Reflections on PASIG 2017

Christchurch, Oxford: my home for the conference

It was fantastic to see PASIG 2017 (Preservation and Archives Special Interest Group) come to Oxford this year which meant I had the privilege of attending this prestigious international conference in the beautiful surroundings of Oxford’s Natural History Museum.  All slides and presentations are available here.

The first day was advertised as Bootcamp Day so that everyone could be up-to-speed with the basics.  And I thought: “do I know everything about Digital Preservation?”  and the answer was “No” so I decided to come along to see what I could learn.  The answer was:  quite a lot.  There was some excellent advice on offer from Sharon McMeekin of the Digital Preservation Coalition and Stephanie Taylor of CoSector who both have a huge amount of experience in delivering and supporting digital preservation training.  Adrian Brown (UK Parliament) gave us a lightning tour of relevant standards – what they are and why they are important.  It was so whistle stop that I think we were all glad that the slides of all the presentations are available – this was definitely one to go back to.

The afternoon kicked off with “What I wish I knew before I started” and again responses to these have been summarised in some fantastic notes made collaboratively but especially by Erwin Verbruggen (Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision) and David Underdown (UK National Archives).  One of the pieces of advice I liked the most came from Tim Gollins (National Records of Scotland) who suggested that inspiration for solutions does not always come from experts or even from within the field – it’s an invitation to think broadly and get ideas, inspiration and solutions from far and wide.  Otherwise we will never innovate or move on from current practices or ways of thinking.

There was much food for thought from the British Library team who are dealing with all sorts of complex format features.  The line between book and game and book and artwork is often blurred.  They used the example of Nosy Crow’s Goldilocks and Little Bear – is it a book, an app, a game or all three?  And then there is Tea Uglow’s A Universe Explodes , a blockchain book, designed to be ephemeral and changing.  In this it has many things in common with time-based artworks which institutions such as the Tate, MOMA and many others are grappling with preserving.

The conference dinner was held at the beautiful Wadham College and it was great again to have the opportunity to meet new people in fantastic surroundings.  I really liked what Wadham College had done with their Changing Faces commission – four brilliant portraits of Wadham women.

Conference dinner at Wadham College
Wadham pudding

The conference proper began on Day Two and over the course of the two days there were lots of interesting presentations which it would be impossible to summarise here.  John Sheridan’s engaging and thought provoking talk on disrupting the archive, mapping the transition from paper archive to digital not just in a literal sense but also in the sense of our ways of thinking.  Paper-based archival practices rely on hierarchies and order – this does not work so well with digital content.  We probably also need to be thinking more like this:

and less like this:

for our digital archives.

Eduardo del Valle of the University of the Balearic Islands gave his Digital Fail story – a really important example of how sharing failures can be as important as sharing successes – in his case they learnt key lessons and can move on from this and hopefully prevent others from making the same mistakes.  Catherine Taylor of Waddesdon Manor also bravely shared the shared drive – there was a nervous giggle from an audience made up of people who all work with similarly idiosyncratically arranged shared drives… In both cases acquiring tools and applying technical solutions was only half of the work (or possibly not even half) its the implementation of the entire system (made up of a range of different parts) which is the difficult part to get right.

Me networking at the Natural History Museum

As a counter point to John Sheridan’s theory we had the extremely practical and important presentation from Angeline Takawira of the United Nations Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals who explained that preserving and managing archives are a core part of the function of the organisation.  Access for an extremely broad range of stake holders is key.  Some of the stakeholders live in parts of Rwanda where internet access is usually wifi onto mobile devices – this is an important part of considerations of how to make material available.

Alongside Angeline Takawira’s presentation Pat Sleeman of the UN Refugee Agency packed a powerful punch with her description of archives and records management in the field when coping with the biggest humanitarian crisis in the history of the organisation.  How to put together a business case for spending on digital preservation when the organisation needs to spend money on feeding starving babies.  And even twitter which had been lively during the course of the conference at the hashtag #PASIG17 fell silent at the testimony of Emi Mahmoud which exemplifies the importance of preserving the voices and stories of refugees and displaced persons.

I came away with a lot to think about and also a lot to do.  What can we do (if anything) to help with the some of the tasks faced by the digital preservation community as a whole?  The answer is we can share the work we are doing – success or failure – and all learn that it is a combination of tools, processes and skills which come from right across the board of IT, archives, librarians, data scientists and beyond that we can help preserve what needs to be preserved.

Rachel MacGregor (Digital Archivist)

[all images author’s own]

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Rachel MacGregor

Digital Archivist at Lancaster University. Interested in data discovery, archives, open data and lots of other things.

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