Examining Digital Preservation Policies

This week, we had the opportunity to examine several digital preservation and digital collection development policies and to consider potential approaches for the upcoming policy assignment. On a surface level, it was interesting to observe the variety of sections that cultural heritage institutions are choosing to include in their policies. In many cases, there seems to be a balance between communicating the overall vision for digital preservation and outlining more concrete methods that the organization intends to follow. These policies provide guidance for staff members about best practices, but they also could be used to share the institution’s mission and collecting priorities with administrators, users, donors, and potential funders.

I think these policies are useful in part because they can be used to educate people outside of the digital preservation community about the nature of this work. Sheldon found that several organizations decided to include a glossary of key terms in their policies, which helps to ensure that the documents remain fairly accessible to people who might not be familiar with the discipline-specific terminology. Some organizations also included a bibliography with additional resources for individuals who were interested in learning more. The University of Illinois and the National Library of Australia used their policies to list some of the particular challenges that digital collections present for their institutions. It’s helpful to include this type of information in a policy because it shows stakeholders that digital content needs to be actively managed and it helps to justify the need for continued support. On a more meta level, this background information also helps readers to understand why the institution chose to create a separate policy for digital materials instead of relying solely on an existing preservation policy that was originally created for analog materials.

One issue that came up in the readings was the need to provide guidance about file formats. Rimkus, Padilla, Popp, and Martin explained that file format policies are not necessarily intended to be strict regulations. Instead, repository managers issue recommendations that are intended to “strike a balance between lowering barriers to deposit and acquiring content that would stand the test of time.” Institutions provide different levels of support based on their confidence in a particular format. For example, Boston University only guarantees bit-level support for HTML files because this format changes relatively frequently and requires more resources. The Boston University Libraries are able to maintain bitstream and format integrity for other common file formats like PDFs and TIFFs. This is a more nuanced approach that is probably more realistic that promising to preserve something “forever” or requiring people to conform to a set list of formats. It’s good to be able to encourage standardization when we can, but there is a risk that file creators would either ignore the policy or refuse to deposit their materials if they felt the guidelines were too restrictive.

Of course, it helps that file formats that are popular with users are less likely to become obsolete. I think institutions would still need to be prepared to modify their policies if the status of a particular file format changes. I thought it was interesting that only 13/33 of the organizations in Sheldon’s report included a section on “Policy/Strategy Review.” It seems like some sort of review process should be in place to account for changing digital objects and preservation workflows. As we think about our next assignment, how can we create an enforceable policy while still allowing for some flexibility? How specific does a digital preservation policy actually need to be?

Collaboration was also frequently mentioned in the policies. Stanford’s Web Archiving Collection Development Policy stressed that staff should be aware of other institutions’ web archiving projects and avoid duplicating their work. Even when no formal relationship exists between two organizations, they can cooperate by focusing on distinct collecting areas and monitoring each other’s collection development policies. Digital preservation efforts also require collaboration within the organization in order to be successful. I liked that Dartmouth’s policy acknowledged that multiple departments (like Preservation Services, Digital Library Technologies Group, College Computing, and Cataloging and Metadata) would need to work together and share expertise. I think that outlining roles and responsibilities in the policy makes the document feel less abstract and helps to ensure that the institution is prepared to tackle the challenges that face them.

Although non-library partners (like IT) were referenced in some of these policies, it wasn’t always clear if these stakeholders played a role in the actual writing of the document or if the library was mainly working independently. And I did find myself wondering how many people (besides the librarians and archivists) actually read and follow these policies after they are completed. Are there ways that we can ensure that the process of creating digital preservation policies is inclusive and transparent? Can we apply these strategies to our work with our small organizations?

9 Replies to “Examining Digital Preservation Policies”

  1. I found the readings very helpful in considering the work with my organization even though I think the context differs a little from those in the examples I read about. Their main objective is to be able to access and organize historical digital files stored on various media, many of which were created by former staff. While some of these documents will be shared, I think the impetus for them is to make it easier to do their jobs by avoiding extensive searches to look for files or losing valuable historical information that they can use. One thing I picked up on in my discussion with the staff is that they have had to rely a lot on institutional memory to figure out how to find things. They’ve also had problems with obsolete software and accessing files on floppy discs. They are a small group with no additional support staff for documentation, but I think the difficulties they’ve had with no preservation documentation will be motivation enough for them to enforce a policy once their file structure is in place.

