POLICIES AND STRATEGIES FOR DIGITAL PRESERVATION

Co stis Dallas

Member of the Steering Committee of DigiCult Forum, Chairman of Critical Publics

Digital preservation is clearly becoming one of the most important issues in the management of our cultural heritage. For this reason, tribute is due to the Italian presidency, for putting it under the limelight in the context of this international conference.

A lot of light has been shed by previous speakers on key aspects of the problems faced in the field of cultural heritage management as both physical transports of information and channels of cultural communication are being increasingly dominated by information society technologies. As last contributor to this panel discussion, I shall raise a few specific points that may reinforce or be complementary to those raised by others, rather than attempt to provide a comprehensive viewpoint.

Points raised in this intervention are from my perspective as a member of the Steering Committee of DigiCult Forum', and of the Advisory Committee of the European Resource Preservation and Access Network'', and also from the practical experience of advising the Information Society office the Greek government on planning its cultural assets digitisation programme, currently in the stage of implementation.'. In the past, I have been involved with semantic representation of cultural knowledge - I worked at the Benaki Museum in cooperation with the Institute of Computer Science in Crete that provided a foundation for the subsequent development of the CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model4• Today, in our work in Critical Publics'', we put a lot of emphasis on understanding the intellectual perspective of the main audiences of a cultural organisation - the way these "critical publics" understand and conceptualise cultural objects, according to their differing cultural capital, interests and needs. Evidently, the issues of what is needed

1 www.digicult.info 2 www.erpanet.org 3 www.psifis.gr

4 www.cidoe.ies.forth.gr

5 www.eritiealpub lies.eom

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to develop a capable and sustainable infrastructure for digital cultural collections that will produce actual value to scholarship and the citizen, both at national and international level, are very much in the centre of my concern.

The first point regards the definition of the object of digital preservation. There are current cultural practices that depend on digital technologies - web sites, web logs, Internet art, hypertext literature, interactive multimedia, electronic mail, digital virtual communities - which will increasingly contribute to the cultural record, and which pose problems of their own for digital preservation (in fact, these problems are shared with digital preservation issues in other domains - public administration, health, or the financial world, to name but a few). However, seen from the perspective of existing European cultural heritage, digital preservation concerns, to a great extent, a narrower issue: the enterprise of using digital technologies in order to capture, preserve and use digital surrogates of cultural objects - documents, resources - that have existed for centuries in material, non-digital form. The challenge governments and cultural heritage organisations face today is how to plan the transfer of their cultural assets to digital form, in order to ensure the creation of capable and sustainable digital collections. Raising awareness of the issue of long term digital preservation at this stage is, in fact, an insurance policy, so that systems, methods and practices that will be adopted by the cultural heritage field are appropriately insured for digital obsolescence.

The most important instrument, therefore, where digital preservation policies are going to be manifested in cultural heritage is information systems entrusted with the storage, management and use of digital collections. There is significant effort and funding invested currently in digitisation initiatives, in the institutional, national and European level; libraries, archives and museums are also increasingly dependent on collection management systems for the documentation of their assets, and on the Internet for the provision of information and services to their critical publics. Digital preservation comes as an additional consideration in these practical strategies currently adopted by cultural heritage organisations with regard to using digital technologies. While preservation-grade digitisation cannot be a priority for all cultural organisations - this depends on their mission as well as on the type of cultural material they hold - it should, nevertheless, become a "main streaming" consideration for their existing and planned investments in digital

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technologies. In that sense, digital preservation may be defined as a horizontal policy, rather than as an entirely separate pillar.

Assuming, therefore, that digital preservation in cultural heritage concerns mostly the preservation of physical, non-digital cultural assets through the use of digital technologies, manifested through initiatives leading to the creation of collections of digital surrogates, a key question arises: what are the necessary conditions so that these digital surrogates can be accessed adequately for research, education and pleasure in the long term? To provide for adequate intellectual preservation of these digital cultural objects, it is evident that we need to provide, with the digital surrogates, symbolic representations 01" descriptions on the objects, their functional, formal and cultural-signifying properties, their history and meaning - what is commonly known by the misnomer of metadata. There are here significant challenges, that have to do not just with defining appropriate description languages (what we would commonly find in an object documentation standard, such as Spectrum of the CIDOC core categories for museum objects), but with defining conceptual representations (subject languages, ontologies) for academic disciplines such as history, anthropology, archaeology and art history, and for common knowledge about cultural objects, as is typically represented in the practice of visiting exhibitions, watching cultural documentaries 01" reading books. Of this very broad range of challenges, I will mention just one: what Howard Besser called some years ago "the interrelation problem'", We assume that we can ensure digital preservation through encapsulated, atomic objects that will contain accurate and stable digital surrogates and will be annotated by a metadata record; however, a lot of the evidential 01" other value of these digital objects is manifested by their interrelationships, and by their relationships with systems of reference (encyclopaedic, terminological and others), which cannot be encapsulated within atomic, interoperable digital records. This constitutes, undoubtedly, a major challenge.

The second point concerns the relationship between preservation and access. The need for long term preservation of cultural resources, and the appropriateness of using information technology to achieve it, is self-evident; cultural memory is, indeed, a pre-

6 Besser, Howard. 2000."Digital Longevity". In Handbook for Digital Projects: A Management Tool for Preseruuio» andAccess, edited by Maxine Sitts. Andover, Mass.: Northeast Document Conservation Center, 2000, pp. 155-166.

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requisite for the continuous advancement of knowledge in the human sciences, and for the continuity in the cultural experience provided to future generations via the increasingly digital channels of communication and interaction. Unfortunately, as we talk about digital preservation sometimes we divorce the strategic goal of preservation from the practices and requirements of access. Contrary to a "preservation vault" approach, it may be argued that digital preservation and digital access are best seen as the two sides of a coin, in the context of an integrated policy, for the reasons I shall explain hereby.

