Australasia Preserves: Establishing a digital preservation community of practice

On February 16 2018, The University of Melbourne Library Digital Scholarship team organised and hosted the inaugural “Australasia Preserves” event. This event brought together 75 people interested in digital preservation in Australia and New Zealand, from a variety of different institutions and organisations.

Our goal was to start to build a community of practice for digital preservation in our region for all interested people and organisations, regardless of institutional affiliation or skill level.  We’ve wanted to get a community like this together for a while. Because we are a very small team working on a very big digital preservation project, we have a keen interest in generating greater connections with other digital preservation initiatives, projects, and work being done, and in exploring opportunities for collaboration.

To kick off, I welcomed everyone then spoke briefly about the University of Melbourne digital preservation project I’m working on. Key points included:

  • We’ve done two years of investigatory work, benchmarking the current level of digital preservation awareness and activity at the university in various areas
  • We’ve identified and prioritised gaps for improvement
  • We’ve run infrastructure pilots to determine requirements for digital preservation systems and processes
  • Our findings so far have enabled us to draft a business case in order to seek funding for the next two years of work, including implementing preservation storage, improving skills and training for digital preservation, and improving governance and management for long-term preservation

Next up, we heard lightning talk presentations. We chose this format to maximise sharing of different areas and their current work or current challenges. Six speakers from Australia and three from New Zealand spoke for five minutes each. Details of the speakers can be seen on the event page.

There was active participation on Twitter (#AusPreserves). During the lightning talks, we noticed a comment about “jargon” that had popped up online.

And so, in agile project fashion, we whipped around the room quickly, inviting attendees to give explanations for various terms that were of concern. There’s already some great resources available for explaining digital preservation terms, most notably the Digital Preservation Handbook Glossary  which we pointed to, and our crowd-sourced jargon busting can be found in the collaborative notes from the event.

The second part of the event involved exploring, as a group, what an ongoing Australasian digital preservation community of practice could be like. Small group discussion was reported back to the whole room.

Three questions focussed the discussion:

  1. How could an Australasian digital preservation community of practice work?
  2. How can it be useful to you?
  3. Are there opportunities for collaboration?

Key and recurring points made by attendees throughout the event included:

  • This is something we all want to keep doing, we need to be talking and sharing more, as we feel isolated
  • Keeping the communication going beyond face-to-face is likely necessary (e.g. social media, closed forums such as Slack & Google groups, or a central resource that allows long-term search across it)
  • Informal sharing is important: we may not always want to be speaking for our organisations
  • We all have technical capacity gaps, so skills sharing and better knowledge transfer could help this situation
  • We need training at many different levels, as there are many different levels of knowledge and awareness in the community

As the digital preservation community is widely dispersed here, both across Australia and across the Tasman in New Zealand, next steps include continuing the conversation online at our newly established Google group forum. In addition, the Digital Scholarship team at the University of Melbourne is actively planning what the next steps could be in terms of future events and meetings that we may want to run.

Community building for digital preservation has begun in the Australasian region. There is a clear need and a strong appetite for better sharing of our work in digital preservation, and we hope this initiative contributes to building a robust support network.

Further resources to check out

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Guest blog: Where are the activist archivists?

by Ross Harvey | rossharvey1@gmail.com | elibank.net | @TaksNz

Are archivists radical? Three public lectures sponsored by Monash University last week challenged archivists to become more engaged.

I presented the Whyte Memorial Lecture on 15 September with a mild call to arms that encouraged archivists to assert themselves. Two transfixing lectures on 17 September pursued this radical theme much more forcefully. They will stay in my mind and inform my thinking about archives for many years to come. They have completely changed my views of what archivists must strive to do.

The first speaker was Andrew Flinn (University College London) who spoke about research into community archives. The second speaker was Anne Gilliland (University of California Los Angeles) on recordkeeping in a digital, post-colonial world, specifically how to support inclusion in a digital age. Both speakers are eminent and influential archives educators and their lectures were riveting because of their radical content.

Flinn’s lecture, ‘Another world is possible’, addressed social justice issues in three themes:

  1. Recordkeepers as advocates for openness in government and corporate contexts
  2. Community-based control of archives
  3. The role of archival educators and research in critical examination and improvement of archives practice

Flinn argued for ‘research-informed education and practice that makes a difference’, seeking ‘fundamental change, not preserving the status quo’.

Gilliland’s paper investigated two themes:

  1. Social and ethical responsibilities of archivists and recordkeepers towards society’s least empowered individuals
  2. The need for recordkeepers to respond to grand societal challenges

Gilliland highlighted the role of recordkeeping in diasporas in reconstructing migrants’ memories, and made specific reference to the massive forced displacements in recent weeks. Gilliland posed the question: how can recordkeepers be a key part of addressing this, especially in a digital context? She heavily criticised the failure of recordkeepers to meet any of the aims of the Unesco Universal Declaration on Archives 2011 (‘open access to archives enriches our knowledge of human society, promotes democracy, protects citizens’ rights and enhances the quality of life’). She challenged recordkeepers to ‘confront [their] own complicities’. Recordkeepers have ‘failed the disenfranchised’. These are fighting words!

Gilliland continued with more damning indictments. Standard recordkeeping practice fails refugees by imposing unrealistic standards. Recordkeepers have failed in advocacy roles – an example was not speaking out against anti-terrorist laws. Current recordkeeping systems are too complex, too hard for the uninitiated. Digitisation of records is carried out for and on behalf of the elite, those in power, the oppressors. She concluded that recordkeepers have failed. New structures, new systems, and more flexibility are urgently demanded. She ‘exhorted’ recordkeepers and academics to use digital records and ways of working in support of all citizens of the world, especially the dispossessed. In Gilliland’s words, ‘all of our current archival ideas privilege those in control’.

The questions from the audience disappointed. They did not respond to the exciting although confronting challenges offered, but looked at the difficulties. I wondered at one point if Australian recordkeepers – those in the audience, at least – were moribund. The responses from Flinn and Gilliland emphasised education of new professionals who better understand the issues and are motivated by major societal concerns, collective action, individuals who can apply social justice mandates in their workplaces, and stronger professional associations. It is an ethical imperative to act.

These papers were highly stimulating. Gilliland’s will probably be the best I hear this year and most likely also for some years to come. But on reflection my feelings are mixed: can these major challenges be addressed by archivists currently in the workforce, with their strong conservatism? I rather think not. The hope has to lie with new professionals who are motivated by educators like Andrew Flinn and Anne Gilliland to address major societal concerns through collective action.

Andrew Flinn’s email signature quotes Aneurin Bevan: ‘We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we must be the builders’.

So here’s my challenge to archivists: be the builders.