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SPRUCE-Up for Digital Preservation Community Engagement: An Interview with Paul Wheatley

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I was fortunate to have the opportunity to talk (via email) with Paul Wheatley, of the SPRUCE Project,about an assortment of activities, issues and ideas relating to digital preservation. Leeds University Library is leading the Sustainable PReservation Using Community Engagement project, collaborating with the British Library, the Digital Preservation Coalition, the London School of Economics and the Open Planets Foundation. Our conversation is below.

Paul Wheatley
Paul Wheatley

Bill: The SPRUCE Project is quite an innovative undertaking that is tackling a number of big issues. Can you give us a quick overview of the project, timeline and objectives?

Paul: We’re working to support digital preservation in the UK from the ground up. So we’re aiming to support organizations in taking some initial steps in practical preservation of their data and then finding a way of making it sustainable. We’re applying a strongly community focused approach. SPRUCE is there primarily to encourage and shape the interactions. Most of the experience and expertise is already out there, it’s just a little isolated.

Our Mashup events are a key part of the project. We get practitioners to bring along samples of their digital collections, work with them to identify the digital preservation problems and then team them up with technical experts who can work with them to solve the challenges. In the process we exchange that existing expertise that we all have, and build the connections we need to keep those exchanges going. You can see the results here. We’re also making small funding awards available to help sustain and embed the outputs of the events. We’ve funded five projects so far, and there will be more in 2013. The final element of SPRUCE is focused on developing a business plan for digital preservation. All this has been made possible with generous funding from JISC.

Bill: I am really impressed with the SPRUCE work on business plans. Do you see this as tied to the need to “articulate a compelling value proposition” as called for in the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access? Are there other considerations at play?

Paul: That’s certainly a big part of it. I think we’re all familiar with the core problems. Digital preservation is a long term thing in a world obsessed with the short term. It doesn’t sound particularly exciting and it therefore doesn’t pull in the resources that we know it deserves. The practitioners we work with in our Mashups are very clear about the difficulty they have in making the case to their institutions to fund their work adequately. So we’re aiming to develop a resource that will help the preservationistas on the ground get the money they need to do their job well.

Bill: Have you had the opportunity to draw any preliminary conclusions from your work with business plans? To what extent do you think academic and cultural heritage institutions are prepared to undertake this approach?

Paul: We’re still collecting the raw materials for this work, in part through our Mashup events where we take our practitioners through some key business plan building exercises and capture what they come up with. The end result is still taking shape, but we’re aiming for a toolkit that provides the approaches, justification, raw material and detailed examples for building a business case and delivering it effectively. I’m hopeful we’ll also have an array of complimentary bits and pieces that can help build the message. The Atlas of Digital Damages that we’ve been putting together (that’s “we” meaning the community – so nice to see!) is a great example. Thanks go to Barbara Sierman for the idea (and the great name) which seems to have really struck a chord.

Bill: How is the Crowd sourced Representation Information for Supporting Preservationeffort going? I see you are seeking “information about file formats, data structures or relevant standards” and “information about tools that render or interpret digital objects.” All of this is clearly important, but is it possible to single out an element as especially critical?

Hacking and mashing at the SPRUCE Mashup in Glasgow, April 2012
Hacking and mashing at the SPRUCE Mashup in Glasgow, April 2012

Paul: It’s disappointing, but we’ve not seen the kind of initial uptake we were hoping for. We wanted to demonstrate that contributing to a community driven project could be really quick and really simple. You can chip in to cRIsp by submitting a URL in under 30 seconds. Even if it’s only a single symbolic submission, I think it’s a real statement for people in this field to put their hand up and say “yes I do want to help fix these challenges”.

We all know that we need to take on the file format registry problem if we’re to make any kind of real difference to the digital preservation challenges we’re facing. But in the last ten years of tackling this problem we’ve made very little progress. The registries we have created are virtually empty, and that remains a big digital preservation fail for this community. We will keep plugging away however, and Open Planets Foundation should have some interesting stuff to reveal for the Archive Team’s File Format Month! We’re also contributing to a 24 hour file format identification hackathon with our colleagues at Archivematica and CurateCamp. From the starting point of a little conversation on Twitter, this one has seen loads of interest from around the globe. We’re hoping it will be a great success!

Bill: SPRUCE “mashes up” a broad range of partners. What would you say are the major benefits from collaboration?