Integrating the mechanisms and the practical contexts for widespread access of digital cultural resources provides, perhaps, the only possible strategy to exercise our digital memories, and thus to ensure that we control, and possibly minimize, the unavoidable semantic shift between the conceptual organisation of the digital archive and the evolving intellectual perspectives of future users - because, cleady, both the questions scholarship asks and the interests of society will change, and this change is better monitored in the course of continuous use. Assuming that we have developed adequate symbolic representations for cultural objects to start with, these symbolic representations and the frames of reference on which they depend (schemas, ontologies, and the like) will gradually become less reliable and adequate. If we do not exercise our digital preservation systems continuously, and if we do not have a strategy so that our methods of representation evolve with the shift in intellectual perspectives by future users, we run the risk of finding out, one day, that our digital cultural heritage has become indecipherable. This suggests that digital preservation policies should have a strong policy perspective of encouraging active use of the digital cultural record by a large and varied constituency of users - scholarship, education, cultural virtual tourism - and of incorporating a roadmap for "semantic layer refreshing", equivalent to the media refreshing already accepted for the physical layer.

Dependence of the adequacy of records on access and usage raises another point. In a multicultural, evolving Europe, perspectives by different user constituencies are bound to be culturally loaded. Different groups defined on ethnicity, gender, religious conviction, or just lifestyle, may have differing perceptions of the nature and meaning of cultural experience. As we consider digital longevity for cultural heritage, we should take seriously into account a cultural policy aspect that will ensure, from the organisa-

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tional to the technical level, the preservation of alternative ways of understanding and interpreting cultural objects. We need to answer questions such as: Who has the authority to represent the viewpoint of a specific constituency, in the process of creating digital cultural collections for preservation? Which viewpoints should be represented, and which, less widespread, be left to obsolescence? What auditing mechanisms should we establish in order to ensure fair and equitable representation and access? And, if our goal is digital preservation, these questions are not for the future, but for now.

The third, and final, point regards the European agenda to support the development and coordination of policies for digital cultural preservation, encapsulated in the Firenze agenda document. The major promise in this initiative is that, using instruments such as the National Representatives Group, it will tackle directly the issue of co-ordination of action between national governments and the European Union, a very welcome fact. Indeed, if we wish to see the results of important research within the European Union research framework be more aligned to current practice, and therefore achieve greater interoperability and best practice among the initiatives and policies of Member States, we need to strive for better communication and co-ordination, so that governments talk to each other and to the Union. A relevant point, in this respect, is that, apart from establishing direct contacts and cooperation, it is important that key stakeholders are also involved directly in the context of the 12-month agenda.

Firstly, representative cultural organisations should be directly involved, perhaps by participating in small testbeds or by being engaged in charting the territory - what are their perceived needs, what obstacles they see for incorporating digital preservation perspectives in their practices. While fully supporting the idea of broadening the constituency that will be involved in understanding the current situation and proposing priorities, we should note that the field of culture is not, necessarily, one amenable for standardisation or total integration, at the national or international level. As understood both by the European Treaty and by democratic constitutions, culture, including the creative arts, is a field where authorities have a responsibility for protecting a healthy diversity between different actors and organisations. The state, or, worse, Brussels, are not necessarily seen as benevolent guardians of culture by the literary, artistic and creative communities. At a time

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when community memory - the stories of the individual citizen, or of the small cultural organisation at the local level - becomes an important factor of the cultural record, we should take care to encourage diversity in the mechanisms and intellectual perspectives supported by our digital preservation initiatives, without compromising, of course, the promotion of interoperability and best practice.

Secondly, an effort should be made to better understand and match the interests of European citizens - the great variety of linguistic, ethnic and cultural groups constituting today's Europe. This could be achieved by establishing research initiatives taking into account the needs and interests of European audiences that could be served by digital heritage initiatives, and anticipating future needs for digital preservation and access. But, most significantly, it could be achieved by combining any current initiatives for digital preservation with a strong element of public access, so that the European citizen would see the public money spent for projects as a direct contribution to the improvement of cultural offermgs.

This is the course set by the Greek Information Society authority with in its cultural digitisation prograrrune, funded for almost 50 million euro and launched last summer. A few hundred applicants for funding - not-for-profit cultural institutions - were called to provide information and justification on digital preservation aspects of their planned digitisation project, and to adhere to core standards for cultural documentation, resource description and discovery; most significantly, they were called also to undertake a corrunitment that a significant part of their digital collection will become freely available through the World Wide Web for the benefit of the general public and the educational corrununity.

To summarise, the current situation calls for the following recorrunendations:

- Digital preservation should be seen as a horizontal "insurance policy" for existing and planned digitisation actions, broadened so as to include the resolution of intellectual preservation issues such as the "inter-relation problem".

- A strong element of public access should be built in digital preservation actions, so as to ensure that collections are continuously exercised, and that the intellectual perspectives of diverse user

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communities remain well-represented, now and in the future.

- The active support of cultural heritage organisations should be enlisted at grassroots level, the needs and aspirations of current and future audiences should be studied and publicly accessible collections should be created, so that awareness and support by the European citizens at community level is assured.

Digital preservation is a relatively new word in the vocabulary of cultural heritage management. As society depends more on digital technologies for information access and communication, it is bound to become a major consideration for policy, which should be seen in the context of both cultural preservation and public access policies. The Florence conference comes at a critical juncture for collective thinking about an issue that, if not tackled soon, may become a major concern for institutions and policy makers in the not so distant future.

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