Digital Dilemmas

On September 18, 2009, in Research, Software Reviews, Uncategorized, by Chris Prom

Yesterday, I participated in a session at the CAIS study session regarding Digital Dilemmas.  The basic purpose was to introduce students to issues they will be studying regarding electronic records and digital information.  Working together, Alan Bell, Susan Thomas, Philip Lord and I led the students through a series of discussions based around this scenario:

The organisation you work for has been involved in recent controversial  plans  that a rich American developer has to redevelop and area of coastline as a golf course/resort.

There have been allegations in the press that undue influence has been brought to bear on local politicians and businesses people to support the development.

You have been approached by the patron of a group opposed to  the development – a group that including university faculty, religious leaders, local councillors, and members of the pubic– who informs you that he has been keeping an electronic news clippings, email, digital photographs, scientific data, and ephemera concerning his group’s efforts to stop the development.  His collection includes  correspondence with senior government ministers.  He kindly offers to burn the files onto several CD’s if you promise that you can take good care of the records.  He also asked if he should ‘do anything special’ to the records before giving them to you.

The students really did well with the question; they identified relevant issues covering the entire range of activities that would need to be pursued in dealing with these records, including donor relations, arrangement, access, preserving authenticity, metadata creation or capture, etc.  They keyed in quite nicely on how these issues need to be addressed differently for digital as vs. analog materials.

What struck me most about the discussion was the fact that the students spent relatively little time talking about digital preservation.  The discussion really drove home (to me at least) the point that we need a range of tools to be effective in working with records.

The discussion was also an interesting counterpoint to the literature I’ve been reading on large digital preservation projects. Obviously, a lot of money, time and effort are being put into projects such as PLANETS, NDIIP, DSpace/Fedora (now DuraSpace) and it is clear that some interesting and useful software to facilitate digital preservation will emerge from these projects.  They are certainly are generating a lot of buzz–as well as a lot of reports, guidelines and (currently under-documented) tools, and frankly, I am glad that people smarter than me are working on the problem.

At the same time, there are problems with pouring so many resouces toward digital preservation.  In practice, it seems to segregate preservation from issues of appraisal, arrangement, description, access, and use, or at least to oversimplify the effect that factors in these other realms have on preservation (and vice versa).  It leaves other important questions if not unasked, at least not asked often enough, and not asked in a way that will drive forward better practices and tool development for the entire range of activities we need to pursue.

To take just a few simple examples, is anyone designing a set of tools that would allow us to complete a concise, comprehensive assessment of the files on an office’s 1 TB networked storage device .  How about to assess a set of 100 unlabeled CD’s, zip disks, thumb drives, laptops and and portable hard drive left behind by an deceased environmental activist?  (Please don’t say you can just use Windows Explorer).  How should we discern the original order of the files and what would you use to preserve the context and relationship files and folders to each other, before, during and after the process of them being loaded into a repository?  What should we use to quickly prepare series-level, folder level, and item-level metadata for digital files?   What format would such informaion be structures so that it can be input easily into a number of different repository systems?   All of these questions, which concern activities that need to take place before items are ingested into an OAIS based system, need serious investigation and themselves could be the subject of multi-strand projects.  Obviously, archival theories and practices developed for paper based records and in research projects concerning e-records should inform such work, but we really just need an effective toolset to use in applying these theories and practices.

Anyway, what I’ve said above is probably not an original point, but for a project like mine, it means I’ll need to concentrate more on assessment of gaps than on developing any kind of silver bullet for dealing with e-records (which is a chimera anyway).  In other words, in the process of working with my sample records, I hope to find  out what software works, what doesn’t, and what is missing–based around a very narrow scenario “What would you do if a donor approaches you wanting to donate 100 gigabytes of electronic files concerning (insert today’s hot topic here.)”

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