The vision for a preservation repository

Over the last couple of months, work at Cambridge University Library has begun to look at what a potential digital preservation system will look like, considering technical infrastructure, the key stakeholders and the policies underpinning them. Technical Fellow, Dave, tells us more about the holistic vision…

This post discusses some of the work we’ve been doing to lay foundations beneath the requirements for a ‘preservation system’ here at Cambridge. In particular, we’re looking at the core vision for the system. It comes with the standard ‘work in progress’ caveats – do not be surprised if the actual vision varies slightly (or more) from what’s discussed here. A lot of the below comes from Mastering the Requirements Process by Suzanne and James Robertson.

Also – it’s important to note that what follows is based upon a holistic definition of ‘system’ – a definition that’s more about what people know and do, and less about Information Technology, bits of tin and wiring.

Why does a system change need a vision?

New systems represent changes to the existing status-quo. The vision is like the Pole Star for such a change effort – it ensures that people have something fixed to move towards when they’re buried under minute details. When confusion reigns, you can point to the vision for the system to guide you back to sanity.

Plus, as with all digital efforts, none of this is real: there’s no definite, obvious end point to the change. So the vision will help us recognise when we’ve achieved what we set out to.

Establishing scope and context

Defining what the system change isn’t is a particularly good a way of working out what it actually represents. This can be achieved by thinking about the systems around the area you’re changing and the information that’s going to flow in and out. This sort of thinking makes for good diagrams: one that shows how a preservation repository system might sit within the broader ecosystem of digitisation, research outputs / data, digital archives and digital published material is shown below.

System goals

Being able to concisely sum-up the key goals of the system is another important part of the vision. This is a lot harder than it sounds and there’s something journalistic about it – what you leave out is definitely more important than what you keep in. Fortunately, the vision is about broad brush strokes, not detail, which helps at this stage.

I found some great inspiration in Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet, which indicated goals such as: “the system should make the value of preserving digital resources clear”, “the system should clearly support stakeholders’ incentives to preserve digital resources” and “the functional aspects of the system should map onto clearly-defined preservation roles and responsibilities”.

Who are we implementing this for?

The final main part of the ‘vision’ puzzle is the stakeholders: who is going to benefit from a preservation system? Who might not benefit directly, but really cares that one exists?

Any significant project is likely to have a LOT of these, so the Robertsons suggest breaking the list down by proximity to the system (using Ian Alexander’s Onion Model), from the core team that uses the system, through the ‘operational work area’ (i.e. those with the need to actually use it) and out to interested parties within the host organisation, and then those in the wider world beyond. An initial attempt at thinking about our stakeholders this way is shown below.

One important thing that we realised was that it’s easy to confuse ‘closeness’ with ‘importance’: there are some very important stakeholders in the ‘wider world’ (e.g. Research Councils or historians) that need to be kept in the loop.

A proposed vision for our preservation repository

After iterating through all the above a couple of times, the current working vision (subject to change!) for a digital preservation repository at Cambridge University Library is as follows:

The repository is the place where the best possible copies of digital resources are stored, kept safe, and have their usefulness maintained. Any future initiatives that need the most perfect copy of those resources will be able to retrieve them from the repository, if authorised to do so. At any given time, it will be clear how the digital resources stored in the repository are being used, how the repository meets the preservation requirements of stakeholders, and who is responsible for the various aspects of maintaining the digital resources stored there.

Hopefully this will give us a clear concept to refer back to as we delve into more detail throughout the months and years to come…

Planning your (digital) funeral: for projects

Cambridge Policy & Planning Fellow, Somaya, writes about her paper and presentation from the Digital Culture Heritage Conference 2017. The conference paper, Planning for the End from the Start: an Argument for Digital Stewardship, Long-Term Thinking and Alternative Capture Approaches, looks at considering digital preservation at the start of a digital humanities project and provides useful advice for digital humanities researchers to use in their current projects.

In August I presented at the Digital Cultural Heritage 2017 international conference in Berlin (incidentally, my favourite city in the whole world).

