Two days in the City

Beautiful sunshine in the City: Westminster Bridge (photo: Rachel MacGregor CC-BY)

I was lucky enough to have two days in London last week to attend two separate but linked events: the first was a Jisc sponsored workshop on Digital Appraisal and the second an Archivematica UK User group meet up.  It was a nice balance of activities, Day One was around the theory of how we decide what to keep or what to throw away and Day Two was about sharing experiences of using Archivematica – a digital preservation tool which can potentially help us with aspects of this.

Wednesday was a day at the University of Westminster – founded in 1838  in their beautiful buildings at 309 Regent Street.

Foyer at University of Westminster (Credit: Big Rock Cat / Sabotage1 https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:University_of_Westminster_Foyer.jpg CC-BY 3.0)

This event – kindly sponsored by Jisc – designed to bring together digital preservation practitioners to discuss and explore approaches to the theory and practice of the managing digital archives. Chatham House Rules applied so there was freedom to discuss practice in an open and honest way.  The morning session comprised of two presentations.  The first focussed on the theory of appraisal, that is how we make decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of.  The second explored practical experiences of the same and reflecting on the change that those who are responsible for managing and looking after records have experienced in the move to the digital age.

For the afternoon session we reflected on what we had heard in the morning and were divided into smaller groups and invited to discuss the approaches we took to appraising both digital and physical collections.  It was a good chance to share experiences of tools which we found useful and difficulties we encountered.

For me it was a great opportunity to meet people out there actually “doing preservation” using a wide variety of tools. Sometimes when people use one software package or another it can have the effect of dividing them into camps.  It’s really important to be able to meet up with and share experiences of others who are in a similar position – as witnessed at the Archivematica Meeting the next day – but it also good to hear a diversity of experience.  There was a strong feeling that any tools, workflows and ways of working are likely to change and develop rapidly, paralleling rapid technological changes, so that anything we opt for now is necessarily only a “temporary” solution.  We have to learn to work in a state of flux and be dynamic in our approaches to preservation.

Day two was the Archivematica UK User group this time hosted by Westminster School.  I’ve blogged before about this group when we hosted here at Lancaster University. Yet another fantastic setting for our meeting another brilliant opportunity to discuss our work with colleagues from a wide range of institutions.

Deans Yard, Westminster (Photo by Rachel MacGregor CC-BY)

The morning session involved the sharing of workflows and in a nice parallel to the previous day’s session, talking about appraisal!

Lunch was back-to-school in the canteen but I’m pleased to report that school dinners have certainly moved on since I remember them!

In the afternoon there were a selection of presentations – including one that I gave to update people on our work at Lancaster as part of the Jisc RDSS to create a reporting tool – DMAonline – which will work with Archivematica to give added reporting functionality.  One of the attractive things about Archivematica as a digital preservation tool, is that it is Open Source so that it allows for development work to happen parallel to the product and to suit all sorts of circumstances.

We also heard from Hrafn Malmquist at University of Edinburgh talking about his recent work with Archivematica to help with preserving the records of the University Court. Sean Rippington from the University of St Andrews talked to us about experimenting with exporting Sharepoint files and Laura Giles from the University of Hull talked about documenting Hull’s year as City of Culture.

We were also lucky enough to get a tour of Westminster School’s archive which gave the archivist Elizabeth the chance to show off her favourite items, including the wonderful Town Boy ledger which you can discover for yourself here.

All in all it was a very useful couple of days in London which gave me a lot to think about and incorporate into my practice.  Having time to reflect on theoretical approaches in invaluable and rarely achieved when the “day job” is so busy and I am grateful to have had the time to attend.

