Confessions of a Digital Archivist

25 February, 2015
Christopher Fryer

I have a confession to make, I'm not from a University and I don't have any Research Data Management experience. So why exactly did I attend IDCC this year?

Simple, because digital curation affects such a broad range of areas that it's vital to experience and learn from communities outside the norm. Being Senior Digital Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives has necessitated involvement in leading R&D initiatives specifically around the digital preservation sphere. However, the theme of a 'Decade in Digital Curation' was perfect timing in relation to the Parliamentary Archives own activity in digital preservation.

IDCC presented much more than an opportunity to showcase the work of the Houses of Parliament in implementing a best practice digital preservation environment. IDCC allowed me to exchange views and knowledge from a variety of disciplines. Principle among these was the need to adapt and encourage significant cultural shifts in organisations which increasingly recognise the value digital curation offers. 'Value' has always been a tricky concept to define (as the 4C Project can attest to!), but there are clear signs that the digital curation community is becoming increasingly confident about the solutions and benefits digital curation can offer.

venue of IDCC conference at 30 euston st

 The conference venue at 30 Euston Square

I was surprised to learn that digital preservation, the endeavour to ensure digital information of continuing value remains accessible and usable, was regarded as almost a separate issue by some in the RDM community. "Push a button" digital preservation functionality was mentioned more than once. This set alarm bells ringing. Successful digital preservation relies upon actively managing digital data as long as there is continuing value. This continuity element required for successful digital preservation is one which we are working hard to embed in the Parliamentary Archives and more widely across the Houses of Parliament. A good example of this approach at IDCC was the University of Melbourne’s brand new Digital Preservation Strategy.

The “Why is it taking so long?" panel was almost like experiencing Déjà vu from various panels at last year’s iPRES in Melbourne. Similar themes emerged; from continuously justifying digital curation activity to having to cope with ‘slow’ culture change in an organisation. While it was more than a little disheartening to hear similar frustrations expressed, I tend to take the optimistic view that having these conversations out in the open serves as a mark of progress. Only by addressing these challenges head on and being honest as a community can we build on the previous decades hard work.

Melissa Terras presentation at IDCC15

Keynote presentation by Melissa Terras, Director of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities

Particular highlights were Melissa Terras and Helen Hockx-Yu, and their respective keynote presentations on digital humanities and the UK web archive. Both inspiring talks reaffirmed my belief that as a community (however you want to term it) we need to shout much louder about our achievements, and at the right people! Significant progress has clearly been made across all fields of digital curation, but in order to ensure continued progress we need to improve and professionalise our advocacy efforts. Getting further stakeholders on-board and even wider public awareness would greatly aid our efforts.

Ultimately, IDCC proved to be an extremely positive experience. Quite apart from sharing the Parliamentary Archives own experience of digital preservation, IDCC allowed me to experience a wide range of expertise in digital curation. Practical approaches and lessons learnt can be applied to my continuing work. Not least the use of OpenRefine to clean up and process all that messy metadata thanks to the Big Data Investigation workshop!

Christopher Fryer

Senior Digital Archivist

Houses of Parliament

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