Berlin - view from the river Spree. Photo: Somaya Langley

Berlin – view from the river Spree. Photo: Somaya Langley

I presented the Friday morning Plenary session on Planning for the End from the Start: an Argument for Digital Stewardship, Long-Term Thinking and Alternative Capture Approaches. Otherwise known as: ‘planning for your funeral when you are conceived’. This is a presentation that represents challenges faced by both Oxford and Cambridge and the thinking behind this has been done collaboratively by myself and my Oxford Policy & Planning counterpart, Edith Halvarsson.

We decided it was a good idea to present on this topic to an international digital cultural heritage audience, who are likely to also experience similar challenges as our own researchers. It is based on some common digital preservation use cases that we are finding in each of our universities.

The Scenario

A Digital Humanities project receives project funding and develops a series of digital materials as part of the research project, and potentially some innovative tools as well. For one reason or another, ongoing funding cannot be secured and so the PIs/project team need to find a new home for the digital outputs of the project.

Example Cases

We have numerous examples of these situations at Cambridge and Oxford. Many projects containing digital content that needs to be ‘rehoused’ are created in the online environment, typically as websites. Some examples include:

Holistic Thinking

We believe that thinking holistically right at the start of a project can provide options further down the line, should an unfavourable funding outcome be received.

So it is important to consider holistic thinking, specifically a Digital Stewardship approach (incorporating Digital Curation & Digital Preservation).

Models for Preservation

Digital materials don’t necessarily exist in a static form and often they don’t exist in isolation. It’s important to think about digital content as being part of a lifecycle and managed by a variety of different workflows. Digital materials are also subject to many risks so these also need to be considered.

Some models to frame thinking about digital materials:


It is incredibly important to document your project and when handing over the responsibility of your digital materials and data, also handing over documentation to someone responsible for hosting or preserving your digital project will need to rely on this information. Also ensuring the implementation of standards, metadata schemas and persistent identifiers etc.

This can include providing associated materials, such as:

Data Management Plans

Some better use of Data Management Plans (DMPs) could be:

  • Submitting DMPs alongside the data
  • Writing DMPs as dot-points rather than prose
  • Including Technical Specifications such as information about code, software, software versions, hardware and other dependencies

An example of a DMP from Cambridge University’s Dr Laurent Gatto: Data Management Plan for a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

Borrowing from Other Disciplines

Rather than having to ‘rebuild the wheel’, we should also consider borrowing from other disciplines. For example, borrowing from the performing arts we might provide similar documents and information such as:

  • Technical Rider (a list of requirements for staging a music gig and theatre show)
  • Stage Plots (layout of instruments, performers and other equipment on stage)
  • Input Lists (ordered list of the different audio channels from your instruments/microphones etc. that you’ll need to send to the mixing desk)

For digital humanities projects and other complex digital works, providing simple and straight forward information about data flows (including inputs and outputs) will greatly assist digital preservationists in determining where something has broken in the future.

Several examples of Technical Riders can be found here:


Here are some approaches to consider in regards to interim digital preservation of digital materials:

Bundling & Bitstream Preservation

The simplest and most basic approach may be to just zip up files and undertake bitstream preservation. Bitstream preservation only ensures that the zeroes and ones that went into a ‘system’ come out as the same zeroes and ones. Nothing more.

Exporting / Migrating

Consider exporting digital materials and/or data plus metadata into recognised standards as a means of migrating into another system.

For databases, the SIARD (Software Independent Archiving of Relational Databases) standard may be of use.

Hosting Code

Consider hosting code within your own institutional repository or digital preservation system (if your organisation has access to this option) or somewhere like GitHub or other services.

Packing it Down & ‘Putting on Ice’

You may need to consider ‘packing up’ your digital materials and doing it in a way that you can ‘put it on ice’. Doing this in a way that – when funding is secured in the future – it can be somewhat simply be brought back to life.

An example of this is the the work that Peter Sefton, from the University of Sydney in Australia, has been trialling. Based on Omeka, he has created a version of code called OzMeka. This is an attempt at a standardised way of being able to handle research project digital outputs that have been presented online. One example of this is Dharmae.

