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Assessing Digital Preservation at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

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The following is a guest post by Alice Sara Prael.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library began the “Access to Legacy” project in 2007 with the goal to digitize, describe, and permanently retain millions of presidential documents, photographs, and audiovisual recordings. Since the project began the Library has accumulated over 150 terabytes of data. With this much data in our holdings, how can we preserve the digital files over the long term? That’s where our NDSR project comes into play.

Alice Sara Prael, National Digital Stewardship Resident
Alice Sara Prael, National Digital Stewardship Resident

The goal of the project is to ‘develop a long-range digital preservation strategy’ which would address all digital archival holdings at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. This is a challenging goal, so we broke it down into three phases. The first was to assess current infrastructure against community standards and make brief recommendations on how to improve digital preservation practices. The second phase will explore potential solutions to address the recommendations made in the first phase. The final phase will determine a single path forward based on the solutions explored and create an action plan for how to implement that solution. I recently completed a report of my initial findings and moved onto the second phase, researching potential systems and solutions forward.

Since the aim of my project is to make recommendations that will be carried out after my residency, advocacy has been key. I recognized that staff input would be incredibly important early on, so I started by interviewing archivists and IT personnel about their processes and how they use the systems in place at the library. Armed with the staff perspective, I dove into researching the systems through help guides and communication with support staff. At the library we use a digital asset management system called Documentum, created and donated by EMC. For storage we use Centera servers on-site and a mirrored back-up held off site; both storage systems are managed cooperatively by IT staff at the Library and EMC. There are other systems in place, mainly for indexing and access, but these were the focus of my project.   Since these systems are proprietary it hasn’t always been easy gaining access to documentation. I was provided with a help guide, but many of the more technical details were acquired through conversations with EMC support staff.

Systems in use at The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
Systems in use at The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

During my research into the preservation practices and systems, I regularly referred to community standards and guidelines such as ISO 14721: Reference Model for an Open Archival Information System (OAIS), ISO 16363: Audit and Certification of Trustworthy Digital Repositories, and the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) Levels of Digital Preservation. Each gives a slightly different perspective on what is required for digital preservation. Ideally we would want our program to pass an assessment based on any standard with top marks. However, in the reality of limited resources and staff time it’s important to recognize when to aim for “good enough” digital preservation. “Good enough” can be defined by the available resources, the needs of the collection, and priorities of the institution. It will be defined differently for different scenarios so we need to find out what is good enough for us.

After the completion of the first phase I wrote a report of initial findings. I grounded the report by connecting my recommendations to the Levels of Digital Preservation created by NDSA. The NDSA Levels are not as in depth as ISO 16363 and ISO 14721, but they are easier to understand at a glance, especially for those who are less familiar with the needs of digital preservation. It’s great that there are intermediary levels so an institution can address digital preservation without an all-or-nothing mindset. It also creates a useful visual aid for identifying strengths and weaknesses.

NDSA Levels color coded to show the strengths and weaknesses of digital preservation at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
NDSA Levels color coded to show the strengths and weaknesses of digital preservation at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

We are strong on file formats and weaker when it comes to storage and geographic location. Making these points clearly and early on helps with long-term advocacy. With a clear starting point, we can continue to document how we improve and address these weaknesses. Now that we have identified specific places for improvement, I know where to focus during the next phase of the project.

Since the NDSA Levels are focused on the technological requirements, I pulled from the ISO standards to address the organizational and policy needs. I found that the JFK Library, like so many cultural heritage institutions, is in need of better documentation. Some processes have never been fully documented and live exclusively in the mind of the archivist, which becomes problematic when the archivist leaves – especially if it’s a sudden departure. As a new addition to the digital archives team part of my charge has been to ask questions about the existing policies and to fill documentation gaps where necessary.

My work has focused on the largest gap in the existing documentation for digital archives, a digital preservation policy. Since a policy is a record of decisions, my initial focus was to identify the decisions for digital preservation – those that need to be made, those that have been made but not documented, and those that have been documented elsewhere. I started by reviewing the policies on the Scalable Preservation Environment’s wiki of published preservation policies. I found frameworks that best suited the digital preservation environment at the JFK Library. Once I had an outline for how a digital preservation policy might work and a list of decisions to make, I returned to the key stakeholders. Together we have created a draft policy, but it is still a work in progress. We have come to a consensus on how to address many digital preservation challenges, but parts of the drafted policy are still aspirational. We hope that once the NDSR project is complete and we have a clear implementation plan for improved digital preservation, the policy will be a true reflection of the practices at the Library.


  1. I worked at the Kennedy Library a bazillion years ago, so I always enjoy reading where the Library is now. Even though I worked there from the late 1980-mid-1990s, we had rotary phones! Obsolete even then, so it is great to read how far the place has come.

    Just looked up EMC, and it looks like they provide tools with hefty pricetags. Did you get them to donate because the Library is acting as some sort of test case for them?

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