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Webb, S., Grant, R. (2016). Preserving Ireland’s Digital Cultural Identity towards 2116. In Digital Humanities 2016: Conference Abstracts. Jagiellonian University & Pedagogical University, Kraków, pp. 706-707.
Preserving Ireland’s Digital Cultural Identity towards 2116

Preserving Ireland’s Digital Cultural Identity towards 2116

1 Introduction

The Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI) is a national Trusted Digital Repository for Ireland's social and cultural data, accredited by the Data Seal of Approval. The repository links together and preserves historical and contemporary data held by Irish institutions, providing a central internet access point and interactive multimedia tools. In June 2015, the Digital Repository of Ireland was publicly launched at the Digital Preservation for the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (DPASSH) conference. At this conference, three organisations were presented with the DRI ‘Decade of Centenaries Digital Preservation Award’, the culmination of a six month project aiming to provide support and training to owners of digital collections relating to the Irish decade of centenaries commemorations. This paper will discuss the implementation of this Irish Research Council-funded project which allowed staff from the DRI to engage with collection owners and provide digital preservation and digitisation services and training. In this paper we outline the aims of the project, the methods by which we engaged with relevant collection owners, and how our findings have helped to determine the status of digital preservation in Irish heritage organisations.

2 Background

In June 2015, the first DPASSH conference was hosted in Dublin by the DRI, to highlight the technical, cultural, and social problems, challenges, and opportunities of long-term digital preservation in the arts, social sciences and humanities. The conference theme, ‘Shaping our Legacy: Safeguarding the Social and Cultural Record’, was developed to reflect concerns within the community that digital cultural heritage is at risk of destruction. The conference’s call described the destruction of the Irish Public Records Office (IPRO) in 1922 during the Battle of Dublin. As the Irish Civil War broke out, a priceless archive containing a thousand years of Irish history was destroyed.

The destruction of the IPRO was used as an analogy to highlight the vulnerability and fragility our digital cultural heritage in the long-term. The challenge, however, is that “long-term”, in this context, comes nowhere near the thousand years of history housed in the purpose-built store of the IPRO; as Jeff Rothenberg (1999) states, ‘digital information lasts forever—or five years, whichever comes first.’[1]

It is within this context that we sought expressions of interest from custodians of heritage material relating to the Decade of Centenaries (DC) who wished to digitally preserve their holdings. Funded by the Irish Research Council's New Foundations Award, we aimed to assess the scale of vulnerable digitised collections related to the DC in Ireland, to provide support in digitally preserving those collections, and to create a centralised access point to encourage their wide dissemination. Importantly, we wanted to raise awareness of the issues related to digital preservation and provide resources, best practice advice and guidance to all applicants. We also planned to have an impact on the community beyond the span of the funded project, providing equipment and training to continue to support the digital preservation of Irish cultural heritage.

3 Methodology

Our call for expressions of interest was announced in December 2014 and was circulated by the DRI community. The call sought collections that were partially or fully digitised and described, and which contributed to the national narrative on the period 1912-22. The winners were offered resources to ensure the digital preservation of their collections, including staff time from professional archivists and librarians, digitisation services, metadata creation, and the ingestion of content into the DRI for long term preservation.

Interested collection owners were invited to submit a detailed application form, providing information on the types of digital assets in their collection, the volume, current storage provisions, and its connection to the DC.

Eight proposals were received, and through the collection assessment and selection phase, three were chosen: the Irish Capuchin Provincial Archives (The Capuchins and the Irish Revolution), 1 the Dublin City Archives (Dublin City Electoral Lists, 1915), 2 and the National Irish Visual Arts Library (Michael Healy Collection). 3

Our assessment procedure enhanced our understanding of the types of relevant digital assets held nationally, and gave us insight into the challenges faced by collection owners in ensuring that their content is digitally preserved.

The second phase of implementation included a scoping exercise and requirements analysis for each collection, the creation of a project plan and allocation of resources. Requirements gathering was conducted through interviews with collection owners, undertaken by the DRI’s Requirements Manager and a Digital Archivist or Librarian in all cases. Work plans were created with tasks including digitisation, metadata creation and standardisation, ingest preparation and collection creation, review and publication. We worked closely with each collection owner to ensure that the processes and workflows we created could be repeated, and that these were reflected in our existing guidelines.

