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Friday, 24 May 2013

Assessing the value of digital surrogates


I had an interesting meeting with colleagues yesterday to discuss how we manage digital surrogates - digitised versions of physical items we hold in the archives.

At the Borthwick Institute we do a fair amount of digitisation for a variety of reasons. These range from the large scale digitisation projects such as the York Cause Papers, to digitisation to create images for publications and exhibitions to single pages of Parish Registers for family history researchers.

As I am in the process of setting up a digital archive for the Borthwick Institute, effectively managing these digital surrogates also becomes my concern. The need to preserve these items is not as pressing as for born digital data (because they are only copies, not originals) however, to start to build up the collections that we have in digital form, to allow access to users who can not visit our searchroom, and to avoid having to carry out the same work twice, appropriate creation and management of this data is important. Although there will be a clear distinction in the digital archive between material that has been donated or deposited with us in digital form, and material we have digitised in-house, both these types of data need to be actively managed and migrated over time.

One of the big questions we have been mulling over is how we decide which digitised material we keep and which we discard. There is no pressing need to keep everything we digitise. Much of the reprographics work we carry out for orders would consist of a single page of a larger volume. Creating appropriate metadata to describe exactly which section of the item had been digitised would undoubtedly become an administrative burden and the re-use potential of that individual section would be limited. We therefore need to make some pragmatic decisions on what we keep and what we throw away.

Here are some points to consider:
  • What is the condition of the original document? Is it fragile? Do we need a digital surrogate so we can create a copy for access that avoids any further handling of the original?
  • How easy is it to digitise the original? If problematic because of it's large size or tight binding then we should ensure we maintain the digital surrogate to avoid having to digitise again in the future.
  • Is the section to be digitised suitable for re-use or would it make little sense out of context (for example if it is only one small section of a larger item)?
  • Is the archive catalogued to item level? This would certainly make it easier to administer the digital surrogates and ensure they can be related to their physical counterparts
  • What are the access conditions for the original document? Is there any value in maintaining a digital copy of a document that we can not make more widely available?
I am interested in how others have addressed this decision making process and how digital surrogates are treated within a digital archive so would welcome your thoughts...


Thursday, 2 May 2013

Some thoughts about our preservation policy

We are updating the Borthwick Institute's preservation policy. Originally written in 2007, it is due for review by our preservation archivist and conservation team but my interest in this task is to ensure that digital archives are represented within the policy. In the current policy there is no mention of the preservation of digital archives. There was no need for us to mention them six years ago but times are changing - this has now become a priority for us.

It was interesting having the opportunity to sit down and read our existing preservation policy. The only other preservation policies I had ever read up to this point (not that many of them I might add) related purely to digital material so had quite a different emphasis. As I am still quite new to the world of traditional archives, reading about everything that is in place to protect and preserve the documents in our care is an education for me.

The first question in my head is whether to crack on with this now or wait until such a time that the structure of the digital archive is more firmly in place. By getting the policy for the preservation of digital material written now we are jumping the gun a bit as procedures are not yet established. However by writing a policy at this point we are at least setting out our intentions and providing an overview of how we will approach the preservation of digital material. There are certain things I am confident we will be doing. The finer detail of how this will occur will follow in time and may be incorporated into a more detailed preservation strategy document in the future.

The second decision to make regarding the revised preservation policy was whether we integrate the digital within the current policy or create a separate document. Both approaches are legitimate and widely used. For the Borthwick we have decided that an integrated policy is the way forward. Ultimately, we want our systems for receiving, managing and providing access to archives to be seamless and media blind. It shouldn't matter to our depositors or users whether the media is digital or not, they should be confident in our ability to preserve and provide access to them regardless. Digital preservation should not be a specialist outpost, it should be fully integrated in the psyche of both our staff and our users.

There are differences to the way we preserve physical and digital archives:

  • With physical archives (paper and parchment) it is most important for the material to be appropriately packaged and stored in the correct environmental conditions. Once the conditions are right, they can be largely left alone. Intervention should only be required where specific issues occur.
  • With digital archives it is all about continuous active management. The digital environment is fast moving and the threat of obsolescence is never far away. Leaving the data alone in a static environment is a very risky approach.
Despite these differences, the basic premis of preservation is the same. What is highlighted in our current preservation policy is the idea of "preservation for access". This is why we are all here after all. Whether the material is physical or digital, we need to ensure that we preserve them so that others may access them in the future.