It is no secret that very few of those presently involved in (R&D in) digital preservation have been formally trained to do so. As Meg Phillips of the US National Archives said at the conference: ‘Present staff at cultural heritage institutions have patched it together – they have degrees in the arts or humanities, and what they know of digital preservation they have mostly learned on the job.’ This is no wonder, of course, since DP is a new field and it takes a while for supporting industries such as education and training to catch up. Judging by the presentations of the educational panel this work is still ongoing. Because it does not only involve defining new skills, but also combining those skills with existing skills (library, museum, etc.), fitting all those skills in job descriptions that real-live people can actually fulfill and fitting all those job descriptions into effective work flows and organizational settings. Then develop training programs and curricula that can deliver those people.
Educational panel, from the left: Andreas Rauber (TU Wien), Sheila Corrall (Univ. of Sheffield), Joy Davidson (UK DCC), George Coulbourne (US LoC)
To make things more complicated, the ‘new’ skills and the ‘old’ skills do not always go well together. As Joy Davidson emphasized, this is where the library meets IT and these two have very different service-mindsets: whereas libraries are about very personal, individual service, IT is about rolling services out to lots of people. Service requires softer skills (communication), whereas IT is more about facts and figures.
And there is more. When asked to define her ‘fantasy staff member’, Meg Phillips of the US National Archives and Records Administration (and one of the few archivists present), said that NARA needs staff with broad knowledge of formats and digital preservation tools, staff who can think, who can help make decisions. Howard Besser of New York University added: ‘We do not need tinkerers; we need people who can deal with the scale of the digital challenge, who can deal with new, emerging problems.’ Some existing staff can be trained new skills, Howard said, but as this is more about mind set than actual skills, we must accept that some of the staff we have will not be able to make the change. It is the younger people, the students, who have the right mind frame.
The panel reviewed a number of training and education initiatives (check out the slides here). Joy Davidson said she was happy about the level of international cooperation between the different projects and institutions. Yet there is still a lot of diversity in the language used by stakeholders in the different contexts, which makes it hard to develop cross-disciplinary curricula. It is is continuing to be difficult to determine what is generic about DP (education) and what is specific to the contexts.
Here is the educational panel’s answer to the question “Where do you want to be in five years?”
- foster inter-disciplinary group projects in undergrad and postgrad courses (making use of tools like Planets Testbed and Plato). This could be a quick win
- ability to describe and compare data management courses across international postgraduate research courses
- establishment of frameworks for assessing data management skills and professional development progression paths for skills development for a range of disciplines
- greater practical experience opportunities for students
- greater engagement with professional bodies and industry to cooperate on raising awareness amongst researchers of the need to acquire sound data management skills
- ability to match skills across data curation lifecycle and the various roles
- development of information science courses that complement and bridge the gaps in the data management skills of researchers and information technologists. More real-life examples of data management and curation as it relates to day to day activities on the job
- more induction level data management training for all secondary, undergraduate, postgrad and PhD students.
That is some to-do list! But a crucial one. In the end, even in a technical field such as digital preservation, it is the people that make the difference – between ‘tinkering’ and a truly digital mind-set.