Digital preservation at the coalface: or how I learned that glamping doesn’t always involve the vast wilderness

The last Friday of March this year I was invited by Elizabeth Kata at the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) to give a presentation at the Vienna Institute for Historical Research (Institut für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung). I don’t have a transcript for the day, or set notes I followed, but here is the essence of the talk I gave that day, touching on, among other things, community, recognizing privilege, and finding value and meaning in digital records.

I began and ended the talk with two waiata, learned in my previous role at Archives New Zealand. 

Te Manaaki taonga

Te Manaaki taonga
E whakarauika ana I te tini e
E ranga ana I te tira
Hei huruhuru moo te manu ka rere
Hei Poutuumaaro mo te kainga 
Tuituinga koorero tuituinga tangata
Manaaki taaonga manaaki tangata
(Tane chant: Tuituinga koorero tuituinga tangata.
Manaaki taaonga manaki tangata – Hi!)
(Last time Wahine join chant: manaaki tangata – Hi!)

The value/prestige in protecting treasures
They gather/connect the people like the gathering of fish
They weave the party/masses
To be like feathers of a bird that takes flight
To be a strong pillar for our home
The sewing of stories, the sewing of people
The protection of treasures the protection of people


When you hear the lyrics of that waiata, then you can understand what records mean to the people of New Zealand. Archives are taonga (treasure in Māori), and that is quite a powerful thought.

My first moment of emotion with a (any!) record was with the Treaty of Waitangi

Signed in 1840, the treaty was meant to establish a British governor in New Zealand while still recognizing Māori ownership of the land. It was signed by over 500 Māori Chiefs.

Of course its intended purpose, and how it worked out, wasn’t quite the same. And so today, the treaty remains a living record. It is used in treaty land settlements and is vital to the the establishment of a post-colonial identity for the country. It means more to the traditional landowners of New Zealand now; more than it was, perhaps, ever intended to at its conception.


The Treaty of Waitangi was moved from Archives New Zealand to the National Library of New Zealand in 2017 and in preparation for that move I was part of a ceremony where Iwi leaders visited Archives New Zealand to bless the document before it was stored away prior to its move. My understanding was the blessing was to keep the record safe, to wish it well on its next journey to the library in what would be a few short months time. 

Listening to the various karakia. watching these people engage with this document, weighed heavily upon the room. Not at all in a bad way. It was the weight of emotion and feeling. Of watching something of incredibly important happening in front of you. It was people engaging with a record. These folk knew what it meant to them, and now I had an emotional connection to the Treaty and a greater connection to the meaning of this taonga to the Māori people. 

A record! 

So my first question to the room today – can you imagine? Have you had the same reaction to a digital record? 


At Archives New Zealand we are kaitiaki. Guardians of the records we look after, including the treaty. That memory is so important for the Māori people but it should be for us all.

But that’s an interesting point. 

I don’t want to dismiss the importance of the work we do with these, or any records. But I want to suggest there is a tough balancing act when we have to consider looking after ourselves at the same time. 

Vocational Awe

Fobazi Ettarh (Resident Librarian at Temple University) describes a phenomenon called vocational awe. Working for the greater good outweighs the effects of burnout; too little resource; too much work; scope creep; and so forth… goes the responsibilities of those in the GLAM sector.

Indeed, Fobazi puts it succinctly:

the more one struggles – the holier the work and institution becomes

My second question to the room: perhaps other people in the room have seen or are experiencing that?

Bodley’s Librarian (2019)

Bodley’s Librarian and President of the Digital Preservation Coalition recently wrote a piece for the Economist February 2019.

At Oxford’s libraries we spend around 2-3% of our annual budget on digital preservation, twice as much as in the past, and we are reviewing whether this is enough. Other organisations should probably count on spending a similar share.


It’s 2019!

Think about that number for a bit… 

McKemmish (2012)

A quote that has long resonated with me. 

Contrast that with Professor Sue McKemmish in Reinventing Archival Methods on ABC radio in December 2012.

And in the general GLAM sector—galleries, libraries, archives, museums—huge capital investment in physical buildings and facilities has happened in the past, and that is what has sustained those kinds of institutions and it’s been critical to the role that they’ve played in our society. But are we putting similar resources or do we need to start to redirect resources into investments in some of the technologies that can really start to address the needs not only of the traditional communities that have been serviced by the archival profession but these other communities who have not been well served by our profession and by our institutions.

2-3% doesn’t sound like it matches that call does it? Sue’s number includes so much more than digital preservation too. The 2-3% at the Bodleian doesn’t really make you confident that it includes the people in a supportive way does it?


