Digital Preservation Capabilities at Cultural Heritage Institutions: An Interview With Meghan Banach Bergin

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Meghan Banach Bergin, Bibliographic Access and Metadata Coordinator, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

The following is a guest post by Jefferson Bailey of Internet Archive and co-chair of the NDSA Innovation Working Group.

In this edition of the Insights Interview series we talk with Meghan Banach Bergin, Bibliographic Access and Metadata Coordinator, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. Meghan is the author of a Report on Digital Preservation Practices at 148 Institutions. We discuss the results of her research and its implications of her work for digital preservation policies in general and at her institution in particular.

Jefferson: Thanks for talking with us today. Tell us about your sabbatical project.

Meghan: Thank you, I’m honored to be interviewed for The Signal blog.  The goal of my sabbatical project last year was to investigate how various institutions are preserving their digital materials.  I decided that the best way to reach a wide range of institutions was to put out a web-based survey. I was thrilled at the response. I received responses from 148 institutions around the world, roughly a third each were large academic libraries, smaller academic libraries and non-academic institutions (including national libraries, state libraries, public libraries, church and corporate archives, national parks archives, historical societies, research data centers and presidential libraries).

It was fascinating to learn what all of these different institutions were doing to preserve our cultural heritage for future generations.  I also conducted phone interviews with 12 of the survey respondents from various types of institutions, which gave me some additional insight into the issues involved in the current state of the digital preservation landscape.

Jefferson: What made you choose this topic for your sabbatical research? What specific conclusions or insight did you hope to gain in conducting the survey?

Meghan: We have been working to build a digital preservation program over the last several years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries and I thought I could help move it forward by researching what other institutions are doing in terms of active, long-term preservation of digital materials.  I was hoping to find systems or models that would work for us at UMass or for the Five Colleges Consortium.

Jefferson: How did you go about putting together the survey? Were there any specific areas that you wanted to focus on?

Meghan: I had questions about a lot of things, so I brainstormed a list of everything I wanted to know.  When I reviewed the resulting list, four main areas of inquiry emerged: solutions, services, staffing and cost.  I wanted to know what systems were being used for digital preservation and what digital preservation services were being offered, particularly at academic institutions.  Here at UMass we currently offer research data curation services and digital preservation consulting services, but we don’t have a specific budget or staff devoted to digital preservation, which was why I also wanted to know what kind of staffing other institutions had devoted to their digital preservation programs and the cost of those programs.

Jefferson: What surprised you about the responses? Or what commonalities did you find in the answers that you hadn’t considered when writing the questions?

Meghan: I was surprised at the sheer volume and variety of tools and technologies being used to preserve digital materials.  I think this shows that we are in an experimental phase and that everyone is trying to figure out what solutions will work best for different kinds of digital collections and materials, as well as what solutions will work best given the available staffing, skill sets and resources at their institutions.  It also shows that there is a lot of development happening right now, and this makes me feel optimistic about the future of the digital preservation field.

Jefferson: Did any themes or trends emerge from reading people’s responses?

Meghan: Some common themes did emerge.  Most people reported that budgets are tight and that they are trying to manage digital preservation with existing staff that also have other primary job responsibilities aside from digital preservation. Almost everyone I talked to said that they thought they needed additional staff.  Also, most of those interviewed were not completely satisfied with the systems and tools they were using. One person said, “No system is perfect right now. It’s a matter of getting a good enough system.” Others mentioned various issues such as difficulties with interoperability between systems and tools, lack of functionality such as the ability to capture technical or preservation metadata or to migrate file formats, and struggles with implementation and use of the systems. People were using multiple systems and tools in an effort to get all of the different functionality they were looking for. One archivist described their methods as “piecemeal” and said that “It would be good if we could make these different utilities more systematic. Right now every collection is its own case and we need an overall solution.”

Jefferson: Your summary report does a nice job balancing the technical and managerial issues involved with digital preservation. Could you tell us a little bit more about what those are and what your survey revealed in these areas?

