Critical thinking when learning about digital preservation

Tuesday, June 20, 2017 10:03

Ed Pinsent by Ed Pinsent

In this post I want to discuss "critical thinking" in the context of the Digital Preservation Training Programme (DPTP) and DPTP Online.

Critical thinking has been a hallmark of the DPTP since it started in 2005; we wanted the students to feel equipped and empowered to challenge received wisdom and make decisions for themselves about all aspects of digital preservation. I can’t take the credit for this robust concept; it belongs to Kevin Ashley, one of the founders of DPTP, who recognised the value of testing everything – ideas, theories, models; and also tools, software, and systems. 

The notion of critical thinking expanded when Steph Taylor joined the team, since she emphasised the continuing professional development (CPD) aspects of the DPTP, based on the observation that our audience mainly comprises of professional information managers (archivists, librarians, curators). 

The critical thinking mindset is invaluable in the field of digital preservation. It is still a relatively new field of endeavour; I would argue it’s not a solved problem (though some would disagree with me), and that our understanding of what to do about long-term sustainability of digital material keeps on growing and expanding, in line with new and emerging types of content that we wish to preserve, and the new ways of authoring and creating them. To describe it as a moving target is an understatement. 

DPTP online

I can think of at least three areas where we have taught critical thinking on the DPTP, and continue to do so in the online version. 

  • The OAIS Reference Model. This Model is an international standard for understanding how to carry out preservation. We recognise its pioneering status, and its ubiquity, and welcome the fact that useful ideas like “Information Packages” are now all but embedded in our thinking and practices. Yet the Model has its limitations, and its flaws; in teaching it, our aim has not been to attack its weaknesses, but to encourage students to think about how to apply the Model to their own organisations. When they do this, students soon see for themselves where the Model falls down, and they also start to understand why. In this way, an important critical thinking process has begun. 

  • What we need to do about File Formats. This is one area where, in my perception at least, a vast library of literature, theories, and discussions has emerged, all of them emphasising different aspects of what file formats are and what we need to do to preserve them. Critical thinking here involves questioning that body of theory, and encouraging students to focus on their own collections and resources first, then considering the file formats in which they are stored. I suppose we’re trying to develop thinking about content and meaning, rather than encouraging a leap into a potentially bottomless pit of technical metadata, file properties, and compatible software. To put it another way, the thinking should not start and end with a JPEG. Part of this critical thinking – influenced by input from Paul Wheatley – has been to challenge assumptions we make about file format identification tools, and their outputs; are they really doing what they purport to do, can we trust the outputs, and are we interpreting them correctly? 

  • Systems that do digital preservation. The critical thinking here is certainly not directed at any given proprietary system, or vendor, but rather at the process of purchase, rollout, and implementation. Too often we purchase a system and change our way of working to accommodate the workflows and methods that come with that system; we don’t go through the (much harder) process of assessing our own local needs, creating use cases, determining preservation policies, and designing our own workflows. I still recall Kevin Ashley pointing out how easy it is to “purchase someone else’s solution to your problem”. This line of critical thinking applies not just to preservation systems, but to case management software, EDRM systems, and content management systems.  

digital preservation training programme

We hope that students who complete DPTP Online will not emerge as cynical doubters or despondent pessimists, but rather as open-minded sceptics, better equipped to challenge any assumptions which they encounter in the field of digital preservation.

We think this is particularly important for beginners; we don’t believe there is a single “right way” to carry out digital preservation, and critical thinking has an important role to play at all times in developing a strategy. It applies to the way you understand and apprehend theories and models; how you pick software, hardware, or file formats; and how you design workflows that are most suitable for your content.

Posted in Digital Preservation