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Thursday, 15 November 2018

Goodbye and thanks

This is my last day as Digital Archivist for the University of York.

Next week I will be taking on a brand new post as Head of Standards and Good Practice at the Digital Preservation Coalition. This is an exciting move for me but it is with some sadness that I leave the Borthwick Institute and University of York behind.

I have been working in digital preservation at the University of York for the last 15 years. Initially with the Archaeology Data Service as part of the team that preserves and disseminates digital data produced by archaeologists in the UK; and since 2012, branching out to work with many other types of digital material at the Borthwick Institute.

This last six years has been both interesting and challenging and I have learnt a huge amount.

Perhaps the biggest change for me was moving from being one of a team of digital archivists to being a lone digital archivist. I think this is one of the reasons I started this blog. I missed having other digital archivists around who were happy to endlessly discuss the merits of different preservation file formats and tools!

Blogging about my work at the Borthwick became a helpful way for me to use the wider digital preservation community as a sounding board and for sense checking what I was doing. I have received some really helpful advice in the comments and the blogs have led to many interesting discussions on Twitter.

In a discipline where resources are often scarce, it makes no sense for us all to quietly invent the same wheel in our own local contexts. Admittedly there is no one-size-fits-all solution to digital preservation, but talking about what we do and learning from each other is so very important.

Of course there have been challenges along the way...

It is difficult to solve a problem that does not have clear boundaries. The use cases for digital preservation in a large institution are complex and ever growing.

I began by focusing on the born digital archives that come to the Borthwick from our donors and depositors. Perhaps if that were the only challenge, we would be further down the line of solving it...

However, we also have the complexities of research data to consider, the huge volumes of digitised content we are producing, the need to digitise audio-visual archives and preserve them in digital formats, the need to preserve the institutional record (including websites, social media, email), and the desire to preserve theses in digital formats. On top of this, is the increasing need to be able to provide access to digital resources. 

The use cases overlap and are not neatly bounded. Multiple integrations with other systems are required to ensure that preservation processes are seamless and can be implemented at scale.

I have frequently reached the limit of my own technical ability. I am an archaeologist with probably above average IT skills but I can only get so far with the knowledge I have. Getting the right level of technical support to move digital preservation forward is key. 

So, I’ve made some mistakes, I’ve changed my mind about some things, I’ve often tried to do too much, but ultimately I've had the freedom to try things out and to share those experiences with the wider community.

Some lessons learned from my 6 years at the Borthwick:
  • Doing something is normally better than doing nothing
  • Accept solutions that are 'good enough' ...don't hold out for 'perfect'
  • Try things out. Research and planning are important, but it is hard to fully understand things without diving in and having a go
  • Digital continuity actually begins quite close to home - consider the sustainability of your blogging platform!

The biggest lesson for me perhaps has been that I have spent much of my 6 years chasing the somewhat elusive dream of an all-singing-all-dancing 'digital preservation system', but in actual fact, the interim measures I have put in place at the Borthwick might be just about ‘good enough’ for the time being.

It is not always helpful to think about digital preservation in 'forever' terms. It is more realistic to consider our role to be to keep digital archives safe to hand over to the next person. Indeed, digital preservation has frequently been likened to a relay race.

So I hereby finish my leg of this particular race and hand over the baton to the next digital archivist...

A big thank you and goodbye to all my colleagues at the Borthwick Institute and across Information Services. It has been fun! :-)




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