Interview with and Expert: William Kilbride
By Jurate Kupriene and Nijole Klingaite, VUL
The DigCurV team interviewed William Kilbride, Executive Director of the Digital Preservation Coalition, during the international conference Framing the digital curation curriculum, which took place in Florence in May 2013. In this interview he discussed his career since the 1990s, identified key challenges for digital curators in cultural heritage sector and provided valuable insights on digital curation in general as well as on the DigCurV project results.
In your opinion, what is Digital Curation and why is it important?
For me, digital curation is about ensuring that we have long term access to data or materials or infrastructure beyond the limits of technical obsolescence. One of the problems I think we face is that we have so many different terms that we use to describe this issue which we all face. It's important because when we engage with this sort of technology we're spotting that there's some sort of opportunity. We digitize things for the purposes of access, we use databases in order to speed up decision making, to help search and retrieval. We do it everywhere - in industry, in commerce, in government, in law. So actually why digital curation matters is because we want to make sure we can hand on those opportunities and deployments of technology to future generations, and even more, we need to hand it on beyond the limits of technological obsolescence.
What led you to your position in digital curation?
Well I suppose it was a series of accidents! I am an archaeologist by training. I graduated in archaeology in the early 90s at a point at which technology was beginning to really have an impact on how we recorded excavations, how we recorded landscapes, how we even approached landscapes and sites such as through geophysical prospection, ground penetrating RADAR, resistivity, map making, all of those skills were becoming digital in the early '90s. It became more obvious that we were engaging with the technology much more quickly than we were engaging with the skills necessary to manage the data in the medium to long term. For archaeology that's a significant problem because the data is often all you've got left after an expensive excavation process, which is always unique, and which often does violence to the subject of study because it's destructive. In the late 90s I fell into a little organization called the Archaeology Data Service, which really raised my sights to the broader community, and I've stuck with it ever since.
What do you wish you knew before you started?!
What I wish I knew before I started… I guess, when I think back to those early days, doing data management literally in the site hut, I think I wish I realized there were other people working in this same problem. I wish I realized that it's not necessary to fix every problem yourself, that it is appropriate and possible to share the burden with others. That means partly being open about the challenges you face, and also being open with the solutions you have to offer. I wish I knew that I should be open with the difficulties I have, and open with the solutions I have developed.
What do you see as the key challenges for the sector in the coming years?
For me the big challenge is about scalability. What I mean by that is, you meet lots of people with really great skills, and many of the challenges in this field are fixed or fixable. The problem is that first of all the people who have those skills are too few and far between; we need more of them. We need them to be working in many more institutions, sectors, industries, and environments. Secondly, we need tools and services that scale up. So on one hand we have really nice little tools that will solve individual problems, but sometimes they don't mesh together well, so they need to be made to do so because we can't intervene all the time. We also need to be able to cope with the vast increases in data that we have been planning for. The scale of the data and the expectation that we have on that data continues to increase and we need to be prepared for that over the next few years. So my real challenge is about capacity and scaling up.
What do you think digital curators are going to need in order to overcome that?
More than anything I think they need flexibility. They need to be able to work across a broad range of topics and engage with lots of people with different sorts of skills, whether that's on computing or engineering or storage side of things, or whether that's archival records management policymaking. They need to be advocates, to make the case as to why this matters. They need to point to value and do this in a regulated and legally compliant environment. They need to speak to each other and learn from each other, they need to be able to work together. It's easy to show people one tool, or one service, or give them one policy framework - and we can do that, piece by piece - but if all we teach them is that one tool or that one policy framework then it will be difficult for them to employ those skills in a practical environment. So more than anything, I would like people to be able to understand the flexibility that they can later apply in their own work places.
Budgets are being cut - how can digital curators best make their case for funding and buy-in from the public?
There's no point in saying that we're worried about data loss. There's almost no point in worrying about what happens to data itself. The reason that data loss is an issue isn't because we are going to lose bits and bytes, it's because we're not going to be able to provide services to the public, it's because we're going to lose medical records. It's because we're not going to manage aircraft fuselage parts in such a way that they can stay in the air, it's because we're not going to be able to find efficiently cures for illnesses, cures for diseases, it's because we're not going to be able to develop communities which are smarter, safer, healthier, wealthier, greener, all those policy objectives which we have. It means we will have companies that have fallen out of legal compliance. It means we will have patents that are vexatiously challenged in court because we've failed in our records management. These are the reasons why we have to engage with this topic. These are the messages to take to our senior managers to ensure that investment. So the reason we do preservation has to be somewhere in the reason for being. What is it your organization exists for? Well that's where you'll find the reason for preservation and curation.
How do you see Europe's position in the Digital Curation Arena?
Well I think Europe is very good at this. I think there are centres of good practice in Europe, many of them involved in the DigCurV project. They have really been leading the field, for example nestor, DPC, DCC, and other agencies engaged in a variety of ways with the DigCurV project. You would have thought with the many different countries, and the many different approaches to digital preservation and curation that it would be much more fragmented than it actually is, and it's a tribute to the DigCurV team that they have been as open to all these different influences as they have been, so that's hugely to their credit. The difficulty will be sustaining that through time.
What uses can you see for the DigCurV Curriculum Framework?
I see at least two use cases for the framework, and I can see how these would be applied straight away. The first one is in employing staff. The organization I work for has about 40 or 50 employers, all of whom have a variety of ways of employing staff to do what might be termed digital curation, preservation, and archiving, all of which are, in reality, relatively new areas which makes it very difficult for organizations to specify the job descriptions. It also makes it difficult for them to assess whether someone applying for the job is a credible candidate or not. So the most obvious case from an employer's perspective is saying 'these are the skills we need, this is the role profile for this person in this new post', and therefore this provides a framework for evaluation of candidates for a job interview.
The second use case is in education. Curriculum planners, course directors, and programme leaders decide to present a course in Digital Preservation or Digital Curation' therefore what needs to be in that course? What is the extent, what is in range, what is out of scope and what is in scope of teaching? The extent to which a course matches the framework tells me or tells the course developers the extent to which their course is really fit for that purpose. So it encapsulates that good idea, it makes it into a formal statement of what the community would refer to as good practice by defining that scope.
Finally, when you look at job descriptions and training materials together, it then becomes a useful guide to prospective students, because they can match and compare the viability of the course they hope to study, and how well it matches to the requirements of employers. They can therefore begin some career planning of themselves into this completely new field where there are no career plans, and there are so few role models to engage their attention.
Is the final conference of DigCurV project Framing the digital curation curriculum a timely conference, and what key messages will you take from it?
My experience of the DigCurV project is that it has been open, engaged, and quite a social project in so far as it consulted widely, it has talked to a wide range of people with a lot of expertise. So it's appropriate in two ways for you to have this conference now. It's appropriate because it's giving back to those stakeholders something of the input that they have had to the project, so there's a kind of giving back generously into the community. But secondly you've got something to talk about; you've got a framework there which is available for use. Just before the project ends it's the right time to do that because you might discover at the end of conference that there's actually something you've not thought of. So this is just about the right time for you to be having this conference.
If I can take one thing straight away, I can say I was very struck by the need for some sort of continuity, some sort of sustainability within the community. This throws up the challenge, first of all of sustainability of training materials, and the need for flexibility. We have a significant challenge, because not only is there a question about the sustainability of the courses that we currently have on offer, but we also recognize the need for those courses to change really quickly, which requires two sets of resources: one resource to maintain the courses, and a significant resource to renew courses. There's a challenge right there.