Meghan: The survey, and the follow-up phone interviews, highlighted the fact that people are dealing with a wide range of technical issues, including storage cost and capacity, the complexities of web archiving and video preservation, automating processes, the need for a technical infrastructure to support long-term digital preservation, the complexity of preserving a wide variety of formats, and keeping up with standards, trends, and technology, especially when there aren’t overall agreed-upon best practices.  The managerial issues mainly centered around staffing levels, staff skill sets and funding.

Jefferson: I was curious to see that while 90% of respondents had “undertaken efforts to preserve digital materials” only 25% indicated they had a “written digital preservation policy.” What do you think accounts for this discrepancy? And, having recently contributed to writing a policy yourself, what would you say to those just starting to consider it?

Meghan: We were inspired to write our policy by Nancy McGovern’s Digital Preservation Management workshop, and we used an outline she provided at the workshop.  It was time consuming, and I think that’s why a lot of institutions have decided to skip writing a policy and just proceed straight to actually doing something to preserve their digital materials.  This approach has its merits, but we felt like writing the policy gave us the opportunity to wrap our heads around the issues, and having the policy in place provides us with a clearer path forward.

Some of the things we felt were important to define in our policy were the scope of what we wanted to preserve and the roles and responsibilities of the various stakeholders.  To those who are just starting to consider writing a digital preservation policy, I would recommend forming a small group to talk through the issues and looking at lots of examples of policies from other institutions.  Also, I would suggest looking at Library of Congress Junior Fellow Madeline Sheldon’s report Analysis of Current Digital Preservation Policies: Archives, Libraries and Museums.

Cover page of Staffing for Effective Digital Preservation: An NDSA Report

Jefferson: Your survey also delved into both staffing and services being provided by institutions. Tell us a bit about some of your findings in those areas (and for staffing, how they compare to the NDSA Staffing Survey (PDF).

Meghan: Almost everyone said that they didn’t have enough staff.  One librarian said, “No one is dedicated to working on digital preservation. It is hard to fulfill my main job duties and still find time to devote to working on digital preservation efforts.” Another stated that, “Digital preservation gets pushed back a lot, because our first concern is patron requests, getting collections in and dealing with immediate needs.”  My survey results echoed the NDSA staffing survey findings in that almost every institution felt that digital preservation was understaffed, and that most organizations are retraining existing staff to manage digital preservation functions rather than hiring new staff.  As far as services, survey respondents reported offering various digital preservation services such as consulting, education and outreach.  However, most institutions are at the stage of just trying to raise awareness about the digital preservation services they offer.

Jefferson: Your conclusion poses a number of questions about the path forward for institutions developing digital preservation programs. How does the future look for your institution and what advice would you give to institutions in a similar place as far as program development?

Meghan: I think the future of our digital preservation program at UMass Amherst looks very positive.  We have made great advances toward digital preservation over the last decade.  We have implemented an institutional repository to manage and provide access to the scholarly output of the University, created a digital image repository to replace the old slide library and developed a Fedora-based repository system to manage and preserve our digital special collections and archives. We wrote our digital preservation policy to guide us in our path forward.

We are planning to join a LOCKSS PLN to preserve the content in our institutional repository; we just joined the Hathi Trust which should provide digital preservation for the materials we have digitized through the Internet Archive; and we are working with the Five Colleges to test and possibly implement new digital preservation tools and technologies.  It helps to have the support of the administration at your institution, which we are very fortunate to have.  My guess is that we will see an increase in collaboration in the future, so my advice would be to pay attention to the development of national-level collaborative digital preservation initiatives and to think about state or regional opportunities to work together on digital preservation efforts.

Jefferson: Finally, after conducting the survey and writing your sabbatical report, how do you feel about the current state of digital preservation?

Meghan: I think it’s really encouraging to see institutions trying different technologies and experimenting with what will work even with limited resources and uncertainty over what the best solution might be.  Despite the many challenges, we aren’t just throwing our hands up in the air and doing nothing.  We are trying different things, sharing the results of our efforts with each other, and learning as a community.  It’s an exciting time of innovation in the digital preservation field!

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