Stewarding Academic and Research Content: An Interview with Bradley Daigle and Chip German about APTrust

The following is a guest post by Lauren Work, digital collections librarian, Virginia Commonwealth University.

In this edition of the Insights Interview series for the NDSA Innovation Working Group, I was excited to talk with Bradley Daigle, director of digital curation services and digital strategist for special collections at the University of Virginia, and R. F. (Chip) German Jr., program director of the APTrust, about the Academic Preservation Trust.

APTrus tLogoLauren: Tell us about the Academic Preservation Trust and how the organization addresses the needs of member institutions.

Bradley and Chip: The APTrust is a consortium of 17 members who believe that their combined expertise and experience can provide more efficient and effective means to answering the challenges of digital stewardship. The consortium’s objective is to establish new collaborative strategies to help in addressing the complex and daunting issue of preserving the digital scholarly content produced or managed by universities. The group draws upon the deep knowledge of its members to target specific solutions that are content, technological, and administratively focused. Each member has representatives that work locally with their organization and then bring that knowledge back to the larger collective. This dialogic approach provides the methodology by which challenges are identified, analyzed, and then addressed in the best manner possible for the consortium.

The consortium is governed by its members, and it is operated and managed by a small staff based at the University of Virginia Library.  The core APTrust team organizes and deploys the resources of the group in an open, collaborative manner. We work to guide and seek guidance from the consortium itself.

Lauren: You mentioned that members work within their organization and share what they learned with the consortium. Could you talk a bit more specifically about what are members expected to contribute to APTrust? What are some of the resources from which members can benefit?

Chip German. Courtesy of AP Trust.

Chip German. Courtesy of AP Trust.

Bradley and Chip: The APTrust seeks to provide broad, scalable solutions that identify the true costs of preservation. In this manner, we hope to provide the economic and business models for digital preservation that any level of organization can adopt and deploy locally. Working together, we hope to create solutions that anyone can use.

To that end, members play a key role in seeking out both the problems and solutions to specific preservation challenges. For example, we have a current sub group of members who are focused specifically on the requirements for becoming a Trusted Digital Repository. This qualification is highly desired by some members but not necessarily everyone at the same level. Therefore, the ability to form special interest groups who can plumb the depths of a given issue and then bring a condensed version back to the collective is one of the many ways we use engagement and need to move the entire effort forward. We also have groups that are focused on our communications efforts as well as storage security. Some of these groups will disband once the initial work is concluded–others (like the TDR) represent the ongoing need for focused attention.

Lauren: You recently confirmed your mission statement, and the word “innovative” is used. How do you define or hope to define APTrust as an innovator in the field of digital preservation?

Bradley and Chip: The APTrust sees innovation as an ongoing goal. Preservation issues are not easily solved and once solutions are determined the problem set can mutate. Innovation means that we are striving for the best solution we can identify at the time and continue to identify and adapt and solve. Innovation is ongoing and the product of a great deal of collaborative effort on the part of everyone in the APTrust. We never see solutions as final but rather structures that need constant repair.

Lauren: Digital preservation is a daunting topic for many organizations, and the effort sometimes faces a “Why try?” stance. What advice do you have for those attempting to form digital preservation guidelines for their own organizations?

Bradley and Chip: The stewardship of our digital heritage is indeed an overwhelming and daunting task. It is always a matter of perspective–the best being an acknowledgement that we will never be able to accomplish it in its entirety. As with the physical realm, we can only hope to do our best at any given time. Digital preservation requires perspective and humility.

As with most efforts at this scale, often the most effective approach is to define the problem and then create a plan that speaks to what is possible for your organization. Define the scope, choose what is important and start in small but achievable chunks. As with collections, one must define the scope and not try to collect everything. Specialize if it makes sense for your organization–content type, format type, level of preservation. We have found it most useful to create levels of preservation–mapping to what is achievable by your organization and use that as a guide. Start somewhere and you will find you can make a difference, no matter how small.

Lauren: Technology changes quickly, and keeping up with evolving hardware, software and formats is an issue. As APTrust accepts all types of formats from its institutions, what advice do you have for librarians and archivists who need to make the preservation case for funding the technologies and infrastructure to support digital preservation in their organizations?

Bradley Daigle. Photo by Luca DiCecco.

Bradley Daigle. Photo by Luca DiCecco.

Bradley and Chip: This goes back to defining your organization’s levels of preservation. For example, the lowest level of preservation may simply be a piece of metadata that states something existed at one time but is no longer extant. The highest level may be the management of those digital files in an emulated environment. The crux of sustainability lies in overlapping two mutable matrices: a map of what preservation levels are meant to do overlaid on a technical implementation matrix that defines how that level can be accomplished. This way you can adapt to new trends in technology. The former matrix, that of collecting or preservation levels, should change very little over time. The technical implementation, however, should adapt to evolving trends.

Lauren: Digital preservation benefits are not immediate, and it can be difficult to demonstrate value, even for the immediate future. How did APTrust articulate the value of digital preservation and make the case for allocating current resources to reap long-term benefits?

Bradley and Chip: The APTrust consortium benefits from a shared belief that digital preservation is not a luxury service. We represent organizations whose mission it is to steward our cultural record–in whatever form it takes. The old adage of there being only two kinds of people: those who have lost data – and those who will lose data – applies here. Most organizations have taken on digital preservation in one manner or another. APTrust offers the ability to provide scalable services at cost–with the added benefit of collective problem solving. Certainly there are preservation solutions out there for any level of organization. However, in taking this singular approach, you are also taking the full brunt of solving each preservation solution on your own as it arises.

We believe that a consortial approach leverages the strengths of all its partners which leads to quicker, more efficient (read: cheaper) solutions. Preservation isn’t solved in a day–it is solved in many ways every day. The more people you have scanning the landscape for challenges and solutions the more effective and scalable your solution.

Lauren: There are many advantages to the consortium model for digital preservation. What advantages do you think individual institutions or smaller consortia might have in their approach to digital preservation?

Bradley and Chip: As we mentioned, the advantages to the “many mind” approach can have dramatic benefits. The ability of a group to identify an arising challenge, task a small group to investigate that challenge, and then bring that knowledge back to the collective has been proven repeatedly. Given the scale, complexity, and scope of digital preservation, doing this at any level is critical to moving us all forward in solving these issues.

Lauren: What do you see as the greatest challenge for digital preservation?

Bradley and Chip: The main challenge for preservation has always been the same: it is infrastructure and infrastructure is not sexy. If you are doing your job and doing it well, no one notices. People only notice when you fail. This fact is inculcated in our society. Witness all the home renovation shows. People don’t care about knob and tube wiring – until they have to replace it. No one wants to pay for that work, they would rather have that brushed nickel six burner stove that everyone will notice and love. That is the challenge of preservation – making the case for the cost of this endeavor is difficult because it is so resource intensive. However, the cost of failing is much higher. It is already likely that we will have a gap in our digital cultural heritage as we play catch up to operationalizing enterprise digital preservation. Let’s just hope it is not too late.