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Exemplars driving JISC’s digital preservation directions: an update and recap on KeepIt

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By funding projects like KeepIt, JISC has for many years sought to develop and promote best practice in digital preservation. This is consistent with JISC’s role as an advisor on technology and digital strategies to UK higher and further education, through the Higher Education Funding Councils. At the invitation of Neil Grindley, JISC digital preservation programme manager, a small number of current digital preservation projects, all working on developing preservation exemplars, met recently to discuss progress with a view to identifying future directions.

These projects included Biophysical Repositories in the Lab (BRIL), Embedding Institutional Data Curation Services in Research (EIDCSR), PEKin (Preservation Exemplar at King’s) – all of which were linked from my previous blog on DP-related JISC projects – and Significant Properties in the Lab (SPIL), another Kings College London project which for some reason was missed from my earlier list.

We will learn what future directions JISC is to adopt in due course. This blog reports on the KeepIt presentation to the meeting and acts as an update on the project. Remember this is intended to be a short presentation (20 mins) for an informal small group discussion, so we did not over-elaborate the slides. A few slides may be familiar from earlier presentations, but complete the story here.

[slideshare id=4534220&doc=jisc-exemplars-meet-jun10-100618051354-phpapp02]

Broadly, our interest is in the preservation of digital repositories, particularly institutional repositories, which have sprung up across higher education institutions in the UK largely thanks to JISC.

What we have found is that instead of sticking strictly to the original open access agenda – providing access to published research papers – repositories have been diversifying, storing and providing access to different types of content (Slide 2). This recognition, that repository content was changing and hence content management practices would need to change, framed KeepIt’s repository preservation agenda.

When we began in 2004 with our first JISC preservation project, Preserv, the holy grail was to provide preservation services so we could say to repositories: “you don’t have to worry about preservation because there are other experts who can do this for you”.

What we have, instead of organisations providing these services, are a set of tools that have effectively abstracted this preservation expertise for application by others. We may have witnessed a golden age in the development of preservation tools, many produced by JISC projects, and some by the behemoth Planets project, and by other organisations.

With an array of preservation tools come an array of interfaces, which have begun to be subjected to evaluation by users such as Prom (Practical E-Records blog). An ongoing development is the integration of tools within packages, accessed through single, unified interfaces. One example is from KeepIt, which has continued work from Preserv to integrate tools within an EPrints repository interface (more below).

We can simplify this picture (Slide 3).

Tools are one side of the story. The grail is not achievable without those responsible for digital content management, in our case the repository managers and administrators, having sufficient knowledge and confidence to identify and set out the parameters for preservation, taking account of policy, cost and risk, and then to select and apply appropriate tools and services.

So KeepIt has two strands – People and Technology – and it seeks to connect the two.

Strand 1: People. Early in the project we surveyed our exemplar repositories, selected to represent a range of content types, then asked the managers to set out their preservation objectives and work with us to design what turned out to be a five-part KeepIt course focussed on preservation tools (Slide 4). The course covered: organisations, costs, content description, format management and storage, and trust. The course was presented by the experts who had developed the tools, was opened up to other repositories beyond our exemplars, and between 15-18 people attended each module, which was about the right number for a practical, hands-on approach.

The course has now completed, and was evaluated by participants. The biggest test was whether the number of participants would hold up over all five modules. The course was free, so they had plenty of scope to vote with their feet between modules. Yet the numbers remained consistent throughout.

It was clear we must be doing something right. Our course evaluations confirmed this. Participants liked the course structure, mixing presentation with practical (Slide 5). We set clear objectives for the course, outlined in the original course notice. We achieved those objectives and those of the participants (Slide 6). You can find out more on the outcomes of the KeepIt course from our presentation at the European Conference on Digital Archiving (April 2010).

The culmination of the course was a two-day module on preservation planning using Plato and the EPrints preservation tools.

Strand 2: Technology. At this point in the presentation Dave Tarrant gave a live demonstration of the EPrints preservation tools, which work with the latest version of the repository software (v3.2). You can recreate this demo by watching a series of three short videos, with sound commentary, prepared by Dave.

Although preservation planning can initially appear to be complex, persistence pays off, as evaluation of this course module showed (Slide 7).

Back to the people and the exemplar repositories. Following the course we asked the managers of our exemplar repositories to re-examine and prioritise their original objectives, and we are working with them to achieve their primary objectives within the project (by end of September), and to set them up to achieve those objectives with a longer time horizon.

All want to upgrade to EPrints 3.2 and apply the preservation tools. The speed with which this can happen depends on local IT support and repository service providers (Slide 8).

The two type-specific repositories want to specialise the EPrints preservation tools (Slide 9):

  • Edshare: to identify a typical format profile for teaching and learning repositories and assess the preservation implications
  • eCrystals: to add the two main formats used in storing crystallography data (Crystallographic Information File, CIF; Chemical Markup Language, CML) to the tools, and to seek to coordinate this with the organisations who maintain the formats

No two exemplars are the same, and the institution-wide exemplars are taking different approaches (Slide 10):

This is not to ignore the critical role of costs in managing digital preservation (Slide 11). eCrystals contributed to the KRDS2 survey, and the KeepIt exemplars and all course participants have been invited to evaluate the LIFE3 beta tool, which made such an impact in the KeepIt course, for assessing the costs of managing digital content over its lifecycle.

The KeepIt course provided a number of  lessons for the project, its participants and the wider community (Slide 12).

A critical issue for the project, as it approaches its conclusion at the end of September, is how do the repository exemplars exemplify preservation practice? What does it mean to exemplify? (Slide 13) It is not enough for our exemplar preservation repositories themselves to be preservation-ready, according to the parameters they set. They have had the opportunity through this project to dedicate more time and energy to the problem than would have been possible otherwise. I want the repositories to present to, and influence, their peers, in their communities, in their fields. I believe that other repositories want to hear from their peers what has been achieved, and they are more likely to emulate that experience than they are to emulate experts. Will there be the opportunities in the time available?

Miggie Pickton will report in the general session of Open Repositories 2010 in Madrid in July. I hope other presentations and publications from the exemplars will follow.

As with the KeepIt course, perhaps we will need to create our own forum, again sponsored by JISC, DCC, Planets, on the theme: What we have done with the preservation tools? As we have reported on this blog and on the project Twitterstream, we know there has been application of the course tools among participants – e.g. Kingston, ESRC Restore project – and uptake of EPrints preservation tools among other repositories – e.g. at EDINA, Siena.

Of course, we will continue to blog developments and progress here.

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