Alternatively, the Kings Digital Lab, provide infrastructure for eResearch and Digital Humanities projects that ensure the foundations of digital projects are stable from the get-go and mitigates risks regarding longer-term sustainability of digital content created as part of the projects.

Maintaining Access

This could be done through traditional web archiving approaches, such as using tools Web Archiving Tools (Heritrix or HTTrack) or downloading video materials using Video Download Helper for video. Alternatively, if you are part of an institution, the Internet Archive’s ArchiveIt service may be something you want to consider and can work with your institution to implement this.

Hosted Infrastructure Arrangements

Finding another organisation to take on the hosting of your service. If you do manage to negotiate this, you will need to either put in place a contract or Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) as well as handing over various documentation, which I have mentioned earlier.

Video Screen Capture

A simple way of attempting to document a journey through a complex digital work (not necessarily online, this can apply to other complex interactive digital works as well), may be by way of capturing a Video Screen Capture.

Kymata Atlas - Video Screen Capture still

Kymata Atlas – Video Screen Capture still

Alternatively, recording a journey through an interactive website using the Webrecorder, developed by Rhizome, which will produce WARC web archive files.

Documenting in Context

Another means of understanding complex digital objects is to document the work in the context in which it was experienced. One example of this is the work of Robert Sakrowski and Constant Dullart, netart.database.

An example of this is the work of Dutch and Belgian net.artists JODI (Joan Heemskerk & Dirk Paesmans) shown here.

JODI - netart.database

JODI – netart.database

Borrowing from documenting and archiving in the arts, an approach of ‘documenting around the work‘ might be suitable – for example, photographing and videoing interactive audiovisual installations.

Web Archives in Context

Another opportunity to understand websites – if they have been captured by the Internet Archive – is viewing these websites using another tool developed by Rhizome,

An example of the Cambridge University Library website from 1997, shown in a Netscape 3.04 browser.

Cambridge University Library website in 1997 via

Cambridge University Library website in 1997 via


While there is no one perfect solution and each have their own pros and cons, using an approach that combines different methods might make your digital materials available post the lifespan of your project. These methods will help ensure that digital material is suitably documented, preserved and potentially accessible – so that both you and others can use the data in an ongoing manner.


  • How you want to preserve the data?
  • How you want to provide access to your digital material?
  • Developing a strategy including several different methods.

Finally, I think this excerpt is relevant to how we approach digital stewardship and digital preservation:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” – Meditation XVII, John Donne

We are all in this together and rather than each having to troubleshoot alone and building our own separate solutions, it would be great if we can work to our strengths in collaborative ways, while sharing our knowledge and skills with others.

Digital Preservation futurology

I fancy attempting futurology, so here’s a list of things I believe could happen to ‘digital preservation systems’ over the next decade. I’ve mostly pinched these ideas from folks like Dave Thompson, Neil Jefferies, and my fellow Fellows. But if you see one of your ideas, please claim it using the handy commenting mechanism. And because it’s futurology, it doesn’t have to be accurate, so kindly contradict me!

Ingest becomes a relationship, not a one-off event

Many of the core concepts underpinning how computers are perceived to work are crude, paper-based metaphors – e.g. ‘files’, ‘folders’, ‘desktops’, ‘wastebaskets’ etc – that don’t relate to what your computer’s actually doing. (The early players in office computing were typewriter and photocopier manufacturers, after all…) These metaphors have succeeded at getting everyone to use computers, but they’ve also suppressed various opportunities to work smarter, too.

The concept of ingesting (oxymoronic) ‘digital papers’ is obviously heavily influenced by this paper paradigm.  Maybe the ‘paper paradigm’ has misled the archival community about computers a bit, too, given that they were experts at handling ‘papers’ before computers arrived?