Rachel MacGregor

From Planning to Deployment: Digital Preservation and Organizational Change June 2017

We were very excited to be visiting the lovely city of York for the Digital Preservation’s event “From Planning to Deployment: Digital Preservation and Organizational Change”.  The day promised a mixture of case studies from organisations who have or are in the process of implementing a digital preservation programme and also a chance for Jisc to showcase some of the work they have been sponsoring as part of the Research Data Shared Services project (which we are a pilot institution for).  It was a varied programme and the audience was very mixed – one of the big benefits of attending events like these is the opportunity to speak to colleagues from other institutions in related but different roles.  I spoke to some Records Managers and was interested in their perspective as active managers of current data.  I’m a big believer in promoting digital preservation through involvement at all stages of the data lifecycle (or records continuum if you prefer) so it is important that as many people as possible – whatever their role in the creation or management of data – are encouraged into good data management practices.  This might be by encouraging scientists to adopt the FAIR principles or by Records Managers advising on file formats, file naming and structures and so on.

William Kilbride, Digital Preservation Coalition introduces the event (CC-BY Rachel MacGregor)

The first half of the day was a series of case studies presented by various institutions, large and small, who had a whole range of experiences to share. It was introduced by a presentation from the Polonsky Digital Preservation Project based at Oxford and Cambridge Universities.  Lee Pretlove and Sarah Mason jointly led the conversation talking us through the challenges of developing and delivering a digital preservation project which has to continue beyond the life of the project.  Both Universities represented in this project are very large organisations but this can make the issues faced by the team extremely complex and challenging.  They have been recording their experiences of trying to embed practices from the project so that digital preservation can become part of a sustainable programme.

The first case study came from Jen Mitcham from York University talking about the digital preservation work they have undertaken their.  Jen has documented her activities very helpfully and consistently on her blog and she talked specifically about the amount of planning which needs to go into work and then the very real difficulties in implementation.  She has most recently been looking at digital preservation for research data – something we are working on here at Lancaster University.

Next up was Louisa Matthews from the Archaeological Data Service who have been spearheading approaches to Digital Preservation for a very long time.  The act of excavating a site is by its nature destructive so it is vital to be able to capture a data about it accurately and be able to return to and reuse the data for the foreseeable future.  This captures digital preservation in a nutshell!  Louisa described how engaging with their contributors ensures high quality re-usable data – something we are all aiming for.

The final case study for the morning was Rebecca Short from the University of Westminster talking about digital preservation and records management.  The university have already had success implementing a digital preservation workflow and are now seeking to embed it further in the whole records creation and management process.  Rebecca described the very complex information environment at her university – relatively small in comparison to the earlier presentations but no less challenging for all that

The afternoon was a useful opportunity to hear from Jisc about their Research Data Shared Services project which we are a pilot for.  We heard presentations from Arkivum, Preservica and Artefactual Systems who are all vendors taking part in the project and gave interesting and useful perspectives on their approaches to digital preservation issues.  The overwhelming message however has to be – you can’t buy a product which will do digital preservation.  Different products and services can help you with it, but as William Kilbride, Executive Director of the Digital Preservation Coalition has so neatly put it “digital preservation is a human project” and we should be focussing on getting people to engage with the issues and for all of us to be doing digital preservation.

Rachel MacGregor

Jisc Research Data Shared Services March 2017

Here at Lancaster University we are very excited to be part of a group of pilot institutions taking part in Jisc’s Research data shared services project.  This aims to provide a flexible range of services which suit the varied needs of institutions in the HE sector help achieve policy compliance for deposit, publication, discovery, storage and long term preservation of research data. It’s an ambitious project but one that there is an undoubted need for and we are trying to work with Jisc to help them achieve this goal.

Last week we were invited down to Jisc London HQ to learn about the progress of the project and – just as importantly – share our own thoughts and experiences on the process.

Waterloo Sunset (author’s own, CC-BY)

Daniela Duca has written a comprehensive overview of the meeting and the way forward for Jisc from the meeting.

Our table represented a microcosm of the project: Cambridge University (large institution), ourselves at Lancaster (medium) and the Royal College of Music (small).  We all have extremely different needs and resources and how one institution tackles a problem will not work at another.  However we have a common purpose in supporting our academics and students in their research, ensuring compliance with funders and enabling our institutions to support first class research outputs to share with the wider world.

