Digital Preservation for the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities – benefits for everyone

I had the pleasure of delivering a paper at the first Digital Preservation for the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (DPASSH) conference in Dublin at the end of June. This was hosted by the team at DRI, Digital Repository of Ireland, at the same time as exciting changes for them – indeed, one of the notable events of the conference was the official opening of the DRI complete with a representative of the Irish government in attendance.

This focus on something new is of course in the context of a greater overall focus on things old – or at least historical. The theme of the conference was ‘Shaping our Legacy: Safeguarding the Social and Cultural Record’ – a useful way to draw together thoughts about the impact of our curation decisions today on the shape of tomorrow’s digital collections. Whether these are collections of art, museum holdings or research datasets, their form and extent will potentially influence thought and decision-making for generations to come. 

Whilst much DCC activity engages with research practice from across many disciplines, one area that I find particularly interesting is research practice where the term ‘research data’ is one that researchers are not necessarily comfortable with. It is important to remember that many scholars in the arts and humanities are indeed very confident and comfortable with the term ‘research data’ and apply it happily in their own practice. But not all scholars feel this way, and many of those in my experience happen to emerge from the arts and humanities areas. So how do we engage with these audiences?

Going even further away from what Norman Gray has called, “the broad sunlit uplands of well-managed research data”[1], I have been investigating the value of digital curation to professional communities beyond the academic research sector. My paper attempted to draw out what happens when such a community of practice – in this case performing arts professionals - has strong economic drivers to undertake digital object management, but they have not engaged with digital curation or preservation and in most cases have not even heard these terms before. This, of course, doesn’t mean that curation and preservation activity is not taking place – rather, what it does mean is that it is taking place without knowledge of good practice, and without access to the training, support and infrastructure that was formerly provided by the AHDS and is now expected to be available within institutions.

Outlining what curation, preservation and archiving practice looks like out in the wild is, I think, very helpful for both the professional community in question (in this case, the performing arts), and also for those in the digital curation and preservation professions. Exposure to digital curation terminology and guidance gives performing arts practitioners some idea of the tasks involved in sustainable management of their valued digital objects, and how resources from the DCC such as the DCC Curation Lifecycle Model can be meaningful and useful to them. For digital curation professionals, it is useful to remember that our institutional approaches are not a universal working context, and our language is not universally understood.

These were the main arguments of my paper, based on a series of case study interviews I've undertaken. Presentation of the findings at performing arts conferences and events has been a useful way to spread the work of digital curation and preservation professionals in general and the DCC in particular. The Curation Lifecycle Model has actually been pretty well-received at performing arts workshops and events, particularly when artists see that it specifically advocates for the transformation of existing material and knowledge into new work: this - to researchers across disciplines including scientists and artists - is widely received as inspiring stuff. 

To bring more professional practice into the digital curation conversation, then, we need to be prepared to advocate for digital curation in discipline- and profession-specific environments such as discipline-specific conferences and industry events, as well as taking a flexible and adaptive approach to translating our messages. The more we can do to convey the relevance and value of what we do to specific professions, the more likely they are to engage. The prize? A better chance of safeguarding the digital social and cultural record – and this potentially benefits everyone.

The slides to my paper, ‘Performances, preservation and policy implications’, are available here: (and please just contact me for the script); the DPASSH website is available here:, and the event hashtag on twitter is #DPASSH.

[1] Research seminar at HATII, University of Glasgow, 29 Nov 2011.