6 Wishes for the Human Face of Digital Preservation

Technology is the easy part of digital preservation.

Wall of human faces, Maropeng exhibition, Cradle of Humankind, by flowcomm, on Flickr

Wall of human faces, Maropeng exhibition, Cradle of Humankind, by flowcomm, on Flickr

Actually it’s only easy relative to the other challenges that libraries, archives and other memory institutions face in keeping and serving digital content. The really hard stuff comes down to people: how staff are organized, empowered and trained to do the work.

I see two basic issues here. First, current digital preservation processes vary with content creator, type and scale; as a result practice, where it is present, tends to live in narrow content silos.

Second, for most institutions, work with digital content is undertaken in addition to–and perhaps in competition with–traditional analog materials. Perhaps the most fundamental question an institution faces is how to integrate work with digital content into well-established routines for managing traditional collections. The job is daunting: policies need to be rewritten, staff retrained and organizations transformed, often without additional resources.

One institution does tell an inspiring story about meeting the test. The authors of The Human Face of Digital Preservation: Organizational and Staff Challenges, and Initiatives at the Bibliothèque nationale de France tell of the work the venerable institution has been doing to reinvent itself since 2003. Declaring that digital activities “have gone from isolation to integration,” the article outlines how the BNF reorganized itself and trained staff in digital information management so that “today the library has become digital.”

Admirably, the paper recognizes that continuing effort is necessary, and tells of an organizational survey undertaken to identify staff concerns.  The study revealed “six main wishes” on the part of those surveyed.

Before going into them, let me say that characterizing the six as “wishes” rather than “recommendations” is marvelous and very humanizing.  We think about our personal hopes and aspirations in the form of wishes: “I wish I could go to the beach,” or “I wish I could move to a nicer house.”  Recommendations are dryer, less personal, more bureaucratic.  I’ll take a wish over a recommendation any day!

That said, the wishes themselves are excellent summaries of what perhaps any staff would want from any organization in connection with digital preservation.  Here they are, in brief.

  1. Clarify the Institution’s Policy. Despite many official documents and pronouncements, staff wanted a more thorough exploration of what “digital” means for the organization and a more precise description of the library’s policies at the operational level.  Staff also wanted a clear commitment for the library to maintain a strategic role with external partners, nationally and internationally.
  2. Define Priorities. The library should set clear expectations about balancing workload in connection with digital and non-digital materials, including determinations for establishing new activities and discontinuing old activities.
  3. Define What a Digital Collection Is. Staff found the phrase is used often without a full understanding about the elements of a collection, who is responsible for which parts of it, or what tools and skills are needed to manage it.  A common understanding is needed at the functional level.
  4. Facilitate Transverse Workflows. This touches on my point above about narrow practices focused on specific kinds of digital content.  Staff wanted skill sets and workflows that more easily spanned departmental boundaries.
  5. Develop Skills. Those surveyed felt that more library staff should have the opportunity to develop knowledge and experience working with digital content.  It was observed that the current situation involving reliance on a few experts could limit the library’s capacity over the long run.
  6. Analyze the Evolutions of Job Qualifications. Staff wanted comprehensive and flexible digital training, especially in connection with the relationship between specific library mission tasks and information technology.  This could training librarians in IT matters as well as bringing in new staff with specific IT expertise.

Any memory institution would do well to keep these wishes in mind.  The extent to which these wishes come true will govern the progress institutions–and their staff–make in adapting to the digital world.

4 Comments

  1. lentigogirl
    August 17, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    excellent wishes AND recommendations!

  2. Berte Schachter
    August 18, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    In my preparation for teaching in this area, I have come to that exact conclusion. Thanks for articulating this so well!

  3. Meg
    September 16, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    For my MSLS master’s paper I interviewed staff involved in the planning and implementation of a digital preservation repository on general challenges that they faced, and (tellingly) their responses overwhelmingly pointed to staff and institutional hurdles were the toughest to overcome.

    These are wonderful and thoughtful recommendations. I look forward to reading the entire BNF report as well.

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