Digital content sustainability: ‘More than bits and bytes’ – event report from Digital Content: Organisational Transformation and Sustainability, London, 5 November 2012

HMS BelfastAs fireworks lit up the sky across London on Monday night, a sparkling discussion about sustaining digital content took place aboard the HMS Belfast with an invited audience of movers and shakers in the higher education, library and cultural heritage sector.

The rocket that set it off was a new report, due to be published next month, from Ithaka S+R. Commissioned by the Strategic Content Alliance, it tackles the role of the host institution in sustaining digital content, building on several years’ work in the area. Having studied project leaders and funders and found that, to some extent, both seemed to rely on the infrastructure of the university, museum or library where a digital project lived to keep it alive once initial funding ran out, “we decided it was time to check in with the host institutions,” said the report’s author, Nancy Maron.

The report considers two very different types of institution – the highly decentralised world of the university and the more top-down model of the museum or national library. It uses two approaches: a landscape survey and “deep dives” that delve into the structures and strategies of the organisation through interviews with people from different areas. These “deep dives” took place at three case study organisations: University College London, the National Library of Wales, and Imperial War Museums, and provided a clear and candid picture of how sustainability looked from an organisational perspective.

Its findings are wide-ranging and include recommendations for both universities and cultural institutions. “We hope that people in universities will hear about the study and ask about the digital content in their institution – perhaps it will trigger an inventory,” said Nancy. “For museums, we’d like the report to prompt questions. While the mission aims of museums already tend to support the fundamentals of collection, is creating an online catalogue enough? Have you thought about the users and beyond the catalogue?”

To help implement the recommendations, the final report will contain a health check tool to think through the questions and a campus implementation guide plus two more, US-based, case studies on digital humanities work.

Understanding audiences

For Diane Lees, CEO at the Imperial War Museums, the focus of the report on the importance of the audience is crucial. “Understanding who our users are is central – it’s easy to create myths about who they are and that risks becoming the institutional truth.”

The IWM has been researching its users and is now seeing audiences that will never visit an IWM physical site but will encounter and engage in depth with collections if they are online. “Soon 90% of our customers will not be visitors to our museums. It’s a huge change,” said Diane.

The IWM’s response to the challenge is to ensure that whatever content it produces digitally is of the same quality as its exhibitions or other outputs – and that means not necessarily digitising every single image it owns of a ship at sea. “It’s not about putting masses of information out there but how we use it and package it. Our rule is one output, multiple uses – if we digitise it then it must have more than one use. It’s a balance about targeting and using collections in a wise and strategic way.”

From the audience, Bill Thompson, the BBC Archive’s head of partnership development, argued that partial digitisation is simply not good enough. “If the material is not available in a digital form then the next generation of scholars won’t know to come to your curators. Decay of the physical world is happening not because the objects are going away but because our knowledge of them is going away.”

For IWM, this is an unrealistic expectation – museums need to be pragmatic about what they digitise. “We need to have strategies that enable us to preserve, access and manage the majority of assets and accept that there will be things in cupboards.”

“We must recognise that the digital realm is one of the most important areas we will ever venture into,” said Diane. “This report underpins all the things we thought we might know and now we do know.”

More than bits and bytes

“It’s a wake up call for us all,” agreed Andrew Green, chief executive and librarian at the National Library of Wales. “It’s essential reading for anyone in the business of access to digital content.”

With its distinctive organisation, long history of digital collection management and the effort it’s put into getting strategies right, the National Library of Wales emerges from the report as an organisation with a keen eye for sustainability. It clusters projects in programmes to ensure a coordinated approach and its internal processes help smooth the path, from free universal access for all as a default to clear policies on some of the underpinning elements such as IP and licensing.

Andrew highlighted the broad definition of sustainability contained in the report – “it’s a whole ecosystem of support to allow a project to remain vital to an audience” – and remarked that it encapsulates what’s important: “It’s more than preservation, more than bits and bytes, it’s about audience and relevance.”

He also raised the danger of a “culture of project-itis”, the “battle with the magnetism of the new” as academics look forward to getting on with the next new project and resist being dragged back to the past. A further issue, dealt with in the report, is that time spent lovingly sustaining their digital collections is time academics are not spending on producing more traditional scholarly outputs, such as papers, which count towards career development, particularly for early stage researchers.

“There is not enough recognition in the REF for creating digital content,” commented Deian Hopkin, president of the National Library of Wales, from the audience. David Price, vice-provost (research) at UCL, saw the solution as the “enhanced development of robust usage metrics. It’s hard for researchers to make the case that what they have done is impactful at the moment. We need to be able to show and demonstrate the impact.”

Tackling the unknown unknowns

The sheer scale of the job of sustaining digital content at a large university was emphasised by David, who ran through some of the digital assets at UCL, from 9,000 research articles a year to visual outputs from the art and architecture departments to dedicated projects such as Digital Egypt for Universities and The Montefiore Testimonials Digitisation Project

“We’re not just worried about things disappearing but about things never appearing! They are hosted all over the place, and not all the projects have a sustainable plan,” he commented.

However, thanks to its involvement in the project, UCL is putting in place various processes to improve the sustainability of its digital projects, many of them focused around the institution’s library. Project leaders will be encouraged to engage with their colleagues in the library from the very beginning, confident in the knowledge that their projects will be supported in the appropriate repository and the library task force will publicise their presence. It will ensure that the library will be the focus for the preservation and curation.

“All this collections material was slipping under the radar. Now there are fewer unknown unknowns than we thought,” he concluded.

– If you’re worried about the unknown unknowns in your institution’s digital collection, or you’re in a cultural institution thinking of looking beyond your collection catalogue, the Ithaka report is essential reading. It will be available here on the SCA blog on 11 December 2012.

Views from participants on the night


Nick Poole, Collections Trust

“This report is a good positive step forward. It consolidates things we suspected we knew already and it is good to have the evidence and to have it plainly expressed. The sector is in a very reflective place at the moment and so if we can get word about the core ideas in this report it will help move us away from the idea that sustainability is only about funders giving us more money next year.”

Roly Keating, the British Library

“I thought it revealed valuable home truths for both the cultural sector and the HE sector about the different ways in which digital media is – and crucially isn’t yet – fulfilling its potential.”

Ailsa Barry, Natural History Museum

“It’s all about how cultural institutions are beginning to recognise how digitisation and digital outputs need to be embedded across the whole range of outputs to meet audiences needs in the 21st century.”

Deian Hopkin, National Library of Wales

“The face of technological change and the expectation of technological change is so rapid that institutions now have to collaborate in order to ensure that they make the most effective use of the available technology and so that we can maximise the value of digitisation.

What is particularly interesting about this project is that it is UK-wide and has applications for all administrators. It cuts across the boundaries of libraries museums and archives. It also asks us to raise the question of whether there are priorities in future digitisation. I learnt tonight that we can’t do it all and there are serious questions about what do we do that brings the greatest value. That value can only be realised if the access is facilitated and that raises questions about both the tools available and how you cut across the different digital sets. The culture of usage is still one of the biggest issues. How do we get people to use the material in the most intellectually rigorous and realistic way?

This is a tremendous report which brings us some of the new tools for monitoring these developments and form strategies for sustaining their collections in the future.”