Preservation Management of Digital Materials: A Handbook
Published by THE BRITISH LIBRARY
Price £15.00 (including UK postage, overseas postage extra)
Paperback, 145 pages, 297x210mm, ISBN 0 7123 0886 5
Online edition available at www.dpconline.org
Digital preservation: A topic fraught with problems, a poisoned chalice?
Numerous projects have explored the problems inherent in the long-term preservation of digital material, while yet others are in the process of doing so. It is an undisputed fact that such endeavours are crucial to the success of any digitisation project or the survival of "born-in-digital" material. A significant issue arising from such efforts has been the apparent scarcity of practical guidelines aimed at establishing best practices within the field. One example of such a publication is Authentic Electronic Records: Strategies for Long-Term Access by Charles Dollar. At the time of writing in 2001, we now have a similar publication aimed at a broader audience and range of material entitled Preservation Management of Digital Materials: A Handbook. The necessity for such a handbook is clearly identified by these authors, in the sense that 'individual researchers were keen to "do the right thing" but frequently lacked the clear guidance and institutional backing to enable them to feel confident of what they should be doing'. The incentive for the production of such guidelines has arisen from the premise that there needs to be more comprehensive guidance on how to create and manage digital resources and material over their "life cycle" in what is an incredibly dynamic environment. This therefore addresses a major fault on the behalf of those leading research in this field, in that they are willing to identify problems and try to find solutions and systems but there is a real lack of advice and guidance on how to properly manage all the disparate elements or apply in practice a life cycle or records continuum approach to preservation.
We must now consider what the authors of the handbook, Maggie Jones and Neil Beagrie, are offering that is a progression in helping records managers and others across wide and varied situations overcome the problems of long-term preservation.
Immediately there are encouraging signs, as the focus of the handbook is based on a methodology that is too often overlooked. In collating their evidence, the authors have discussed the issue with those that are actually using digital preservation methods and "road tested" a preliminary draft of the Handbook in three institutions to ensure it met the requirements of potential users. They have then adapted their results according to what aspects they know need to be elucidated so that digital materials may be properly saved, thus preventing loss through lack of research into user knowledge and requirements. They have also identified good practices that are in operation and are successful so that others may adopt the same practices or avoid the mistakes, which further facilitates the preservation of records. The results presented in the handbook came in part from the analysis of case studies, and appear in sharp contrast to many projects such as the InterPARES Project, which is so far purely theoretical. The lack of practical testing can lead to problems, were the testing to fail to confirm the theory that they had predicted. This is a recurring fault of organizations and institutions involved in research on long-term preservation of digital materials.
Key advantages of the Handbook are its practical and integrated approaches to the issues as noted above.
Many scholars deal with digital preservation issues individually or else in the context of public organizations, government agencies and private institutes. As a result, terminology and nomenclature is applied based on different definitions. In the introduction of the handbook, the reader is presented with a very useful list of terms, which helps to avoid misunderstandings and equivocal points of view. However, the vagueness and ambiguity of the definition of the terms reformatting and migration was a cause for concern: “Migration is a means of overcoming technological obsolescence by transferring digital resources from one hardware/software generation to the next. The purpose of migration is to preserve the intellectual content of digital objects and to retain the ability for clients to retrieve, display, and otherwise use them in the face of constantly changing technology. Migration differs from the refreshing of storage media in that, with migration, it is not always possible to make an exact digital copy or replicate original features and appearance and still maintain compatibility of the resource with the new generation of technology. Reformatting is copying information content from one storage medium to a different storage medium (media reformatting) or converting from one file to format to a different file format (file re-formatting).” The specific distinction between the two terms is not made explicit. We believe that Charles Dollar gives in his book (Authentic Electronic Records: Strategies for Long-Term Access), more lucid definitions that delineate the variation between them more fully.
A great advantage of the handbook is that every chapter is accompanied with a section of recommended further reading and related sites, which have been selected by the authors as key international exemplars and projects. Instructive guidelines are in place to advise a reader wishing to research a specific topic further.
Generally, the presentation of the handbook is very well organized, and the index and table of figures work effectively. The section dealing with preservation strategies is, in particular, very clearly presented. Divided into primary and secondary preservation, the reader is in the position to understand explicitly the advantages and disadvantages of each strategy and to make the appropriate choice for every case. The method of quoting examples and particular case studies in support of their theories creates a feeling of security to the reader that the information provided has already been implemented and tested. The handbook focuses on giving practical advice that doesn’t go deep into the level of application but instead proposes a general attitude towards digital preservation issues and then points to more detailed resources for specific topics.