As an example of what I mean: in the olden days (25 whole years ago!), Professor Plum would amass piles of important papers until the day he retired / died, and then, and only then, could these personal papers be donated and archived. Computers, of course, make it possible for the Prof both to keep his ‘papers’ where he needs them, and donate them at the same time, but the ‘ingest event’ at the centre of current digital preservation systems still seems to be underpinned by a core concept of ‘piles of stuff needing to be dealt with as a one-off task’. In future, the ‘ingest’ of a ‘donation’ will actually become a regular, repeated set of occurrences based upon ongoing relationships between donors and collectors, and forged initially when Profs are but lowly postgrads. Personal Digital Archiving and Research Data Management will become key; and ripping digital ephemera from dying hard disks will become less necessary as they become so.

The above depends heavily upon…

Object versioning / dependency management

Of course, if Dr. Damson regularly donates materials from her postgrad days onwards, some of these may be updates to things donated previously. Some of them might have mutated so much since the original donation that they can be considered ‘child’ objects, which may have ‘siblings’ with ‘common ancestors’ already extant in the archive. Hence preservation systems need to manage multiple versions of ‘digital objects’, and the relationships between them.

Some of the preservation systems we’ve looked at claim to ‘do versioning’ but it’s a bit clunky – just side-by-side copies of immutable ‘digital objects’, not records of the changes from one version to the next, and with no concept of branching siblings from a common parent. Complex structures of interdependent objects are generally problematic for current systems. The wider computing world has been pushing at the limits of the ‘paper-paradigm’ immutable object for a while now (think Git, Blockchain, various version control and dependency management platforms, etc). Digital preservation systems will soon catch up.

Further blurring of the object / metadata boundary

What’s more important, the object or the metadata? The ‘paper-paradigm’ has skewed thinking towards the former (the sacrosanct ‘digital object’, comparable to the ‘original bit of paper’), but after you’ve digitised your rare book collection, what are Humanities scholars going to text-mine? It won’t be images of pages – it’ll be the transcripts of those (i.e. the ‘descriptive metadata’)*. Also, when seminal papers about these text mining efforts are published, how is this history of the engagement with your collection going to be recorded? Using a series of PREMIS Events (that future scholars can mine in turn), perhaps?

The above talk of text mining and contextual linking of secondary resources raises two more points…

* While I’m here, can I take issue with the term ‘descriptive metadata’? All metadata is descriptive. It’s tautological; like saying ‘uptight Englishman’. Can we think of a better name?

Ability to analyse metadata at scale

‘Delivery’ no longer just means ‘giving users a viewer to look at things one-by-one with’ – it now also means ‘letting people push their Natural Language or image processing algorithms to where the data sits, and then coping with vast streams of output data’.

Storage / retention informed by well-understood usage patterns

The fact that everything’s digital, and hence easier to disseminate and link together than physical objects, also means better understanding how people use our material. This doesn’t just mean ‘wiring things up to Google Analytics’ – advances in bibliometrics that add social / mainstream media analysis, and so forth, to everyday citation counts present opportunities to judge the impact of our ‘stuff’ on the world like never before. Smart digital archives will inform their storage management and retention decisions with this sort of usage information, potentially in fully or semi-automated ways.

Ability to get data out, cleanly – all systems are only ever temporary!

Finally – it’s clear that there are no ‘long-term’ preservation system options. The system you procure today will merely be ‘custodian’ of your materials for the next ten or twenty years (if you’re lucky). This may mean moving heaps of content around in future, but perhaps it’s more pragmatic to think of future preservation systems as more like ‘lenses’ that are laid on top of more stable data stores to enable as-yet-undreamt-of functionality for future audiences?

(OK – that’s enough for now…)

Policy ramblings

For the second stage of the DPOC project Oxford and Cambridge have started looking at policy and strategy development. As part of the DPOC deliverables, the Policy and Planning Fellows will be collaborating with colleagues to produce a digital preservation policy and strategy for their local institutions. Edith (Policy and Planning Fellow at Oxford) blogs about what DPOC has been up to so far.

Last Friday I met with Somaya (Policy and Planning Fellow) and Sarah (Training and Outreach Fellow) at the British Library in London. We spent the day discussing review work which DPOC has done of digital preservation policies so far. The meeting also gave us a chance to outline an action plan for consulting stakeholders at CUL and Bodleian Libraries on future digital preservation policy development.

