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Selection and Appraisal in the OAIS Model

oais blog

Following our recent podcast about our free OAIS course, here are some further thoughts about the OAIS Model. We’re aware that there is a process of discussion underway hosted by the DPC, and the sceptical view that follows might be another contribution to that process.

Recently I attended the ARA Conference. On 31 August 2016 we heard three very useful presentations in the digital preservation strand from Matthew Addis of Arkivum, Sarah Higgins and Sally McInnes from Wales, and Mike Quinn from Preservica. I recall asking a question about the OAIS model, which was prompted by another question from a fellow archivist in the audience. I was asking something about the skills of selection and appraisal. Can the OAIS Model accommodate them? My worry is that it cannot, and that the Model tends to present an over-simplified view where the Submission Information Package (SIP) arrives in a “perfect state” all ready to preserve, and the process of transforming it into an Archival Information Package (AIP) can begin. Any archivist or records manager who’s ever handled a deposit or transfer of records will tell you that real life isn’t like that. As a result, the OAIS Model alienates the archivist.

I’m aware of those in our community who have advocated a stronger pre-ingest stage in OAIS. Some call it the “long tail” before Ingest. I believe there is a body of work underway to formalise the process as part of the standard: the Producer-Archive Interface Specification. And I’m aware of those contributions to the DPC OAIS wiki where suggestions are made for how to instigate it, and even automate it to some degree.

But that’s not quite what’s worrying me. Let’s get back to the basics of what we mean by Selection and Appraisal. I think these are very strong archivist skills, which could have tremendous value in the field of digital preservation.

The Record / Archive Series

When I worked as an archivist at the General Synod with paper records and paper archives, we would often appraise and select on a Series basis. What that means to me is that we could assess the value of the content in a contextual framework, based on other records which we knew were being created, or other archival series which we had already selected and kept in the archive. The collections strategy would be based on this approach, looking for a Series in the context of provenance. For instance, the originating body might be the Board for Social Responsibility (BSR); the record series could be “Minute Books”. We would always know to accept deposits of BSR Minutes, because we could trust these as being accurate records of the Board’s work. Likewise, if the BSR collected copies of another Board’s Minutes and Documents (e.g. The Central Board of Finance), we could apply a rule that excluded that series from accessioning, on the grounds that BSR were only receiving “copies for information”.

This process I’m describing is second nature to any archives or records management professional. An understanding of context, provenance, record series: all of these things help us identify the potential value of content. Indeed, a Series model is the foundation for all Archival arrangement, and is the cornerstone of our profession. It’s extremely efficient; it saves you from having to examine every single document.

Appraisal in OAIS

I wonder to myself how Series are expressed in the OAIS Model. I often think the Model is predicated to favour the individual digital object, rather than a record series. To put it another way, a Submission Information Package is not an ideal unit on which to carry out an appraisal. At which point you could tell me “here’s 100 related SIPs, there’s your record series”. Or “we’re putting all the PDFs of our Minutes into this single SIP”. But I would still worry. Through the basic action of ingesting a SIP, we’re starting a process where all subsequent preservation actions continue to centre around the individual digital object – checksums, file format identification, file format characterisation, technical metadata extraction, and preservation metadata. And of course, the temptation is strong to automate these AIP-building actions, which has led us into building scripts that are entirely focused on a single characteristic – most commonly, the file format.

Where’s the record / archival series in all this? It’s difficult to make it out. Maybe it gets reinstated or reconstructed at the point of cataloguing. Even so, it’s not hard to see why archivists can feel alienated by this view of what constitutes digital preservation. The integrity and contextual meaning of a collection is being overlooked, in favour of this atomised digital-object view. OAIS, if strictly interpreted, could bypass the Series altogether in favour of an assembly line workflow that simply processes one digital object after another.

I believe we need to rediscover the value of Appraisal and Selection; I call on all archivists to come forward and re-assert its importance in the digital realm.

In the meantime, some questions: Can anyone show me a way that Appraisal and Selection can truly be incorporated in an OAIS Model workflow? Is there room for considering a new “Series Information Package”, or something similar? Am I over-stressing the atomisation of OAIS?

Disclaimer: this blog post represents the personal views of Ed Pinsent, not the DPTP or UoL.

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