A very useful distinction between short, medium and long-term preservation enables the user to understand the different issues deriving from each case and to decide what approach is more effective in terms of retention, appraisal, storage and preservation strategies. For example, the handbook proposes primary strategies (migration and emulation) only for archiving repositories with long-term preservation responsibility for the digital material in their care.
The importance of such an effort must be rigorously underlined. The rapidly developing technology increases the need for the creation of an unambiguous handbook, widely accepted to enable long-term access to digital material. Based on this need, Jones and Beagrie use their own and knowledge and experience of digital preservation, combine the outcomes of the existing projects, and provide guidance for everyone who is interested in preserving digital resources long-term.
The authors have produced a very relevant handbook, which is easy to use. However, there are inevitably some sections of it that are not sufficiently detailed, so that the handbook will have to be set aside and other sources cited in the Exemplars and Further Reading used in order to get a full understanding of the relevant topic. In some cases it is an understandable and justified reluctance to tackle the subject in any real depth, for example, the legal situation regarding Intellectual Property Rights where key issues are outlined but the readers urged to seek legal advice for their specific circumstances. There are two areas in which there is insufficient information given. The first is the lack of technical knowledge/guidance. Included in the handbook, are guidelines on how to implement strategies, as well as details of storage temperatures and humidity in order to keep storage media working for the longest period of time. However, there are no detailed guidelines for particular file types or categories of record on how to follow the process of migration, for example, from the technology aspect so that the authenticity of the records is guaranteed. This is an area where more case studies and detailed research and guidance is needed.
The aspect of cost is not dealt with in detail in the handbook with the understandable qualification that there are currently no accurate estimates, due to the fact that it will be almost entirely dependent on various elements of the particular organization. However three pages of Further Reading and Exemplars are devoted to this topic and specific tools and projects which exist. The Handbook itself has not developed new tools in this area. There is a need for further research to identify the various aspects that will contribute significant costs and provide guidance on how to prepare analysis on how much things will cost, which is a very important consideration for all personnel involved in preservation activities.
Much of the handbook is suitable for preservation work across the world with many universal problems identified and best practice and exemplars drawn from resources worldwide. The authors have drawn on personal experience of digital preservation in the UK and Australia and the advice of an international advisory group and peer review process. However, the handbook does need some adaptation for use in countries outside the United Kingdom. For example, the specific legal aspects are explicitly centered on British law. Future collaboration with other countries is necessary in order to prepare supplements that address the concerns of individual countries, or perhaps to make native language editions accessible. With so few comprehensive, practical guides on the market, such as this handbook and the book by Dollar, it would be disappointing for its usefulness to be limited by this lack of wider international collaboration and adaptation.
Technology obsolescence and media degradation are two of the most dangerous threats associated to digital preservation. Archival institutes, libraries, government agencies and organisations need to overcome these obstacles in order to achieve long-term access. There is a necessity for the creation of an international handbook, comprising not only every issue and problem, but solutions and guidelines, as well. A praiseworthy effort is The Preservation Management of Digital Materials: A Handbook, but there are still gaps that need to be filled. Current knowledge and practice are simply not sufficient for a truly comprehensive and complete guide. A handbook, generally, must give rigorous guidelines covering all the aspects and all the issues involved. Our knowledge and experience of these challenges is still being pushed forward. The web version of the handbook is extremely useful not only for the users, but also for the creators as they are able to update the existing version ( http://www.dpconline.org). This fulfils the essential task of making sure that users can get easy access to future developments. We wonder if new, updated and improved versions of the handbook are included in the short-term future plans of the creators.
Everyone in the community that deals with digital preservation issues wait for a key reference text to benefit from practical approaches and from pragmatic information. Our hope is that the continuance of this effort will result in the creation of a key reference text on all aspects of digital preservation.
1 At time of writing, Foteini Aravani + Gordon Brown were postgraduate students, following a Masters degree (MPhil) in Digital Preservation Studies at the University of Glasgow, Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute. They wrote this book review as part of their degree work. This paper was reviewed by Richard E. Barry, Barry Associates; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; WWWebsite: http://www.rbarry.com
 Jones, M & Beagrie, N., Preservation Management of Digital Materials: A Handbook, p.3
 Jones, M & Beagrie, N., Preservation Management of Digital Materials: A Handbook, p.13