But we’re an interesting time. I saw this the other day on Twitter:

Bob Clark: Rockefeller Archives:

It’s 2019. If you think #archivists who also know and use technology to implement good archival practices are “unicorns” (and say so to their faces), then you’re an antique. Those “unicorns” are the #archives profession in the 21st Century. Technology is no longer an innovation.

Clarkivist via

I’m not about to say I disagree. We are no longer talking about Unicorns in our community. Maybe not even an endangered species. 

But how is Bob accounting for privilege?

  • What about institutional context?
  • Organizational goals?
  • Regional context?
  • Type of leadership at the organization?

Are you as fortunate here in Austria?

Part of my desire to work in North America is access to the types of training events, conferences, and collaboration that I might not previously had in, say, New Zealand. But not even in the UK where professional organisations are still led by people in management or higher; folks (potentially) long outside the world of praxis.

Systemic business change? 

Folks out there are asking this, like Ed from University College London. To paraphrase:

Vendor’s won’t help with internal business change

  • It’s not enough to have one archivist technologist!
  • Organisations need to continue to develop their capability throughout…


Coming through austerity in (UK) government. Austerity impacted our development pretty badly. The goal at the time I was in the UK was to reduce capital expenditure (capex) and increase operational expenditure (opex).

Tl:dr: government needed to make a profit…

So how do you do that?

You create a team of contractors? BUT – how do you make use of contractors time? AND still spread skills throughout the team?

I’ll leave that unanswered.

What do WE do?

Getting to the main point of this talk, as described in its flyer: “For the want-to-be? or knows-they-need-to-be digital preservation?”

  • How much do we do via our institutions?
  • How much do we do for ourselves?

Institutional ownership of a problem is paralyzing and damaging

  • It can be damaging to the records:
    • While the institution tries to solve the problem for itself, records lie in wait – the public can’t access them. Agencies can’t access them. The records themselves might not necessarily be maintained. 
    • Archives New Zealand realized it was a people problem and worked on that as much as it did the technology. Which is something I think Richard (Lehane) in the room can speak to as well, along with his predecessor, in creating an ideal team structure (from what I can tell, a supportive team structure) to be able to manage many aspects of digital acquisition at State Archives New South Wales. 
  • It can be damaging to you.

Institutional ownership of your future-skills is damaging too

You need to be able to develop in this field, especially around digital literacy. 

  • How often are you sent on training courses?
  • How hard is it to find out about, and sign-up for, and promote yourself for training courses? (NB. Training costs for individuals can often be tax-deductible for organizations. It could doubly benefit them!) 
  • Who is given priority of going on training over you?

I don’t want to contradict myself, or Fobazi – and I don’t necessarily want to suggest that everyone needs to learn to code or do digital preservation in their spare time but you also don’t want to get held back by what you’re not being enabled to learn, but which can take you (and your organization if they realize) to new and exciting places if you have the opportunity to learn it. 

Computational Thinking

Borrowing a phrase from a former colleague Erin O’Meara learning to think in terms of systems – if you don’t already think a lot like that can help demystify technology.

Thought experiments…

In the book chapter linked to with this talk, I describe digital preservation as a thought experiment, and I think if you can sit down with a problem and:

  • you can write it,
  • or draw it out,
  • and ask questions

Like asking:

  • “what happens to the timestamp of my file if I move it from location A to location B..?”
  • “I don’t know how checksums work but what happens if I change the filename?”

If you’re asking these questions and coming up with hypotheses then you’re doing well. 


If you are given space to try it out – you’re doing even better.

As you build knowledge like that you can start to lay the foundations for how you will engage with digital preservation – you might not want to be a coder – but that’s okay! Digital preservation definitely needs everyone to engage – archivists, librarians, historians, our IT departments of course, and in mature models, the audience of our records too will need to engage – asking questions like “how do I prove this record hasn’t changed?” is a great (and fun!) question to try to answer. 

The ecosystem

For those wanting to push their technical knowledge then perhaps there are two specific things that I can identify that you can learn, hopefully in your job, but if necessary, on your own that will really help in today’s digital preservation world.


Looks after source code and versions of source code but it also lets users engage with source code and projects, You can engage by finding and reporting bugs; asking for new features; and even engaging with users who have had the same problems as yourself. Projects that have repositories for documentation benefit from adding to the that via GitHub too and so it’s not all code!


Sometimes it is inevitable you will always have to work with Windows and if so – my colleague Andrea K. Byrne recently published a Google Doc with
links to Windows based tools.

But you may also benefit from becoming comfortable with Linux.  It has lots of tools to enable the simplest of things, and it’s good preparation for programming languages like Python which mimics or re-implements a lot of what Linux calls are doing.

Cool Projects

And of course, looking at other’s cool projects and supporting those, you can learn, and help develop an ecosystem that supports us all.  