We had been asked to do some preparatory work around costing models for the meeting – I think it would be fair to say we all found this challenging – probably because it is!  My previous knowledge of costings comes from having looked at the excellent Curation Costs Exchange which is an excellent staring point for anyone considering approaching the very difficult task of costing curation services.

My main interest in the day lay in the preservation aspects of the project especially in exploring wider use cases.  It’s clear that many institutions have a number of digital preservation scenarios for which the Shared Service solution might also be applicable.  What is also clear is that there are so many possible use cases that it would be very easy to accidentally create a whole new project without even trying!  I think it’s fair to say that all of us in the room – whether we are actively involved in digital preservation or not – are very interested in this part of the project.  There is no sense in Jisc replicating work which has already been done elsewhere or is being developed by other parties so it presents an ideal opportunity for collaborative working and building on the strengths of the existing digital preservation community.

Overall there was much food for thought and I look forward to the next development in the shared services project.

Researchers: what do they really think?

Image: Flickr https://flic.kr/p/8WpM2U – Rul Fernandes CC BY 2.0

Well… it’s probably quite hard to get to the truth of the matter but here at Lancaster we are trying to find out what researchers really think.  This is crucial for developing and improving our services and vital for delivering the service our researchers want.

We are one of the organisations taking part in the JISC RDM Shared Services pilot and you can read their take on the work being done here.  With JISC’s help we undertook a researcher survey to find out a bit more about the kinds of research data which were being produced, how the data were (or weren’t) being managed and researcher attitudes towards their data.

Researchers were asked about the types of data which were generated from their research.  The results were quite interesting to us.  Unsurprisingly perhaps far and away the most popular “type” of data were “document or report” followed with a bit of a gap by spreadsheets.  Structured text files (eg xml, json etc) came a lot lower down the list as did databases.

Lancaster Researchers’ responses to JISC DAF Survey

What interested us was comparing the kinds of files which researchers said they created during the research process with the kinds of files which were actually being deposited with us as research outputs.  Obviously comparisons are problematic not least because our researchers were being asked about the data generated as part of their research activities rather than specifically those which were ultimately selected for permanent preservation.  We also know that we only get a small proportion of the research data which are being created within the university and the respondents may include people who have not deposited data with us. Having analysed the research datasets which we have already we can see that a huge percentage were structured or unstructured text files and a much smaller proportion were spreadsheets or Word documents.

Analysis of file formats undertaken at Lancaster University

Is it that our researchers have a false sense of the kinds of data which they are creating and using or is it that we as data curators have a poor understanding of the researcher community?  I suspect that it is a bit of both but as data curators it is our duty to both have a good understanding of the data environment and also to be able to communicate to our research community.  This is something we need to address as part of improving our advocacy and engagement strategies.

Another question which was asked was was about sharing data and this got answers which did surprise us.  The majority said that they did already share data and very few said they were not willing to share.  For the ones who did not share data it was mostly because it was sensitive or confidential data or they did not have permission to share it.  Of those who did share data the majority said it was for “the potential for others to re-use data” and because “research is a public good and should be open to all”.  An encouraging third of those questioned said they had re-used someone else’s data.

Results of JISC DAF survey for Lancaster University

Of course we know that the people who did answer our survey represent those who are in some way already engaged with the RDM process.  We also know that people are likely to give the answers they want us to hear!  But if people are serious about being willing and able to share we really want to support them in this.

So we’ve decided to try and get talking to our researchers – and for them to talk to each other – by setting up a series of Data Conversations – events where researchers can discuss creation and dissemination of data to try and encourage a climate of sharing and valuing the data.  It means we can hope for data that is well curated from the start of its life and that will be selected for deposit appropriately and with good metadata.

Better communication and advocacy will help us in the long run to preserve and share high quality relevant data which can be shared and reused.  Managing (research) data and long term preservation of digital data are collaborative activities and the more we understand and share the better we will be at achieving these goals.

Rachel MacGregor, Digital Archivist