My last post on the proposed National Cultural Policy highlighted the fact that libraries and archives are struggling to cope with what we commonly refer to as ‘the digital deluge’. The struggle is largely due to lack of funding. In the last 12 years I have seen GLAM’s get piecemeal funding for digital projects, which often cannot be sustained after the funding ends. There is a feeling amongst Australian GLAM’s that the government needs to recognise the major issues facing us and take action to help. This is most likely to be in the form of legislation, policy, strategies and funding. GLAM’s have common ideas about the details of these, which they expressed in their responses to the National Cultural Policy.
In this post I wanted to explain in more detail the 10 challenges for GLAM’s of ‘dealing with the digital deluge’.
1. The amount of material being generated in traditional non-digital formats has not decreased.
This means that all the traditional collecting activities and associated processes, systems and funding need to continue so that GLAM’s can meet their mandates. The national cultural heritage institutions in Australia are currently funded and are doing what their relevant Act mandates them to do, for example the National Film and Sound Archive Act 2008, National Library of Australia Act 1960, Archives Act 1983, National Museum of Australia Act 1980, National Gallery Act 1975, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Act 1989, Australian War Memorial Act 1980. At a very basic level this is to ‘collect stuff’ and also to maintain what they collect. A librarian or archivist would expand the definition and say we need to:
- Manage and Maintain
- Make accessible
Institutions feel their funding is already inadequate to cover their mandated activities. All of the Acts do not take into account ‘dealing with the digital deluge’.
Things needed to meet the challenge: To save Australia’s digital cultural heritage and to fulfil the national cultural heritage institutions statutory obligations will require significant new funding.
2. Collecting ‘born digital’ objects.
These days some content is only produced in digital format e.g. websites, e-books, radio programmes, and some content is created in dual format e.g. articles in hard copy journals and e-articles in databases. This digital content is referred to as ‘born digital’. At present some GLAM’s collect small amounts of this content if they are able, but vast amounts are being produced and lost, in various different formats.
Things needed to meet the challenge: a mandate to collect and preserve born digital content (especially for audio-visual, websites and e-books); agreement on which institutions will preserve what; a robust national infrastructure to collect and store the content.
3. Digitising existing collections so they can become more accessible.
There are vast amounts of really useful, interesting and historic items stored in collecting institutions that need digitising on a large scale. Some of these are obvious to name e.g. Australian journals, magazines, books, newspapers, films, immigration and naturalisation records, cabinet records from 1901, archives on the stolen generations. Some are not so obvious and need to be exposed and made accessible e.g. unpublished records in private manuscripts. Very little co-ordinated mass digitisation has happened so far in Australia. Most national cultural heritage institutions have digitised less than 3% of their content. A number of recent reports have drawn attention to the importance of digitising national collections in order to support the needs of the research community and the wider public. For example:
- Recommendation 11 of the Inquiry into the Role and Potential of the NBN, House of Representatives, Report (August 2011) “the government develop a strategy for the digitisation of Australia’s culturally and historically significant content”.
- Top Ideas - Creative Australia Stream, Australia 2020 Summit Government Response (April 2009) “Digitise the collections of major national institutions by 2020”
- The Strategic Roadmap for Australian Research Infrastructure (August 2008) “conversion of key primary research analogue data to digital form”.
Things needed to meet the challenge: a policy; an audit of national content, especially at risk audio-visual and indigenous content; strategies and priorities for mass digitisation of national content including archives, books, photos, audio-visual; changes to copyright legislation; significant funding.
4. The economic return and benefit of digitising collections
Digitising the national collections on a mass scale will require multi-million dollar funding. For example in 2008-2010 it cost the National Library of Australia $10 million to digitise 5 million newspaper pages from microfilm. If the pages had of been digitised from hard copy originals it would have required $30 million. The 5 million pages are only a small representative sample of Australian newspapers, there is much more to be done.