JHOVE hack week

It is a great, and inclusive way to get into this tool and contributing. You don’t need to code to participate at JHOVE hack-days. Docs, and testing, are all important too. We were enabled at Archives New Zealand to spend a day working on JHOVE and brought in new colleagues, often digital-preservation adjacent to contribute as well. 


From Ashley Blewer, Eddie Colloton, Reto Kromer. and others… The tool can be forked on GitHub and modified to support your work as well. 

Script Ahoy/Sourcecaster

As an example, these are based on FFMprovisr’s scaffold. Bringing together useful scripting commands,  Do you have ideas for a FFMProvisr like resource? 

Australasia Preserves

A digital preservation coalition style group dedicated to bringing practitioners together in Australasia. It is open to everyone and self-organizing. A Google Group is  used to bring together people, and arrange meetup-style meetings at hosting institutions. Do you have one of these here? It could really make a difference to  a lot of folk. 

Micky Lindlar on Zenodo

From Micky at Hanover (TIB) maintains a Zenodo repository of digital preservation publications to read. Please, contribute and add your publications as well. 


One of the best resources I’ve seen yet for anything you might to learn. Offering lots of guides and tutorials and 101s. Is there an awesome-list that you could create? An awesome-list of personal digital archiving, for example?! One that I’d love to see created. 

Programming Historian

A goal of mine is to contribute a lesson or two to this some day, but covers everything from API access, to linked open data, and visualization. 

The French language version is coming soon. It is in Spanish and English. Will y’all be responsible for developing the resource in German? 😉 


It feels so uncool to say this in this day and age, but, it’s such a good resource for learning the basics of web-technologies and then running with it. (It’s what I did!) 

Tim Sherratt

Tim does so much for the community, and watching his example might lead you to good things as well:

Nicola Laurent

I had been thinking about this project a lot recently, and so couldn’t not mentioned it today. It is also one of my favorites that helps us to maintain a humanistic perspective of technology and its impact on people.


So much twitter!! It isn’t perfect but it’s a wonderful resource for connecting with people, and might be the only reason I am in this room today. 

Talking to people

At this point in the talk I forgot where I was heading, and so I needed to include it somewhat in a post-script (Twitter-thread here): 

Creating the ecosystem to see people succeed, and succeed yourself takes effort. If you are using tools in your institution and you are in a position to acknowledge its creators, submit issues or file bugs. Even better – acknowledge its use, its ‘prior art’ in your academic papers and presentations. It would, I am sure, mean a lot to the creators out there. 

When the time comes, if we can make this discipline as sympathetic and empathetic as possible, to the efforts being put in out there by people doing this for their passion for the records; then your own work may one day be completely supported by the same (emotional) infrastructure that you yourselves helped to create. 

He Waiata Mihi

Ka mihi rā kia koutou
Kei te urunga
Kei te moenga
Ki te Rua Mahara o te Kawanatanga … \
He whāinga tapuwae
He whāinga tumanako
Kia tangata whenua ki te ngākau
Ki te whatumanawa …\
Kia puta ki te whai ao, ki te ao mārama
Tihei!  Mauri ora e – i!

We greet and acknowledge you
Words rested between the folds – temporarily silenced
unspoken memories and deeds
lie in fleeting repose
Awaiting kin to rediscover ancestors’
hopes and aspirations from a time forgotten
In your quest, the words find voice – urging you to focus,
to be true to your purpose,
A voice empowered by the light of knowledge and understanding to once again say
 I am, I belong, I  exist!

Summa summarum

Liz wrote a wonderful conclusion the day following on Twitter which was previously available here.

Wer gestern nicht beim #InstSem Vortrag von @beet_keeper am @twioeg , hier ein paar Dinge/Ueberlegungen/Fazit, usw. /1

Vortrag angefangen und beendet mit Maori Lieder vom Archives New Zealand. Sehr beeindruckend: unsere Bestaende als Schaetze, die *Menschen* helfen. Und eine schoene Stimme hat @beet_keeper auch. /2

Er beschrieb eine emotionale Reaktion, die er auf einem (analogen, Schrift)Stück hatte. (Ein Treaty, Name habe ich leider nicht gemerkt). Er stellte die Frage im Raum: Hatte schon jemals eine_r von uns eine emotionale Reaktion auf einem digital Record? /3

Er zitierte Fobazi Ettarhs Konzept von Vocational Awe. Dh etwa, wir Archivar_innen haben Ehrfurcht vor unserem Beruf, weil wir ueberzeugt sind, dass was wir machen wichtig ist, eben fuer Menschen. Ich denke hier an der Rolle der Archivar_innen fuer die Ueberlieferungsbildung. /4

