Interview with an Expert: Neil Grindley
By Claudia Engelhardt, UGOE
Neil Grindley is programme manager at Jisc and is responsible for organising and managing the activities and projects in the Digital Preservation strand of Jisc’s work. This programme has recently funded a number of projects dealing with training, e.g. DataSafe, DICE (Digital Communications Enhancement), PrePARe (Preservation: Promoting Awareness to Researchers) and SHARD (Preservation of Historical Research Data). Other areas of research that are supported include, for example, cost and economic modelling in relation to the digital object lifecycle. As digital preservation is a field that requires a lot of cross-domain work and interaction with people who have various backgrounds, this aspect makes up an important part of Neil’s work. He is a board member of the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC), the Open Planets Foundation (OPF) and the Alliance for Permanent Access (APA).
Neil has been working in the field of digital preservation since 2007 and has become a prominent and influential figure within the community. In a short interview, held at the Framing the Digital Curation Curriculum Conference in Florence, 6-7th May 2013, he talked about what led him to his career in this area. Neil earned a degree in art history and after college, in the early 1990’s, started working within an art library. He was inputting cataloguing data, which he described as “a fairly low-key introduction to the digital working”. And then one thing led to another: “Automatically, if you start dealing with cataloguing issues, you start dealing with standards issues; you start thinking around metadata. And then you start needing to know a few things about databases and how they are constructed, or at least you did back then. […] So it kind of grew out of the need to be very clear about how to marshal information in findable ways.” He continued: “But later on, after I'd got more into the IT side of things, I always had this feeling that all of the work and years of effort and quite a lot of money had gone into that project that I'd started out on, and there was a danger that all that work was actually going to recede more and more into the distance. I could easily foresee a time when that information could quite possibly be not available any more. So it's been at the back of my mind, I think, ever since the start of my career that there's this fragility to digital information that's not always obvious when you're actually working on the material. You have to take a few steps back and consider the context in which digital content happens and the policy structures and how seriously the institutions take those projects – so more of those bigger issues that surround - what look at the outset to be - sturdy and useful projects. When you look at the hinterland of it all and the organizational context, you realize that actually digital preservation is a large and important area of work. And when an opportunity came up at Jisc, my present employer, to run a programme in digital preservation I leapt at it! And that's where I am now!”
When asked to define the term “digital curation”, Neil expressed the notion that “terminology is something that our domain struggles with slightly”. In his view, one should not pay too much attention to the supposed differences between the terms digital curation, digital preservation, digital archiving and others, as “they can actually be used almost interchangeably”. When looking at the basic concepts, they all have to do “with making sure that a series of actions are in place to look after information over the long term – for as long as that information is required. And those actions involve selection and preservation measures at the start; and then some subsequent actions. I suppose, formally speaking you can divide up preservation and curation and archiving, if you want to. My view is that organisations over the years have chosen the term that suits them at the time, and their organisational names often reflect that. So you have organisations such as the UK Data Archive; and then the Digital Preservation Coalition; and the Digital Curation Centre - I don't think you'd want to put too much emphasis on those different terminologies in terms of what those organisations do. I think they all have lots to offer and all the other organisations as well have a great deal to offer the community in terms of expertise across the whole piece.”
In Neil’s view, the relevance of digital preservation and research data management has grown significantly during the last years, as has the urgency of the associated challenges: “I suppose there are things that are emerging, particularly perhaps around scale and around the management of research data, its curation and its preservation. And those kinds of issues do seem to have grown in the last few years, and are getting more urgent as institutions and organisations need to tackle larger and larger amounts of data, which perhaps, it seems to me, still hasn't entirely kicked in as a really urgent problem within many institutions. But I think some of the things that the DigCurV Survey is bringing out, and the work and research that's been talked about, references the fact that almost 19 out of 20 people in the survey, were saying that there is going to be a need in their organisations to focus on preservation and curation, those kind of issues. And some have measures in place for their staff personnel to tackle it more or less, others don't really. […] People in organisations really need to get their ducks in a line and make sure that they've got the strategies and skills in place within their organisations.”
Accordingly, one of the key challenges for digital curators in the next few years is to raise awareness about the importance of the topic within their institutions, and to make the case for digital preservation and curation being taken account of adequately in organisational strategies and policies: “Practitioners more widely ... I think they're still going to have a difficult time over the next three to five years with ensuring that everybody within their organisations - or rather the decision makers and the budget holders within their organisations - are clear about what scale of problem (or what scale of challenge to be more positive) they are actually facing within the organisation. Perhaps more importantly, how that challenge relates to the organisational mission so that everyone in the organisation is clear that the strategy matches the aspirations that they might have to do preservation or curation; and that the activity ensures, or realises benefits against that institutional strategy. That matching up, I think, needs to be the focus and needs to be done well and needs to be finessed over the next three to five years.”
Neil also noted that, among researchers, there seems to be a lack of awareness that the digital material they produce is not only important for their own research, but is also a valuable resource for other researchers, and even the wider public. “In some cases, perhaps you're generating material that nobody else in the world has thought through or gathered together or created. I think, actually, that needs to be recognized as an important step, as an important resource that's been created there. And I certainly took things for granted back then [in the early stages of his career], which I realise now needed much more attention and focus, much more care. I think that digital preservation people are good for caring for things. That's the nature of the job. So if we could pass on some of that sympathy for the material to other people, and get other people thinking harder about actually the value of these digital assets…”
In Neil’s opinion, the best way to get the message out to funders as well as the public, is not to start “some kind of awareness and marketing campaign that's going to convince the general public that putting funds and resources into digital preservation is high-up there on the priority list”. A more fruitful strategy “needs to be results driven”. “What I think we should do is be very aware of the things that we are curating and preserving, and the tales, the stories we can tell about why that's mattered. […] You know, not just describing that we have managed to save this terabyte of material that otherwise might have gone missing. It needs to go that one step further: It needs to describe a situation that that terabyte of material had enabled this to happen and this to happen, and has sustained these types of opportunities for these groups of people now to go on to do these types of things!” Neil proposes that we need to be aware – and to get the message across – that we are not preserving for preservation’s sake, but for the benefit of society: “We need to preserve with a purpose and that purpose is to give society, the general public, whoever, the opportunities to the future that they wouldn't otherwise have. […] When those things can be highlighted and identified… It's those that we need to weave stories around and say to people 'Are you now aware that this has happened because of this?!”'
When asked about the activities and outcomes of the DigCurV project, Neil described them as valuable contributions to the discussions and developments surrounding digital preservation and digital preservation training. The final conference offered many interesting talks and gathered a lot of people from the community, providing the opportunity to exchange experiences and ideas: “It always strikes me when I come to preservation conferences and events that there's a real willingness to share! It's quite often said in this domain, that it's an international problem, that it's a big problem, it's a complicated problem – and so we need to work on it together. And that's absolutely again what I'm seeing here at this conference!”
The DigCurV Curriculum Framework, in Neil’s view, is a useful tool: “When you drill down into it, I think there's a great deal of really useful practical detail there that's going to help people to a) do planning, to b) do comparisons of courses, and c) most importantly, that it can act as a checklist for people. And I think for a lot of these tools, that's kind of what their main role and purpose is. .. It's perhaps not to give you the answer as you put the information in, and it churns through the process and gives you the answer. I think the main value of the framework, this framework and other tools like it, is that process of working through, going down through the information and drilling down and understanding as you're doing that: thinking about your own context, and really thinking hard about what your processes are, what your answers are to the kinds of questions that arise as you use the framework.”