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Why we should all think about data preservation

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IHR-Data-Preservation-300x201This post originally appeared on the School of Advanced Study Blog.

By Stephanie Taylor

Although the SHARD project ended some time ago, in July 2012. The project identified  four basic principles of digital preservation for researchers – start early, explain it, store it safely and share it. The only thing I would change is a little re-arrangement, putting ‘Share It’ as the first step. As someone working in digital preservation, I see many things lost or threatened mainly because nobody really saw a good reason to preserve them until it was almost too late. For researchers, engrossed in research, finding, creating and using data, writing research outputs, managing projects and keeping funders happy, it’s easy to forget digital preservation, or just not think about it at all. Having a positive reason to preserve moves digital preservation up the agenda. And sharing gives us that reason.

Sharing your research material and data is beneficial.  In one way or another, the main reason to carry out preservation at all, on any level, is to be able to share your work with others, now and in the future. Sharing can help you gain more impact, enhance your reputation and increase your chances of being funded as more and more research funders are asking for plans for digital preservation in their calls. It makes your work not only accessible, but usable. Investigate making use of repositories and data centres as places to both safely archive and also share your work. Remember to be sensible with sharing, and use redaction or embargo when required.

Start early is key to any successful approach to digital preservation, and one that we also teach to digital archivists. It’s simple really. The sooner you start thinking about what you want to preserve and how and when that is going to be done, the more chance you have of not hitting problems ahead. Early planning also means you can include everyone who is involved in a research project in the discussion, which can also help to identify and issues you might not have thought about.

Explain it is the next step in sending your research materials into the future. Context is vital in digital preservation. Material and data without any context has no meaning. If it has not meaning, there is little point in preserving it. Provide context through explaining any subject-specific terms, learning about and applying suitable metadata to describe our content and describing your research process. Then future researchers will be able to make sense of your work.

Store it safely is the step that many people think is covered by backing up your work. Quite simply – backup is not preservation and it’s not enough to make sure your content. You need to store multiple copies in different locations, use open source file formats to help your files stay readable into the future and be careful how you and others handle and access files. You also need to be selective. There’s no need to keep everything, and it’s costly to do so. Seek advice from a library or preservation service about how best to store content for preservation.

The Data Preservation Online Training resource is available on PORT and guides students through the reasons to preserve and share data and challenges that they might face. Stephanie Taylor is a senior consultant on research technologies in the Arts Research Technologies division of the University of London Computer Centre (ULCC). For more details about the work done on SHARD see the ULCC da Blog

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