We work on lots of exciting digitisation work in the Digital Humanities Lab, and our wonderful undergraduate interns have put together a video to give you a snapshot of just some of the materials we have made digitally available.
But how do we make sure that the resources we create will be usable in 5, 10 or even 100 years time? Digital content can be extremely ephemeral, and is vulnerable to being irreplaceably lost if we’re not careful – just think of how many floppy disks and CDs most of us have that are no longer supported by our current computer. So while we’re creating new content through digitisation in the lab, we’re also working hard with colleagues around the University to plan for the longer-term future of the materials we create, as well as supporting the preservation of digital resources in the University collections.
A lot of digital preservation goes on behind the scenes, and isn’t always as obvious as some of the other work we do, so World Digitisation Day, run by the Digital Preservation Coalition is a great opportunity to stop and celebrate what we do as well as see how much else is going on around the world!
So what we do at Exeter?
Create preservation-friendly digital content
During digitisation, we try to use well supported open-source file types, which can be accessed by as many people as possible and are likely to be usable for years to come. As the Lab specialises in high-resolution photography, we generate lots of very large Tiff images, which are great for showing lots of detail, but we also produce jpeg access copies that are easier for end users to work with and don’t take up so much storage space. Keeping good records of the digitisation process is also essential, and we are currently refining our workflows for recording and storing metadata to help make this easier and more systematised.
The DH team also contributes to online resources for research projects, and we choose widely-used platforms and methods, such as the online collection platform Omeka, and encoding texts following the TEI guidelines, to make sure they’re easy to share, reuse and digitally archive in the future.
Migrating legacy media
On the front lines of content preservation, we also help colleagues around the University and the wider community with digitising content stored on media that is going out of use, such as reel-to-reel audio tape, floppy disks and VHS. Even some early born-digital resources, only 30 or 40 years old, can be extremely challenging (sometimes impossible) to recover, emphasising the importance of looking after this content if we want to keep it usable.
Help projects and researchers archive their data
Part of the lab’s support for digital research projects around the College of Humanities includes helping them to digitally archive datasets and online resources to ensure they stay accessible and usable beyond their initial funding period. We work closely with projects from the early stages of the project development process to make sure long-term sustainability is considered from the start – which makes preservation much easier and saves a lot of headaches in the long run.
We also maintain some web resources ourselves, and are currently working on an updated set of workflows and time schedules for assessing and archiving them, to make maintenance easier as well as make sure no website gets left behind!
Educate and raise awareness
Digital preservation is something everyone can get involved in, and we’re always keen to help educate colleagues, students and community partners about the importance of looking after their digital content, and practical steps they can take to help. Our ongoing programme of training workshops includes regular sessions on planning digital research projects and working with data (especially the varied and often somewhat ‘woolly’ data that humanities projects can involve), and we are looking to include more specific digital preservation sessions soon. We are particularly excited to welcome colleague Alexander R. E. Taylor to give a seminar about cloud storage and digital preparedness later this term.
We are also exploring the possibility of providing asynchronous online resources, such as new Libguides pages, with practical tips for managing and preserving your data at home. Feedback about what kinds of resources would be most useful, and on what platforms, would be very welcome, so please get in touch if you would find this kind of resource useful or have ideas of what you’d most like to see.
And we’re always learning more!
Digital preservation is an continuous journey, and we’re always keen to learn more about how we can expand and improve the ways we preserve our own content and support preservation around the university. Our team has found the resources and online training available through the DPC really useful for developing our understanding of good practice, and we’d highly recommend them for anyone interested in learning more. As well as the ongoing activities already mentioned, one possibility we’re currently exploring is a way to make more of our workflows and code open-access, to involve more people in our methods as well as our outputs.
While we definitely don’t have all the answers when it comes to digital preservation, we’re delighted to help where we can, and very excited to learn and share as part of this international digital preservation community!