduction in costs. I found this point particularly important as financial issues continually popped up across the two days as one of the biggest barriers to successful digital preservation. Lastly, to be successful you need to be integrated and automated. Saying that, what I concluded to be the most important feature of Matthew’s talk was to get people doing digital preservation without realising. But how do we implement that?

The afternoon of the second day presented workshops of a completely different nature to the day before. I went to ‘Proactive Data Management: Where we are now and where we are going’. There were three presentations, all of which were incredibly technical compared to what I had been hearing throughout the rest of the conference. I felt this may be why they lost a large number of the audience before the session was halfway through. Additionally, although there was a lot of talk about where we are now, there was little to be said for where we are going.

Overall, I found the conference useful. I met like-minded people who had a lot to say on the subject, and it allowed for organisations to discuss what progress they had been making. To conclude how the conference went over the two days I would like to quote a question that was asked on the second day. ‘Do we train archivists in computer science, or computer scientists in archiving?’ A problem which we still do not yet know the answer to, or whether this is the question we should even be asking?

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