Our First Digital Preservation Assessment

This post authored by Lance Stuchell and Scott Witmer

Assessment is an obviously important element to any mature digital preservation program. Checking goals against real-world practice and collections is the only real way to ensure preservation is actually happening. That said, it is very hard to find the time to actually do a proper assessment. We were definitely in the category of knowing we should be doing one, while at the same time not actually doing one, for several years. 

A few factors led us to changing that and prioritizing assessment. The first were seeing practical community models emerge. Let’s face it, very few of us have the time to do even an internal TRAC audit. However, resources like NDSA’s Levels of Preservation and the Digital Preservation Coalition’s Rapid Assessment Model provide simpler frameworks for busy librarians to adapt into a doable assessment project. The other major factor was a request by Library Administration to the library’s Digital Preservation Steering Committee for assessment data to factor into their budget planning cycle, which was to happen in the fall of 2021. 

Administration’s request put us on a pretty tight four month timeframe to conceive, conduct, and synthesize a meaningful assessment. So, we put “Eye of the Tiger” on loop (“In the Air Tonight” would have also worked), and got to it. Because of the short turnaround, we conducted a targeted assessment focusing on asking digital preservation stakeholders for current challenges or roadblocks they were encountering in their efforts to preserve content. For a more in depth look at our assessment methods, please check out our corresponding Tiny Studies blog post.

The Findings:  Through this assessment, we have identified gaps in our preservation program that can be grouped into three areas: expertise, communication, and capacity. These gaps obviously feed on each other. Lack of expertise and/or capacity have led to breakdowns in communications. Collectors want to collect, and maintainers want to maintain, but when systems and staff capacity are not able to support one, the other is frustrated in their efforts. These gaps touch all aspects of our program, but they particularly impact our ability to extend preservation commitments to natively digital content. In many ways, our organization is still struggling with prioritizing and incorporating non-digitized material into our collections and preservation program. This is especially troubling in light of the connection between our ability to support digital preservation for natively digital content and our ability to serve as partners in the innovative digital scholarship happening on campus. We were also struck by how often collecting at-risk natively-digital material was also part of our efforts to collect from traditionally under-represented groups. 

The Recommendations: The assessment findings are troubling, to say the least. The assessment clearly shows that our gaps in expertise, communication, and capacity impacts some of our most key collection areas. The Digital Preservation Steering Committee created a set of recommendations in an attempt to address the three areas of weakness and give priority to building a stronger natively-digital preservation program. The recommendations include: 

  1. Develop a new approach to digital preservation by implementing a distributed approach to digital preservation with the Library Information Technology (LIT) division and the Digital Preservation Unit serving as centers of preservation work and knowledge, while also creating specialized nodes of expertise and capacity spread throughout the organization.
  2. Continue to assess and document the needs of our preservation program.
  3. Define the needs of a natively digital collecting program by further exploring what types of content we can and can not preserve, and analyzing the capacity and potential of our current preservation solutions. 
  4. Add staffing capacity to address current capacity shortages and gaps in expertise. Staffing recommendations include the creation of four new positions in LIT and the Digital Preservation Unit. In addition to these core positions, the Steering Committee supported the funding of positions supporting digital preservation in Connected Scholarship, the Digital Conversion Unit, Special Collections, and Technical Services. 

Progress: The report was submitted to Library administrators in September 2021, with an updated version for wider distribution shared with the wider Library community this June. The Steering Committee is working on making progress on all of the recommendations. Currently, efforts are focused on:

  • Conducting a 2022 Digital Preservation Assessment aimed at getting more detail on what a wider swath of library staff is most concerned about and what gaps currently exist between our current solutions and the Digital Preservation Baseline, a document that outlines the library’s basic requirements for preservation  
  • Documenting our current preservation solutions and the types of content they are intended to preserve
  • Creating case studies of currently unsupported natively digital content to better surface needs around this material and possible solutions and further development work 

While the administration did not consider the positions appropriate for a formal budget request to the provost, they recognized the value of these positions and pledged to find other ways to fill them. Three of the recommended four core positions have been addressed by existing staff moving into new positions, taking on new roles, or having work reassigned: 

  • The new Associate Director of Library IT will be also taking on the role of Digital Preservation Technology Lead.
  • Digital preservation related development is being reprioritized and allocated among our current development staff in LIT.
  • The Digital Preservation Projects Manager position was created in the Digital Preservation Unit and is being filled by a librarian transferring from another division of the library. 
  • An additional position in the Digital Preservation Unit, the Digital Preservation Production Manager, remains unfunded. Discussions on that position will resume when the Digital Preservation Lab returns to full capacity after current staff shortages in other areas of the library are addressed. 

We obviously still have a lot of work remaining to address the issues surfaced in this assessment, and in building the comprehensive program we all envision. As with almost everything digital preservation, program building efforts to strengthen our ability to preserve diverse and changing digital content will be ongoing. We will continue to write about this work here and elsewhere.