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Profile: William Kilbride of the Digital Preservation Coalition

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“In my career I have always switched between computing and archaeology and at various points I have tried to escape back into archaeology,” said William Kilbride. Archaeological data management set him on the path to his current position as executive director of the UK-based Digital Preservation Coalition. Helping to establish international digital preservation standards might just prevent him from escaping back to archaeology for awhile.

William Kilbride, executive director of the Digital Preservation Coalition

During Kilbride’s early years of practice, archaeologists began generating and using increasingly larger quantities of data from electronic resources such as Landsat photographic surveys and geoprospection in searching for archeological sites. He said, “I found myself trying to solve data management problems for awhile, not realizing that the problem was much bigger and one which we very much shared with others.”

He saw more evidence of those shared problems when he lectured at the University of Glasgow and yet again when he later became the assistant director of the Archaeology Data Service. Kilbride said, “They (the ADS) were trying to tackle this problem in a more effective and orderly way than I was able to do on my own. And that was really what got me into digital preservation.”

In 2006, he became research manager of Glasgow Museums (there are 14 museums in Glasgow) where — while running several IT projects — he encountered a digital preservation situation that demonstrated to him how vast, complex and challenging institutional digital preservation can be.

A survey he conducted of the museums’ digital preservation needs exposed a fragmented situation that Kilbride said was not particularly remarkable for an institution that size but had to be addressed. Sixteen different departments had different kinds of digital-preservation needs. Conservators were concerned about preserving digital artworks, records managers about digital records as well as the core IT team. “All of the departments had a stake in digital preservation but none had a particular responsibility to look after it,” said Kilbride. “This fragmentation made a complicated problem all the harder to address.”

When a post became available at the Digital Preservation Coalition in 2009, one of Kilbride’s ADS colleagues alerted him. “I had been quite involved in the DPC when I was with the Archaeology Data Service,” said Kilbride. “Rather more of an informal friendship than a formal relationship, but the University of York was host to both the Archaeology Data Service and the DPC and from its early days we shared a lot. At one point we even shared some staff. I got my arm twisted into applying to the DPC and I was quite delighted when I was appointed. It was about working with digital preservation across all institutions rather than just in my own institution in Glasgow or in my own discipline of archaeology.”

The DPC is a not-for-profit membership organization with approximately 40 members, mostly organizations based in the UK and Ireland. “It has two key roles,” Kilbride said. “The first is advocacy: raising awareness and contributing to public policy debate within institutions and government. The second is communication: helping with training, clarifying information from researchers, providing reports and fostering access to professional networks.”

The DPC helps broker collaborative partnerships. Kilbride said, “We are described as a kind of a matchmaker or a dating agency. The DPC enables access to what would otherwise be exotic partnerships and collaborations. Our members include major art museums, scientific research institutions and community as well as libraries and archives.”

The DPC has been conducting training and outreach in the UK since 2009. One of its most notable activities was its roadshows series, which it held at various locations to help raise awareness of digital preservation tools and techniques.

“We thought ‘How can we provide really simple, really straightforward bits of authoritative advice that people — small scale organizations — can run with and just do in their daily work?’. So we got together with partners and created a daylong workshop with a combination of presentations, case studies and simple practical exercises.

“Some of the people needed to hear a simple message like ‘Don’t keep the backups on the floor of the server room.’ Preservation planning is something you can begin to do without a huge resource or huge technical infrastructure or staff.”

The first round of roadshows was conducted around local government and county archives with the Archives and Records Association and the National Archives. The second round was aimed at the library community and was delivered in conjunction with the British Library Preservation Advisory Centre. Of the second round, Kilbride said, “We explicitly called it ‘Getting Started in Digital Preservation’ because we just wanted people to be able to get started and not be bewildered or put off by the complexity of the issues that they may perceive.” The response was overwhelming and the DPC had to turn people away.

In 2012 the DPC organized a single-day event for students of archiving, library and information studies, with support from various sponsors. Kilbride said, “We thought we should try to give them some career advice. It is difficult because there is no obvious career path in digital preservation but we know there will be in the future. And instead of me just saying, ‘Here are the careers,’ we got people out who had, like myself, in some way sort of stumbled into digital preservation, who talked about their problems and their challenges.”

Kilbride advocates training for all information management professionals in what he considers fundamental skills, where they do not need to specialize in information technology but they should be conversant in it. “A lot of digital preservation requires collaboration,” said Kilbride. “And a lot of that collaboration means that some services are going to be done for you by someone else. And you clearly need to understand what it is they are doing, even if you don’t need to understand the detail of how they have implemented it.”

NDIIPP and the DPC share common elements, one of which is a dedication to outreach. Indeed, Kilbride is on the advisory committee of the Digital Preservation Outreach and Education program.

Another is the public recognition of excellence in digital preservation and every two years the DPC presents awards. Kilbride encourages anyone with a stake in digital preservation to go to Digital Preservation Awards 2012 and consider applying.

These awards are not limited to the UK and they underscore the fact that digital preservation is an international issue. Despite a decade of progress in digital preservation among global institutions, Kilbride cautions that on an international scale he sees the fragmentation that he encountered among Glasgow institutions six years ago. He said, “The paradox is that with all of our projects internationally, we have taken what was quite a daunting problem and we made it even harder because we now have all of these acronyms and initiatives and tools and services that are slightly fragmented and don’t quite work together. And that creates a new barrier to participation.

“Digital preservation is a shared, international challenge. It’s an issue without borders.”

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