Following the completion of the work plans, a digital preservation workshop was held at the Royal Irish Academy to ensure that collection owners were trained in the procedures required to prepare their content for ingestion into the DRI Repository - all applicants to the original call were invited.

4 Findings

From the initial submissions to the call for expressions of interest, it was clear that there is a need in the community, not only for preservation services, support and advice, but also for digitisation support. Digitisation services were requested by nearly all of the applicants, and in some cases digital preservation was not included in the application. It appears that Irish archives lack resources (i.e. staff time and equipment) for digitising their collections. While perhaps not surprising, the technical infrastructure required to provide robust digital preservation was also not available to any of the participants. This confirms the need for shared infrastructures, or indeed shared strategies on preservation, on a national level.

Regarding the three selected collections, it was found that while metadata standards had been applied, they were in some cases customised according to the needs of the collection owner. Furthermore, although ISAD(G) compliant descriptions had been used by two collection owners, these could not be exported from the cataloguing software as EAD-XML, and needed to be manually marked up using an XML editor. These limitations create a barrier to metadata exchange and indicate that some archives are not planning for interoperability with other collections and/or repositories. While this was indicated in our 2012 report, Digital Archiving in Ireland, this project highlighted the practical difficulties involved in overcoming these barriers to interoperability. [2]

The DRI guidelines and workflows were tested by the process of preparing content for preservation in the Repository and found to be comprehensive and robust. However, the underlying knowledge in the community regarding standardised metadata creation and the principles of digital preservation was not well developed. The preservation workshop held at the RIA was booked to capacity with a waiting list, and training in basic digital preservation and metadata preparation was identified as a requirement for our stakeholder community.

5 Conclusion

The award has allowed the DRI to engage with a number of new stakeholder organisations who had not previously undertaken any digital preservation processes for their collections. Through the award, and the subsequent preservation workshop, the team worked with seven organisations who had not previously deposited content with the Repository. As well as providing training to allow participants to deposit with DRI, advice was also provided on smaller scale, in-house preservation practice which participants could bring back to their organisations.

The DRI believe that digital heritage is at risk of destruction and loss if action is not taken. Digital decay is the gradual decay of digital content. The solution is digital preservation – active ongoing data management. Long-term digital preservation is concerned with providing sustained access to digital objects and content and requires that institutions are cognisant of the processes and procedures required to ensure the form, as well as functionality, of digital objects.

DRI actively engaged with our designated community and have sought participation throughout our phases of development - from our requirements analysis phase, through to user acceptance testing and content population. Therefore, while the DC call provided an opportunity to preserve and publish content it also provided a platform from which to engage with an important national programme of events, communicate with a wider audience and test our user guidelines and documentation. Crucially, it also emphasised the fact that long-term preservation is a socio-technical problem - the solution requires not just digital infrastructures but advocacy, industry and societal engagement, and cooperation with content owners.

In addition to the practical aspect of this work we wanted to highlight the need for the national programme of commemorations to be cognisant that digital collections or projects created now, should be considered as historical artefacts for future historians. That is, our current digital commemorations should be preserved for future use and analysis. Commemorative events (both online and offline) are performative acts of nationalism and are an integral part of how we understand both our current and future selves. Current national projects should consider how they are preserving Ireland’s digital cultural identity for 2116.


We acknowledge the support of the Irish Research Council's New Foundations Programme.

  1. Rothenberg, Jeff: Ensuring the longevity of Digital Information (1999). http://www.clir.org/pubs/archives/ensuring.pdf
  2. O’Carroll, Aileen and Webb, Sharon : Digital Archiving in Ireland: National Survey of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Maynooth University (2012) DOI: 10.3318/DRI.2012.1

http://dx.doi.org/ 10.7486/DRI.95944s31k


http://dx.doi.org/ 10.7486/DRI.9593zg12h


http://dx.doi.org/ 10.7486/DRI.95944s32v