A question often asked is ‘how can the cost of digitisation be recuperated?’ The answer is that it not possible for GLAM’s to recuperate the cost. Most GLAM’s under their Acts are required to offer various services such as access to their collections for free. However, if you take a step back, and look at the bigger picture there is economic return on investment for the broader Australian economy. For example significant research has been undertaken from Australian digitised newspapers that would not have been possible from hard copies or microfilm because there is no keyword searching across the corpus in hard copies, and it would take years and years due to having to go to various different physical locations and manually browse collections. Three example areas of research using digitised newspapers are: medical for the flu outbreaks and vaccines; on climate change because the newspapers start to record weather conditions before official records began; and on people for films e.g. Lionel Logue for the Kings Speech. In these three real examples the economic benefits of this research were returned to the commercial medical sector; agriculture; the environment; the creative arts industry; filmmaking; and tourism, but not back to the collecting institutions who digitised the items.
There have been two reports into economic return on investment through digitisation.
- In 2008, Access Economics estimated for the National Library of Australia (using the ‘user approach’) that for every dollar invested in the digitisation of cultural collections, $20 of economic benefit was returned.
- In 2011 the UK JISC report ‘Inspiring Research, Inspiring Scholarship: the value and benefits of digitised resources for learning, teaching, research and enjoyment’ gave all of the value and benefits, including economic, of building a Digital Britain in the GLAM sector. Interestingly one of their most powerful examples and case studies was about the Australian digitised newspapers. In 2010 at the time the report was finalised 12 million lines of newspaper text had been corrected by the Australian public and this was given a value of 1.75 million pounds (AU $2.58 million). The report also stated that UK digitised content saved the research and higher education sector 43 million pounds (AU$63 million) per year. The whole report or the 12 page summary are worth reading if you have not seen them before.
" I believe the creative arts - and the humanities and social sciences - make a terrible mistake when they claim support on the basis of their commercial value. Whatver they may be worth in the marketplace, it is their intrinsic value we should treasure them for. We should support these disciplines because they give us pleasure, knowledge, meaning and inspiration. No other payoff is required."
Things needed to meet the challenge: Analysis of economic returns and benefits of digitisation in Australia; acknowledgement and acceptance that economic returns will not usually go to the sector that collects and digitises the content; strategy for building a digital Australia.
5. Migrating audiovisual analogue collections into digital format.
There are very large audio-visual collections in Australia such as those held by the ABC, National Film and Sound Archive, National Archives of Australia, the National Library of Australia, and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Audio-visual content such as films, radio programmes, music, and TV series are one of the most publicly popular forms of work, but are the least likely to endure in the future. Analogue audio-visual content has a limited lifespan and it urgently needs to be migrated into digital format before it becomes obsolete. Once in digital format it will need to be maintained and possibly reformatted into other digital formats as technology develops. The scope of this challenge is so extensive that it needs to be mentioned separately.
Things needed to meet the challenge: funding; a centralised national migration facility and centre of excellence; IT infrastructure.
6. Establishing a national online access system that aggregates Australian digital cultural heritage metadata.
Just digitising an item or collecting it in born digital form does not make it easily accessible to the nation. In fact the reverse. The workflow is usually that collected content would be stored on servers, and managed in an internal content management system. This would not necessarily deliver the content for public viewing. A separate institutional online delivery system is required. But the public don’t want to search separate websites. In the digital world they prefer to go to a single place for discovery such as Google or Trove. Both these services simply aggregate metadata from institutional websites so that the public can quickly find relevant information and be directed to the site that hosts it. If the government funds digitisation it is also important that they fund a sustainable trusted national delivery service, and make it mandatory for content to be discoverable in here so that the public can easily find the content.
Things needed to meet the challenge: a mandate; policy; strategy; decisions on whether Trove is the system and can have guaranteed ongoing development and funding.
7. Preservation of digital collected content.
There are two forms of digital content: digitised and born digital. Both types need to be preserved to ensure long-term access. Preservation of digital content often means re-formatting file types or migrating content to new media. Many of the existing and early digital formats such as PDF and word are not open standards, but proprietary formats that require proprietary software to able to use them. If Microsoft and Adobe went out of business tomorrow these formats would quickly become obsolete. Therefore libraries and archives are striving to re-format digital formats into open standards such as TIFF, which are more likely to endure. They are also migrating content stored on media such as CD’s, DVD’s, and floppy discs to different media to ensure longevity. The issue is the volume of digital content and the time and money it takes to do this.
Things needed to meet the challenge: a mandate if this is to happen nationally; robust national infrastructure; strategies to identify which institutions will preserve what content for what duration; strategies for preserving digital content for long term access in the face of technical obsolescence.
