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Web person at the Imperial War Museum, just completed PhD about digital sustainability in museums (the original motivation for this blog was as my research diary). Posting occasionally, and usually museum tech stuff but prone to stray. I welcome comments if you want to take anything further. These are my opinions and should not be attributed to my employer or anyone else (unless they thought of them too). Twitter: @jottevanger

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Significant properties workshop - report

DCC/JISC significant properties workshop (British Library, 7/4/2008)

I'm not going to write up in detail all that was presented on Monday, but highlight a few things that seemed important to me, and work out a couple of thoughts/responses of my own. I haven't yet had a chance to read the papers that were sometimes referred to at the workshop (links to them here, some are huge!) so my questions may be answered there.
  • JISC’s INSPECT project, run by CeRch at KCL, has set a framework for identifying and assessing the value of significant properties (SPs), and the success of their preservation; and initiated several case studies looking at SPs in the context of sets of similar file formats (still images, moving images etc) and categories of digital object (including e-learning objects and software).
  • 5 broad SP “classes” (behaviour, appearance/rendering, content, context and structure) are identified by INSPECT. These don’t seem to include space to describe the “purpose” of a digital object (DO), unless this is somehow the combined result of all other SPs. But an objective such as “fun” or “communicates a KS2 concept effectively to the target audience” needs to be represented, especially for complex, service-level resources. Preserving behaviour or content but somehow failing to achieve the purpose would be to miss the point.
  • Something I’m still unclear on: is it that a range of SPs are identified that can be given a value of significance for a given “medium” or format? Or is it that a set of SPs is identified for a format, and the value given according to each instance (or set of instances) submitted for presentation? In other words, it a judgement made of the significance of a property for a format/medium, or for a given preservation target?
  • Once identified, SPs provide a means for measuring the success of preservation of a file format (whether the preservation activities entail migration to or from that format, or emulation of systems that support it).
  • The two classes of object explored in the workshop (software and e-learning objects) are typically compound, and are much more variable than file formats. They will inherit some (potential) SPs from their components, but others (many behaviours, for example) may be implicit in the whole assemblage.
  • Andrew Wilson (keynote speaker, NAA) raised the importance of authenticity. His archivists’ point of view of this concept is not identical with that in museums, or that which I'm using in my research, but it’s useful nonetheless. I have, however, already discarded it as a significant property for most museum digital resources, with the exception of the special case of DRs held as either evidence, or accessioned into collections. Archivists’ focus on informational value and “evidence” as the core measure of (and motivation for) authenticity isn’t always useful for DRs, but it is nice and clear-cut.
  • The software study drew out the differences between preservation for preservation’s sake – the museum collecting approach – and preservation for use, where the outputs are the ultimate measure of success. The SPs for these scenarios differ.This paper was very interesting, and perhaps (along with the Learning Objects paper) came closest to my own concerns, but the huge variety of material under the banner of “software” clearly makes it very difficult to characterise SPs. The result is that many of those identified look more like preservation challenges than SPs in themselves. Specifically, dependencies of various sorts might count as a significant property in a “pure preservation” scenario; but in most cases they are, more likely, simply a challenge to address to maintain significant properties of other sorts, such as functionality, rendering, and the accuracy of the outputs.
  • I suggested in Q&As that my reason for being interested in SPs probably differed from that of a DO-preserving project or organisation, although they have plenty in common. Andrew Wilson said that he saw the sort of preservation (sustaining value) that I was talking about as being the same as preserving in the archiving sense. I disagree, in part at least, because:
    • He made the case for authenticity. This doesn’t apply when one is using SPs to help planning for good management, where we just want to make sure that we’re making best use of our resources.
    • For me, SPs could prove an important approach for planning new resources, whilst for archives they are primarily for analysing what they’ve received and need to preserve (although they could in theory feed into future formats, or software purchasing decisions)
    • Whilst for preservation purposes it may often be necessary to decide at a batch or format level what SPs are highly valued and hence what efforts will be invested in their maintenance, for questions of managing complex resources for active use, case-by-case decisions (based on idiosyncratic SPs?) may be the norm.
    • For preservation, the “designated community” is essentially a presumptive audience, whose needs should be considered. For museums looking to maximise value from their resources, the SPs will reflect the needs of the museum itself (its business objectives and strategic aims), although ultimately various other audiences are the targets of these objectives. Perhaps there’s not so much difference here.
    • Fundamental to all these differences is the fact that for archives etc, the preservation operation in which they are engaged is the core activity of the organisation. In other situations, like planning for sustainability, it is not preservation of a digital object, but its continued utility in some form (any form), i.e. the continued release of value, that counts.

    These differences are largely of degree, but to me there is still a worthwhile distinction between preservation and sustainability. In a sense, preservation is the action and sustainability the continued ability to perform that action, so SPs are a way of reconciling preservation with the need for it to be sustainable. Perhaps the lack of a category that outlines the objectives, rather than the behaviour, of a digital object reflects this difference between preserving and sustaining.

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