Digital Preservation: Necessary but not sufficient
ISO 16363 is widely considered to be the most comprehensive framework against which one can assess the maturity and robustness of a digital archive. Its aim is to offer recommended practices as objective measurements to assess a digital repositories “trustworthiness,” or more pragmatically its compliance with said practices. “Trustworthiness” is word that implies a level of sustainability, or at least a kind of future trust; however, while the audit does include a significant section on organizational infrastructure (funding, staffing, policies, and contractual relationships) the primary criterion for trustworthiness seems to be an organizations compliance with emerging digital preservation standards.
However, there are many more factors than digital preservation that can impact whether a project will be digitally sustainable. How many well-meaning digital preservation projects have failed simply because there was a lack of administrative support, or the content wasn’t interesting to its intended audience? What about projects that have fizzled out because the metadata operation was not scalable? Or, projects that are deadlocked because a well-written SLA (service level agreement) couldn’t be upheld by a third party? What about well-preserved projects that have no living experts left to interpret and navigate complex reference inquires? Are these projects sustainable?
Digital preservation is vitally important and a mission of digital archives, it is just one of many functional areas that can impact a repository’s overall sustainability. While there exists a number of audit frameworks that exist to measure maturity in digital preservation (such as OAIS, TRAC/ISO 16363, DRAMBORA NESTOR, DSA) there are fewer that offer recommended and sustainable engagement in other functional areas.
One reason audit frameworks may not concern these functions is because they are considered necessary but not sufficient to a repositories defining mission of preservation. Therefore, it could be assumed that they are conditions that have already been met, and that digital preservation is the only requirement to certify the system is performing it’s primary function. This is certainly possible as many digital repositories are built within the organizational framework of a physical library, where they would benefit from the support of other units and divisions.
However, as digital repositories are growing, they are growing more and more operationally complex. It’s true that many digital repositories grow symbiotically with a host organization, where work teams may benefit mutually from the each other’s expertise and products (and hopefully withstanding only a small amount of redundancy). Other digital repository operations grow so large that they may begin to replicate entirely services that were traditionally offered by other departments. Still others, of all shapes and sizes, struggle to find a permanent home — perhaps making due with significant deficiencies in key functional areas. In all of these cases, we should consider a more holistic model of sustainability than is currently modeled by our auditing frameworks.
Conversations around the sustainability of open repositories must move beyond compliance with digital preservation standards. A more holistic model will assess how a digital repository engages all of the “core functions” of traditional libraries and archives.
There are a number of models that explore a more holistic view of traditional libraries and archives. The Society of American Archivists, for example, describe a set of “Core Archival Functions” in the Guidelines for College and University Archives. But for digital repositories, we seem to be limited to overly technical descriptions of infrastructure and systems such as OAIS. Appraisal, Acquisition, Accessioning, Arrangement, Security, Description, Access, Reference, Outreach, and Promotion (borrowing from Gregory Hunter’s “Cyclical Expression of the Archival Mission”) are just a few of the other functional areas in which an archive might be significantly engaged, and which may be critically important to a repository’s pathway to sustainability.
Building upon prior work to audit and characterize digital collections (first presented on at IS&T Archiving 2011 with the latest iteration submitted to Open Repositories 2018), I’ve been mulling over a lightweight framework that teams can use to quickly observe the current state of their digital preservation systems. At it’s heart it follows the same strategy as the Digital Asset Framework (DAF), which means that it is a mostly social rather than document-laden process. Some customization include a suite of recommended software for quickly gathering information regarding fileshares and directories. Others include:
- An overarching approach that allows a team to quickly document the complexities of a digital library including hardware, networks, software, staffing, workflows, marketing plan, reference plan and more
- A holistic “business canvas” that captures high level compliance with functional activities beyond digital preservation
- A set of interview questions for typical stakeholders including storage administrators, collection managers, administration, project managers, and more
- Software and scripts that can be used to quickly characterize drives and directories, charter workflows, and produce a comprehensive inventory of digital collections.