Paul: Getting the kind of expertise we have on SPRUCE from just one organization would be very difficult. When you bring together the right combination of partners and individuals there’s definitely a greater than the sum of the parts element to it. SPRUCE feels like a bit of a dream team with the British Library, Open Planets Foundation, Digital Preservation Coalition and our two academic partners: LSE and University of Leeds! The real stars however are our Mashup participants. They do all the real preservation work on SPRUCE! We have a number of regulars who keep coming back for more. For example, Maurice de Rooij from the National Archives of the Netherlands has been fantastic, and finally won the participants’ award for best developer at our last Mashup.

Collaboration can add a new energy to proceedings, and a shared ownership of a problem. I talked extensively at iPRES on the duplication and poor communication that is sometimes prevalent in this field. We really need to operate more effectively as a community if we’re to make best use of the limited resources we have. I spend quite a bit of my time promoting these collaborative initiatives and encouraging a more open way of working.

Bill: Collaboration isn’t always easy; sometimes it’s referred to as “collabatition” (or worse). Can you describe any challenges or barriers that you have experienced?

Paul: Great question! Some of the best examples are probably a little too spicy to describe in a public forum, but suffice to say that collabitition isn’t wide of the mark. I’ve certainly used worse terms! The key to collaboration is trust. You’ve got to build a sound relationship with potential partners first, before progressing to more formal ties. The horror stories I’ve encountered previously tend to occur when organizations come together without the key individuals who will be doing the work together having built up any kind of relationship. It does sometimes surprise me how eager people can be to string a set of partners together for a funding bid, with no real idea of what those partners will be like to work with. Any collaboration comes with an overhead of communication and coordination, so you’ve got to give yourself a strong chance of forming a successful consortium otherwise it’s simply not worth the risk.

The LIFE-SHARE Project did some nice work in drawing together the lessons learned from cross institutional provision of a digital repository service, and is well worth a read for anyone looking to collaborate more widely.

Dumbo Arts Center: Art Under the Bridge Festival 2009, by See-ming Lee 李思明 SML, on Flickr
Dumbo Arts Center: Art Under the Bridge Festival 2009, by See-ming Lee 李思明 SML, on Flickr

Bill: SPRUCE does a fine job with outreach, communication and engagement. What do you think has been your most effective means of engaging the community? Have you gotten feedback that’s helped you target your work?

Paul: I’ll take that as a serious compliment from an initiative shortlised for the DPC comms award (congrats on that)! I’m on the panel this year, but I’m afraid I’m sworn to secrecy otherwise I’d be tempted to pass on some insider info! The best way to do outreach is to have the job pretty much done before you start, and our event participants tend to be sold on the idea of what we’re trying to do before we let them out the door! Having those guys communicate the SPRUCE message makes a lot of difference. Otherwise it’s a case of hitting all the usual channels and trying to strike a chord with your audience.

Feedback is important and we push hard to get our event participants to blog and tweet their views, as well as tell us what could be better via an anonymous feedback survey we run. There are plenty of suggestions we’ve fed back into our event structure in order to perfect it as best we can.

Years on from first signing up, I’ve been really surprised at how important a communication tool Twitter has become for me. Whether it’s publicizing what I’m working on, or keeping in touch with developments elsewhere, I really depend on it. There can be a lot of noise, so my advice for new tweeters is to have a dedicated account for work and try and keep it all on message [editor’s note: Paul’s handle is @prwheatley].

Bill: I noticed a much-retweeted comment from IPRES 2012 declared “Digital Preservation has seen two stages. The first stage was panic.” That seems a bit hyperbolic to me, but it does lead to reflection on trends over the last decade or so. Given your central perspective, how would you characterize the evolution of digital preservation/curation up to this point? What do you think are priorities for moving forward?

Paul: Steve Knight’s keynote at iPRES was not an overwhelmingly positive analysis of the last decade of DP, but I’m afraid I had to agree largely with what he said. As a community we’ve failed to tackle a lot of the most pressing problems and have frittered away development effort on unsupportable tools that solve the wrong challenges. Having been party to a few of those digital preservation crimes myself makes me all the more keen to learn the lessons and do a better job in moving forward. For me, that means strongly user led developments, re-use of existing technology wherever possible and an emphasis on an evidence based approach to our understanding of digital preservation. Our Mashup Manifesto captures some of those thoughts.

Bill: What comes next after SPRUCE?

I’ve worked in the DP field for the best part of a decade and a half and I suspect I’ll never be that far away from it, but our funding for SPRUCE runs out in a years time so I’ll be looking for a new gig then. I’d be very keen to continue working to support community initiatives in DP if an opportunity presents itself

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