NAGARA-CoSA 2012: Digital Preservation 101

NAGARA-CoSA 2012 LogoThis article is the first in a series of our takeaways from the 2012 NAGARA-CoSA Annual Conference.

By Angela Ossar, Government Information Analyst

It’s probably safe to say that, somewhere in your agency, you’re storing the only copy of a permanent record in a digital format.  Maybe it’s because the original was scanned and then discarded to make room. Maybe it’s because the information was born digital and was never captured in an analog format. But you’ve now got permanent records in your possession that you are required to be able to access forever…so now what?  What does it take to ensure indefinite access to digital materials?

Well, most NAGARA sessions I attended revolved around this central theme, attacking the challenge from a variety of angles.  What follows is three general recommendations based on several different sessions.

1. Understand the challenge.

The Council of State Archivists (CoSA) recently surveyed, as Phase I of the State Electronic Records Initiative (SERI), state archives in all 50 states and 4 territories. The survey’s goal was to take the temperature of state and territorial e-records archives programs.  What standards are we using?  Whom are we hiring?  What support are we getting?

They recently released the Phase I findings: SERI Phase I Report. The results were fairly grim: 35 state archives had little or no electronic records programs, 19 had not accessioned any e-records, most were not involved in the selection and modification of IT systems affecting archival e-records, and only 15 had electronic records staff, actually fewer than in the 1990s due to attrition and these staff leaving to work in the private sector. Not a single state archives would pass an ISO 16363 audit (more on that in a minute).

Phase II of the initiative took those survey’s findings and developed a model to measure an organization’s preparedness to preserve electronic records based on ISO standards. CoSA worked with Charles Dollar and Lori Ashley to develop an assessment model called the Digital Preservation Capability Maturity Model (DPCMM). Similar to what ARMA’s GARP® (General Accepted Recordkeeping Principles) offers for assessing the health of a records management program, the DPCMM was used to assess how ready an archives is to accept digital materials.

This self-assessment tool was sent out to all 56 states and territories…and all of them filled it out!  SERI will use the data to prioritize educational and programming efforts. The Phase I report, and the efforts that will come out of the SERI project, will give archivists and records managers a much clearer picture of what it is we need to know to be able to move forward.

2. Know the standards.

The International Standards Organization (ISO) develops industry standards for products, services, and practices. These standards are developed through international consensus and are usually so widely accepted that most people don’t notice them. For example, ISO 838 is the reason why notebook paper fits into a 3-ring binder — the standard defines where the holes should go.

ISO 16363, published this year, defines a recommended practice for assessing the trustworthiness of digital repositories.

What makes a digital repository “trustworthy”?  Well, because we don’t have access to the standard itself, let’s talk about the checklist it was largely based on, TRAC. Here are some requirements on the TRAC checklist:

  • The repository must have a mission statement that reflects a commitment to the long-term retention of, management of, and access to digital information (A1.1)
  • The repository must have an active professional development program in place that provides staff with necessary skills and expertise (A2.3).
  • The repository must have short- and long-term business planning processes in place to sustain the repository over time (A4.1).
  • The repository must have mechanisms to authenticate the source of all materials (B1.3).
  • The repository must have and use a naming convention that generates visible, persistent, unique identifiers for all archived objects (B2.5).
  • The repository must employ documented preservation strategies (B3.1).
  • The repository must capture or create minimum descriptive metadata and ensures that it is associated with the archived object (B5.2).

If you’re curious, you can download an actual TRAC checklist that was applied to a digital repository for the H-Net email list (a collection of over 1,000,000 email messages):  H-Net TRAC checklist.

Glen McAninch of the Kentucky Department of Library and Archives (Kentucky’s TSLAC equivalent) discussed the audit process from the perspective of an institution that was audited, and the steps that agency will take to pass audits in the future.

3. Be fearless…or hire someone who’s fearless.

One thing that we learned from the SERI report was that a lot of state archives were waiting on guidance from the National Archives and Records Administration to tell them how to proceed with their digital archives program…and that this guidance wasn’t coming fast enough. Over and over, I heard: we have to do something.  Now.  The conclusion of the SERI project sums up the urgency of the situation:

Something has to happen now. We cannot wait any longer; too much of our cultural heritage is at risk. We must act now and on many fronts, from training, identifying funding, promoting partnerships with all those involved in information management, and raising awareness among resource providers. Activities must be coordinated, must be focused, must be well supported, and they must start immediately.

In a session entitled “Hiring Electronic Records Archivists — What Expertise Is Required?” two state archivists, Kelly Eubank of North Carolina and Matthew Veatch of Kansas, discussed what qualities they look for in hiring an electronic records archivist.

First, you must define the purpose of what this person is going to do for your agency. Are they going to set records management policies? Are they going to primarily work on taking in (ingesting) electronic records? On setting up a digital repository?

Interestingly, though, the job qualifications were less about technical expertise (like computer programming) and more about character traits they look for. For example, Eubank’s ideal candidate:

  • is not afraid of technology
  • is good at public speaking (they will be talking to other departments and other agencies, “selling” the service)
  • is patient (because they’re working in a government setting, where some things can take longer than you’d like, and where some processes — especially paper-based ones — have been in place for a very long time)
  • is fearless:  lets urgency conquer fear, and understand that failure is okay
  • is flexible:  must be able to deal with change

Matt Veatch approached the topic as someone who recently hired an electronic records archivist.  Above all, he said that this archivist must be a jack of all trades.  In addition to understanding digital preservation theory, standards, and best practices (well enough to draw a diagram of an Open Archival Information System as part of the interview!), the archivist must understand records scheduling, appraisal, description, and a host of technological tools (office applications, databases, social media, and mobile technology). Like any archivist or records manager, the archivist must be a business analyst; in Kansas, the state archives must be involved in the design of any information system that produces archival records, which means that they must learn the business processes of many different types of agencies on the fly. He or she must be an environmental scanner, keeping abreast of new digital preservation projects, initiatives, and standards.

To face the challenges of digital preservation, organizations must hire people who will take educated chances. We must possess a sense of urgency about digital preservation or we’ll render ourselves irrelevant. Or, as a commenter in the Q&A session said, “Burying your head in the sand is a recipe for obsolescence.”