DPC Student Conference – What I Wish I Knew Before I Started

At the end of January, I went to the Chancellor’s Hall at the University of London’s Art Deco style Senate House. Near to the entrance of the Chancellor’s Hall was Room 101. Rumours circulated amongst the delegates keenly awaiting the start of the conference that the building and the room were the inspiration for George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Instead of facing my deepest and darkest digital preservation fears in Senate House, I was keen to see and hear what the leading digital preservation trainers and invited speakers at different stages of their careers had to say. For the DPOC project, I wanted to see what types of information were included in introductory digital preservation training talks, to witness the styles of delivery and what types of questions the floor would raise to see if there were any obvious gaps in the delivery. For the day’s programme, presenters’ slides and Twitter Storify, may I recommend that you visit the DPC webpage for this event:

http://www.dpconline.org/events/past-events/wiwik-2017

The take away lesson from the day, is just do something, don’t be afraid to start. Sharon McMeekin showed us how much the DPC can help (see their new website, it’s chock full of digital preservation goodness) and Steph Taylor from CoSense showed us that you can achieve a lot in digital preservation just through keeping an eye on emerging technologies and that you spend most of your time advocating that digital preservation is not just backing up. Steph also reinforced to the student delegation that you can approach members of the digital preservation community, they are all very friendly!

From the afternoon session, Dave Thompson reminded those assembled that we also need to think about the information age that we live in, how people use information, how they are their own gatekeepers to their digital records and how recordkeepers need to react to these changes, which will require a change in thinking from traditional recordkeeping theory and practice. As Adrian Brown put it for digital archivists, “digital archivists are archivists with superpowers”. One of those superpowers is the ability to adapt to your working context and the technological environment. Digital preservation is a constantly changing field and the practitioner needs to be able to adapt and change to the environment around them in a chameleon like manner to get their institution’s work preserved. Jennifer Febles reminded us that is also OK to say that “you don’t know” when training people, you can go away and learn or even learn from other colleagues. As for the content of the day, there were no real gaps, the day programme was spot on as far as I could tell from the delegates.

Whilst reflecting on the event on the journey back on the train (and whilst simultaneously being packed into the stifling hot carriage like a sweaty sardine), the one thing that I really wanted to find out was what the backgrounds of the delegates were. More specifically, what ‘information schools’ they were attending, what courses they were undertaking, how much their modules concerned digital recordkeeping and their preservation, and, most importantly, what they are being taught in those modules.

My thoughts then drifted towards thinking of those who have been given the label of ‘digital preservation experts’. They have cut their digital preservation teeth after their formal qualifications and training in an ostensibly different subject. Through a judicious application and blending of discipline-specific learning, learning about related fields they then apply this learning to their specific working context. Increasingly, in the digital world, those from a recordkeeping background need to embrace computer science skills and applications, especially for those where coding and command line operation is not a skill they have been brought up with. We seem to be at a point where the leading digital preservation practitioners are plying their trade (as they should) and not teaching their trade in a formal education setup. A very select few are doing both but if we pulled practitioners into formal digital preservation education programmes, would we then drain the discipline of innovative practice? Should digital preservation skills (which DigCurV has done well to define) be better suited to one big ‘on the job’ learning programme rather than more formal programmes. A mix of both would be my suggestion but this discussion will never close.

Starting out in digital preservation may seem terribly daunting, with so much to learn as there is so much going on. I think that the ‘information schools’ can equip students with the early skills and knowledge but from then on, the experience and skills is learned on the job. The thing that makes the digital preservation community standout is that people are not afraid to share their knowledge and skills for the benefit of preserving cultural heritage for the future.

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