The age of digital preservation

The age of digital preservation

Joanna Finegan, Della Keating and Maria Ryan from the National Library of Ireland discuss the importance of digital preservation in securing the cultural heritage of Ireland.

As we enter into the future development of the internet, digital preservation is becoming increasingly essential. It is vital not only to digitise physical resources within libraries, museums, and other institutions which hold large amounts of resources, but to mirror this process in archiving digital and web resources. Born digital materials are those materials which have only existed in a digital format, and therefore include resources such as websites, emails, digital images, film, databases, and electronic publications.

In order to further the accessibility of websites, web crawlers – a piece of automated software utilised to capture websites – are being used to capture copies of websites from a specific moment in time, in order to preserve such sites for future use. However, these copies are not static snapshots, but are captured and preserved in order to function as closely as possible to the way in which the original live website did.

The National Library of Ireland (NLI) has an established web archiving programme and is also now working on a pilot project concerned with born digital collections, both strands are part of the library’s work to meet its strategic priority for 2016-2021 in becoming a leader in digital collection, and delivery. The Born Digital pilot project was initiated in January 2017 with the aim of collecting born digital content, and managing it.

Government Europa spoke to Joanna Finegan, Della Keating, and Maria Ryan, of the Digital Collections team at the National Library of Ireland, Dublin, about the importance of managing digital cultural heritage resources, and their activities in ensuring the accessibility of these documents for future generations.

How does the National Library of Ireland use data archiving to protect its resources?

The NLI collects, protects and makes available cultural heritage collections which record the memory of Ireland. Within the Digital Collections department, there is a strong focus on collecting cultural heritage in a digital format, specifically online digital content and unique born digital materials. Joanna Finegan said: “The library had to respond to the challenge of digital collecting from a strategic and organisational point of view, so in 2015 we brought together various parts of the library to form our digital collections department which includes a combination of technical and curatorial staff.”

In 2011, the NLI initiated pilot projects focusing on web archiving and now, following the establishment of the Digital Collections Department, web archiving has moved from the project phase to an established programme on a larger scale. Initially, the library was conducting a selective web archiving programme, whereby a vast number of resources in relation to every election and referendum since 2011 were collected. However, as this work progressed, the team undertook the creation of a full web domain archive in 2017, which included archiving all national domain sites, .ie, as well as other Irish websites of relevance. As part of the web archive programme, the Digital Collections Department are currently collecting social media.

“That collection work is ongoing, and we’re currently in the quality assurance phase, ensuring that the content is ready to be accessed in the library’s main reading room. At the moment, that collection equates to around 40 terabytes of data, and we’re looking forward to making that available to the researchers here at the National Library later in 2018”, Maria Ryan added.

The born digital pilot was launched in 2017 and is expected to take a number of years to complete. It involves:

  • Identifying potential donors which NLI hope to work with;
  • Capturing their collections which have been created in a digital form; and
  • Going through the full life cycle with these – from appraisal and accessioning to providing access to the collections, and the larger endeavour that is digital preservation.

“As well as our digital collection programmes, NLI also has a digitisation programme and our digital assets, created through this programme, are managed through our digital repository”, Finegan added.

How financially viable is archiving in comparison to the cost of the potential loss of cultural heritage resources?

The consequences of not collecting, nor preserving, materials are substantial, and therefore is tied up with varying financial factors. Finegan insisted: “The content is the output of both research and the subject. The latter part of the 20th, and 21st century, are largely recorded in a digital format. As a result, we’re working to preserve that material – its difficult to place a figure on that.”

As the majority of output from government departments and public-sector bodies is issued, and only exists, online, that data is constantly under threat. It’s estimated that within a year of website content going live, that 80% of these are completely unavailable, or unrecognisable, by the end of this time. Finegan furthered on this: “If you were to quantify the cost of generating a report, hosting such on a website, and then further down the line that website becomes inaccessible, then the investment initially placed into that report will be lost”.

How can archives across Europe transition towards the archiving of digital records?

“The whole idea of preserving digital content, whether its cultural heritage or other resources, can’t be done by an organisation on its own”, Finegan stated. Therefore, there is an increasing necessity to have a collaborative relationship between creators – the primary stakeholders – memory organisations such as the NLI, and organisations like the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC) and International Internet Preservation Consortium (IIPC), of which the NLI is a member of.

Owing to the size of the National Library of Ireland, partnering with organisations such as the DPC and IIPC has become integral to their operations. On this, Della Keating said: “Our brief is tied to the cultural heritage space and we expect that as time goes on more and more records, and more and more archives, are going to be in a digital form. Essentially, our department was established in response to that. One organisation alone cannot solve the problem of digital preservation, and the complete involvement amongst the chain of stakeholders within digital preservation is a critical aspect.”

What does digital preservation entail?

Digitisation is recognised as a conversion process involving transforming analog materials into digital copies, which is not the same as digital preservation; digitisation is performed for access purposes, and to some extent preservation. Ryan added: “We’re very much in the beginning stages of progressing towards digital preservation in Ireland, but it’s going to be a long road ahead of us.”

As well as the importance lying in the endeavour of preserving collections, another vital aspect involves raising awareness of the issues which surround digital preservation. Though the NLI isn’t in the position to collect all digitally formatted materials within the state, there is work being done to advocate for this. Finegan highlighted that: “It’s good to work with other organisations, including the creators of that material in order to increase people’s knowledge of those issues.”

What do you envision for the future of digital preservation?

The current Legal Deposit legislation in Ireland at the moment has not been updated, and as a result, does not address digital materials. At the moment, the EU is considering a proposal for a directive on copyright within the Digital Single Market.

“Although it’s in its infancy here in the library, we very much see ourselves as trying to lead on this in terms of protecting and preserving the cultural heritage record of Ireland”, Keating added. In furthering their work, Finegan said: “We hope to continue our work with creators and relevant organisations within the state and collaborate with these on both a national and international level.”

Joanna Finegan
Assistant Keeper I – Digital Collections
Della Keating
Assistant Keeper I – Digital Collections
Maria Ryan
Web Archivist
Digital Collections
National Library of Ireland


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