Step 1: Policy review work
Much work has already gone into researching digital preservation policy development [see for example the SCAPE project and OSUL’s policy case study]. As considerable effort has been exerted in this area, we want to make sure we are not reinventing the wheel while developing our own digital preservation policies. We therefore started by reading as many digital preservation policies from other organisations as we could possibly get our hands on. (Once we ran out of policies in English, I started feeding promising looking documents into Google Translate with a mixed bag of results.) The policy review drew attention to aspects of policies which we felt were particular successful, and which could potentially be re-purposed for the local CUL and Bodleian Libraries contexts.

My colleague Sarah helped me with the initial policy review work. Between the two of us we read 48 policies dating from 2008-2017. However, determining which documents were actual policies was trickier than we had first anticipated. We found that documents named ‘strategy’ sometimes read as policy, and documents named policy sometimes read as more low level procedures. For this reason, we decided to add another 12 strategy documents to the review which had strong elements of policy in them. This brought us up to a round 60 documents in total.

So we began reading…. But we soon found that once you are on your 10th policy of the day, you start to get them muddled up. To better organise our review work, we decided to put them into a classification system developed by Kirsten Snawder (2011) and adapted by Madeline Sheldon (2013). Snawder and Sheldon identified nineteen common topics from digital preservation policies. The topics range from ‘access and use’ to ‘preservation planning’ [for the full list of topics, see Sheldon’s article on The Signal from 2013]. I was interested in seeing how many policies would make direct reference to the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) reference model, so I added this in as an additional topic to the original nineteen identified by Snawder and Sheldon.

Reviewing digital preservation policies written between 2008-2017

Step 2: Looking at findings
Interestingly, after we finished annotating the policy documents we did not find a correlation between covering all of Snawder and Sheldon’s nineteen topics and having what we perceived as an effective policy. Effective in this context was defined as the ability of the policy to clearly guide and inform preservation decisions within an organisation. In fact, the opposite was more common as we judged several policies which had good coverage of topics from the classification system to be too lengthy, unclear, and sometimes inaccessible due to heavy use of digital preservation terminology.

In terms of OAIS, another interesting finding was that 33 out of 60 policies made direct reference to the OAIS. In addition to these 33, several of the ones which did not make an overt reference to the model still used language and terminology derived from it.

So while we found that the taxonomy was not able to guide us on which policy topics were an absolute essential in all circumstances, using it was a good way of arranging and documenting our thoughts.

Step 3: Thinking about guiding principles for policy writing
What this foray into digital preservation policies has shown us is that there is no ‘one fits all’ approach or a magic formula of topics which makes a policy successful. What works in the context of one institution will not work in another. What ultimately makes a successful policy also comes down to communication of the policy and organisational uptake. However, there are number of high level principles which the three of us all felt strongly about and which we would like to guide future digital preservation policy development at our local institutions.

Principle 1: Policy should be accessible to a broad audience. Contrary to findings from the policy review, we believe that digital preservation specific language (including OAIS) should be avoided at policy level if possible. While reviewing policy statements we regularly asked ourselves:

“Would my mother understand this?”

If the answer is yes, the statement gets to stay. If it is no, maybe consider re-writing it. (Of course, this does not apply if your mother works in digital preservation.)

Principle 2: Policy also needs to be high-level enough that it does not require constant re-writing in order to make minor procedural changes. In general, including individuals’ names or prescribing specific file formats can make a policy go out of date quickly. It is easier to change these if they are included in lower level procedures and guidelines.

Principle 3: Digital preservation requires resources. Getting financial commitment to invest in staff at policy level is important. It takes time to build organisation expertise in digital preservation, but losing it can happen a lot quicker. Even if you choose to outsource several aspects of digital preservation, it is important that staff have skills which enables them to understand and critically assess the work of external digital preservation service providers.

What are your thoughts? Do you have other principles guiding digital preservation policy development in your organisations? Do you agree or disagree with our high-level principles?