Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Digital Curation

Digital curation has become a hot topic, just as digital libraries had become a decade or so ago. I witnessed this again, attending the 4th International Digital Curation Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland on December 2-3, 2008, with the theme “Radical Sharing: Transforming Science?”, my third digital curation conference in the past year and a half (still making me a novice in this area). The conference featured keynote addresses by David Porteous about the human genome project and Martin Lewis about university libraries in the UK data curation landscape, many posters and demonstrations, and presentations about various scientific and other projects utilizing or based upon digital data, and an interesting paper by Manjula Patel and Alexander Bell on strategies for the curation of CAD engineering models (winner of the best peer-reviewed paper in the conference. There was also an International Data Curation Education Action (IDEA) Working Group meeting held the day after the conference on December 4th. This day consisted of a number of presentations intended to illuminate aspects of digital curation education issues and agendas, although there were too many presentations reducing the opportunity for those attending from all over the world to discuss openly the issues (what discussion there was suggested a number of ongoing terminological and conceptual issues about what digital curation actually represents).

Archivists attending the conference were not disappointed to hear presentations. There allusions to archival theories, principles, and projects – such as diplomatics and InterPARES . As often happens, the most interesting issues tend to be non-technical. MacKenzie Smith, considering architectural #D CAD models, states, “An issue still to be resolved is the appropriate intellectual property rights for architecture collections. Since the material is all digital, standard gift agreements used by archives aren’t entirely appropriate – there is no need for exclusive copyright transfer to the archive, a royalty-free, non-exclusive license to archive, preserve, and disseminate the collection is sufficient. But since these collections often include highly sensitive business records there is an understandable reluctance by the architects to allow the material to be made publicly available. In the past, embargoing these materials for decades would have been acceptable practice, but given the effort involved in accessioning and ingesting digital collections (and preserving them for even a decade) the inability to disseminate the collection is a concern for libraries and archives. We are exploring licensing options with architects and their professional organizations (e.g. the American Institute of Architects) to determine what middle ground is acceptable to both creator and archive for the long term.” Papers on topics such as climate and weather data curation, publication of research data, and research data management all raised interesting archival issues.

Here is an example of how these individual papers concern themselves with archival issues. Martin Halbert, in a paper on the MetaArchive Cooperative, writes, “CMOs [cultural memory organizations] hold virtually innumerable archives of idiosyncratic material that are rapidly being digitized in local initiatives. This digital content has important long-term value for both research and cultural identity purposes. But CMO professionals frequently lack effective’, scalable DP infrastructures. This lack of access to effective means for long term preservation of digital content is aggravated by a lack of consensus on DP issues and professional roles and responsibilities.” “By “cultural memory organizations,” Halbert means ”small to medium-sized libraries, archives, museums, and historical associations, and not enormous national agencies like the US Library of Congress or the British Library.” Halbert is describing a cooperative providing a “model for an incorporated nonprofit organization of research libraries created as part of the U.S. National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program that has established an effective model for shared distributed digital preservation infrastructures development.” Stephen Abrams, Patricia Cruse, and John Kunze, in their paper “Preservation Is Not a Place,” also provide a glimpse into the future of archives, nothing, “Rather than relying on a conceptually monolithic system as a locus, curation outcomes will be the product of loosely-coupled, independent, distributed services.” In another presentation Greg Janée and James Frew argue that “resurrection is more likely than immortality,” continuing, “Preservation must be cheap and easy. If we are to preserve digital information on a large scale, then the burden on providers must be small, preservation infrastructure must be flexible and adaptable, and multiple levels of preservation effort must be defined to accommodate varying archive resources. Preservation may be (and may often need to be) as minimal as crawling a website, saving the harvested files, and reflecting them back to the Web. This approach by itself does not guarantee that the archived information will remain usable by contemporary applications over time, but by capturing the contextual semantics of the harvested files, we can at least preserve the possibility of resurrecting full use of the information at any point in the future, assuming sufficient desire and resources.” Such comments seem to provide a bridge between new notions of digital preservation and more traditional forms of archival work.

These conferences, with some advocating that digital curation is a new profession, also suggest that there is a lot of terminological confusion. Archival words and concepts are used, but they are not always used in a commanding or clear fashion. Perhaps this suggests that there is some sort of new discipline beginning to emerge. Some of the archivists in attendance, myself included, raised questions about such issues, but others expressed frustration with what they deemed to be nit picking and avoidance of larger and more important issues. By coincidence, when I returned from the conference the current issue of the American Archivist was waiting for me with an article by Adrian Cunningham, “Digital Curation/Digital Archiving: A View from the National Archives of Australia,” raising questions from the archival perspective about the digital curation movement. Cunningham deftly argues that while there are positive aspects of the more broadly defined digital curation arena, we also must be careful not to jettison basic archival concerns and principles. Obviously, we have some great debates and interesting collaborative efforts ahead.