    1. That’s a great point. I think that explaining how a digital preservation policy/strategy will benefit employees instead of framing it as a bunch of rules that they need to follow is a good way to encourage compliance. Like you said, the context is a little different for our organizations. They’ve specifically asked for our help, so hopefully they will be open to implementing our suggestions. But in general, I like the idea of using more of a “carrot” approach.

  2. Yeah, the readings this week were especially helpful as I’m starting to figure out what a policy will actually look like. I definitely feel you with regard to the concern that maybe the policy won’t actually be used when it’s completed.

    I do think having a roles and responsibilities section will be helpful– but I’m not sure what categories will still apply for my org (WYPR, a local radio station), since they’re not a cultural heritage repository. I feel like I need to make my plan more flexible for it to not be a huge time commitment/obligation for an already overworked staff. I think for me, I’m going to focus on elaborating on the scope and purpose of collecting, the process/model of preservation, required file formats, responsibilites and roles, and maybe access and restrictions? I’m still not sure.

    However, I’m with Tina, my org. relies a lot on institutional memory to know where stuff is and what they have, so I’m hoping that creating some documentation will help make things more uniform and prevent confusion if someone leaves the station.

  3. Emily, I liked your point about how too much emphasis on standardization might discourage the public from donating records or not adhering to the policy requests at all. I think no matter the size of the org, policies should be easily found on their website and written for the layperson as much as possible, to make it easier for people to understand the point of these documents.

    I also agree that a review process should be included. Particularly for something like digital preservation–technology changes rapidly, and no one policy is ever going to provide comprehensive guidance forever. Having a regular schedule of review and revision would force organizations to assess how much of their day-to-day actually follows the policy and if their priorities have changed.

  4. I’m also leaning in the direction of keeping my preservation policy more broad. I am envisioning it as more of a rounding out of the work we’ve done for them with the next steps plan, a cementing of the reasons *why* they asked for help in the first place and what we want them to take away from this project. Which, really, is the same as what we (the students) are taking away from this class. I’m a big fan of the IDEALS policy for its succinctness and scope.

  5. Before completing the Next Steps piece, I considered it basically the same as the Policy. What I realized was that the next steps were more specific, while the policy is more over-arching. I think the Stanford Collections policy is a good representation. They don’t give really specific information for each category, but they give guiding principles for what they should be doing. It gives links and information rather than prescriptive steps.

    My idea of a digital preservation policy has shifted to be less specific and is designed to be migrated through multiple technical changes, like an accession policy.

  6. Tina, I like the point you brought up about how your museum relies on institutional memory to find things, because I found that the same thing was true of my site as well. When I was asking about the inventory or status of certain categories of the collection, the answer was often, “I’d have to ask [insert name of person in charge of the project].” While it’s good to have employees or volunteers focused on particular aspects of the collection, it is also worthwhile to make sure that information about the collection is gathered together in one place and made available to the people who are responsible for overseeing it. This is especially true when considering the fact that the employees or volunteers heading certain projects may not always be around.

    This reminded me of Dr. Owen’s anecdote about how when asked about the policy in place for digital collections, people may default to saying they’d ask a certain person to do things, and as Dr. Owens said, “A policy is not a person.”

  7. Also, as an aside, did anyone else find it interesting that so many of the links to digital preservation strategies no longer work? It made me wonder about what responsibilities institutions should have to make sure users can still access their content through old links even if the web addresses for that content have changed or if the content has been updated in a new form.

  8. Yes. I noticed that too. I was able to find the policy for the Cheshire Archives through a Google search but I remember there were a couple that I couldn’t find at all. For the Cheshire Archives, it looks like they changed the underscores in the URL to hyphens. I definitely think institutions should take responsibility for maintaining access to their content, especially when it’s the digital preservation policy! I think they could have just used a redirect.

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