Diese Ehrfurcht kann negative Folgen haben, etwa, dass wir uns leichter (selbst)ausbeuten lassen, weil wir immer weniger Mittel haben, und trotzdem mehr leisten sollen, und das endet alles in Burnout. Ross fragte, ob wir das Gefuehl haben, dass wir ebenfalls darunter leiden? /5

Leider kann ich nur schlecht zusammenfassen, aber er erwaehnte auch als Risiko Institutioneller Besitz. Beispiel waere, waehrend eine Institution entscheidet, ob es etwa Blockchain einfuehren will ????, wachsen die Anzahl der unerschlossenen Bestaende. /6

Ein weiteres Risiko waere Institutioneller Besitz vom Wissen/Lernen (“Institutional ownership of learning”). Ich denke an dem Druck sich weiterzubilden, ohne die Zeit dafuer in der Arbeit zu haben. Dh Freizeit zu verschenken, um sich brauchbarer fuer die Arbeit zu machen /7

Diskussion war wirklich spannend. Es ging viel um wie koennen wir Open Source Loesungen einsaetzen, wenn das zB von IT oder Management abgelehnt wird? (@beet_keeper fragte, ob Open Source Providers sich akkreditieren koennen, damit die Software besser akzeptiert wird) /8

Tolle Meldung von @thstockinger, dass digitaler Zugang die “sacredness of exclusivity” der Archivalien an den Kopf gestellt hat. ???? Er plaedierte fuer begleitende Dokumentation zu digitalen Bestaende, um den Kontext aufrechtzuerhalten und die Arbeit dahinter sichtbar zu machen /9

Ausserdem einige Vorschlaege/shout outs von @beet_keeper: Archivists, you can’t escape Twitter, you can’t escape @github. Ich kann das nur unterstreichen, und ich sage das allen Praktikant_innen, die mit mir zusammenarbeiten. /10

Noch: you can’t escape #Linux. Ich denke, manche finden das schwierig, aber ich finde die Aussage/Ansage auch gut. Nutze seit 2007 ausschliesslich Linux zu Hause, und ich habe dadurch so viel gelernt. Es ist wirklich ein guter Einstieg (zum command-line, und dann scripting). /11

Auch @ablwr erwaehnt. (Ich kann ihre Seite nicht oft genug teilen: Auch ffmprovisr, @openpreserve #JHOVE hackathon, @MickyLindlar Zenodo: /12

Script Ahoy: Awesome lists (zB fuer verschiedene Programmiersprachen). usw. Einfach suchen, bzw eigene Awesome lists erstellen 😉 /13

Summa summarum: eine tolle Veranstaltung. Danke an @beet_keeper & @twioeg, dass sie stattfinden konnte. Danke an alle, die gekommen sind: fuer mehr #digipres Austausch! Danke an alle, die tolle digipres Leute, die so viel von sich & ihre Arbeit teilen! /14


  • Thanks Liz for the opportunity and making this happen. And the Institute of Historical Research for accommodating my talk as well. 
  • Thanks to Richard for having me as a house guest that week! Lesson learned!! 😉
  • Somaya for the phrase “working at the coalface?” which to us describes the tensions of being a practitioner vs. organizational goals which are not always (rarely?) aligned. 
  • Andrea K. Byrne once again, for her input and helping my development in many of these areas.
  • Jan Hutař and Colleagues at Archives New Zealand for their waiata and for the right institutional context that helped me develop to have the opportunity to speak today.
  • Thank you to all to attended as well. There was some lovely discussion after the meeting, especially around the value of a record; hidden labor, and ways that can be represented back to the people back at home. 

I really enjoyed my time and it was great to surface some thoughts and feelings from my last few years working in the field. 

Further reading

These are must reads articles for those reading this post. Words I consulted before the talk, or bookmarked to be sure to follow up on afterwards, sparked by the conversations in the room. 

  • Fobazi Ettarh on vocational awe “Vocational awe describes the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in notions that libraries as institutions are inherently good, sacred notions, and therefore beyond critique.”
  • Stacie Williams on the implications of archival labor: Discusses, advocating and informing people about our labor and the overall contributions of our labor to society. How do we disrupt system-wide inequality and challenge our organizations to change this? 
  • Bergis Jules on confronting our failure of care around the legacies of marginalized people in the archives challenging us and our organizations to do better at truly transformational work with respect to the people represented in our collections; or in lieu of that, finding ways to support projects outside of our institutions. (This piece is very loosely adjacent to my post below, but its message and strategies are important and should be of value to those reading).
  • Jarret M. Drake challenging you to “consider remaining free of an archive” and whose links I followed to learn more about the topic of this post for myself. (NB. Eira Tansey’s article Jarret references is now only in the Internet Archive


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