8. Resourcing skilled staff to deal with the digital deluge.
At the moment most of the staff involved in the digital deluge are either IT staff, or traditionally trained librarians and archivists. There is a lack of staff who bridge the gap and have both ‘collecting, description, management’ knowledge and skills combined with savvy digital and IT skills. This is a problem which needs to be addressed because if funding comes from the government more staff will be required for this role. Recruiting from overseas such as USA and UK is a short term answer (though not for Government Cultural Heritage Institutions who require Australian Citizenship). Ultimately Australia needs to train and recruit its own staff. This could be a two-pronged approach by offering suitable courses at University level so that graduates are equipped, and offering training to existing experienced professionals to up skill them.
Things needed to meet the challenge: establish professional training in Australia for digital cultural heritage specialists; add digital cultural heritage specialists to the skills shortage list enabling easy migration; strategy for mobility and exchange of digital specialist staff between government cultural heritage organisations.
9. Collaborating across the sector
To effectively and efficiently address the digital deluge cross sector collaboration is required. This may involve shared funding, facilities, agreements, knowledge, and staff. Collaboration is also important so that a unified message can be given to government about what the challenges are and what is required to address them. Collaboration already happens to some extent, however not specifically to deal with the digital deluge. Often institutions will only collaborate if a funding pool is involved that requires it. If not institutions are encouraged to compete against each other to obtain funding for digitisation or digital infrastructure. This is counter-intuitive to achieving sustainable national goals. A reason why institutions don’t naturally collaborate is because collaboration costs. Anyone who has ever worked on a collaborative digital project knows that it takes twice as much communication, time and cost to complete the project if several parties are involved. However the results are often of far greater benefit to the public.
10. Getting action/funding
GLAM’s have been talking about dealing with the digital deluge for the last 15 years. Two things we know for sure are that it is not going to go away and that we have not made any significant breakthroughs in funding, strategy, or policy so far. At least three of the major cultural heritage institutions (NFSA, NAA, NLA) have formally requested additional funding from the government for the digital deluge without success. So what do we need to do to get some action and what would we do if there was no funding?
If there was no funding we could do deals with commercial organisations such as Google or FamilySearch and give them the rights to digitise and then deliver at cost our content to the public. This is the model the British Library has decided to follow that has received extreme negative public criticism. The British public don’t see why they should pay to access their digital cultural heritage when they have already paid taxes for libraries to look after it. The British Library’s stance is that the choice is simple – either you can never provide access to it in digital form because there is no money to do it, or you can pay a commercial organisation to provide it to the public for a cost. The third option is obviously for more funding from government so that information can be freely accessible.
The danger of signing into an agreement with a commercial provider is that they do not promise to digitally preserve content, to maintain ongoing access to content, to be unbiased, or to provide anything for free. They are not legally obliged to do this. For example last week Wikipedia blacked out its content to protest against the proposed new copyright laws in USA. This raised the awareness of the proposed new laws to millions of people. Wikipedia was easily and freely available to do this. Maybe the GLAM sector should have ‘digital blackouts’ of its websites to raise awareness of the digital deluge challenges? It’s unlikely we would do this though because the enduring value of libraries and archives is that they are trusted, forever and free. These are great principles which need to be upheld in the digital age.
Things needed to meet the challenge: form a national body to have a unified voice on the issue; raise awareness of the digital deluge challenges; participate actively in the development of the National Cultural Policy; start to prepare seriously for action by developing an ‘unofficial’ action plan; lobby our Ministers; estimate how much money we need on a national level to meet each of the ten challenges; continue to write proposals to government for funding; make it more evident what the risk and economic loss to the nation is if no action is taken.
Australians are embracing the online world as their key information source to help with creativity, research, and business. Online access of information is particularly important to those Australians in regional and remote areas. GLAM’s need to be able to deal with the ‘digital deluge’ challenges and expand their digitisation, digital collecting and digital delivery activities so that Australians can gain rapid and easy access to their digital heritage. To meet the needs of Australians now and in the future it is important to collect, manage and preserve our history and culture in whatever form it takes. GLAM’s need to be mandated and funded to do this by government. Otherwise pieces or the entirety of our cultural heritage, history and knowledge will be lost and Australia will progressively lose its capacity to remember its past in order to build its future.