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Luciana Duranti heads a project to establish clear guidelines for preserving electronic records - photo by Darin Dueck
Luciana Duranti heads a project to establish clear guidelines for preserving electronic records - photo by Darin Dueck

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 1 | Jan. 9, 2006

UBC Archivist Leads World Effort to Preserve Digital Records

By Lorraine Chan

Now that Grandma has learned to upload her digital photos and Dad has agreed to file his tax returns online, we’re all collectively wondering how cyber records will stand the test of time.

With the right start, all electronic records can be preserved, says Luciana Duranti, professor and chair of archival studies at the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies (SLAIS).

Duranti is leading the world’s largest effort to devise clear methods and guidelines for preserving digital records that remain accurate, authentic and accessible decades after their creation.

As Director of the InterPARES (International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems) Project, Duranti has set up an international network of scholars from 20 countries, which include China, Australia, Netherlands, Italy, Botswana, the U.S. and U.K. Based at SLAIS, InterPARES confers with scientists and artists, archival experts, government and private industry.

Duranti conceived this brainchild in 1998 after she assisted the U.S. Pentagon to develop a national U.S. standard for record keeping.

“I woke up one morning and said to myself, ‘now that we can generate and keep the perfect digital record, how do we preserve it in the long term if technology is changing so fast that three years later we can no longer read it?’”

Duranti asked the right question. Under her guidance, the InterPARES Project has twice won support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s Major Collaborative Research Initiatives (SSHRC-MCRI) and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. Other funders include the National Science Foundation of the United States, and China, a country that has already adopted InterPARES authenticity requirements as law.

One of the basic conundrums we face, says Duranti, is that it’s impossible to preserve digital material or electronic transactions.

“The only thing we can do is maintain our capacity of continually reproducing digital records and re-creating digital works in such a way that we can prove they’re authentic copies.”

Further, she adds, these copies must be as accurate and reliable as the originals were for the very short time of their existence.

“See these floppy disks?” asks Duranti. “You can’t read these anymore. To preserve something, you have to transfer it to new technology. But then when you change it, you then must ask whether it’s still authentic. Does it still have the same identity? How much have we lost of its integrity?”

InterPARES recommends that data should be “mass migrated” or transferred to new technologies every three to five years. However, Duranti says one of the largest problems is that it’s impossible to migrate records unless they’re created correctly from the start. For example, documents containing a digital signature could cause major hiccups.

“That signature is encrypted information so it would travel on a different computer pathway from the rest of the text,” she explains. “To make sure you can migrate that document, the signature must be detached.”

She says artists thrive on living in the moment, but unless they think long term, they will lose their creations to time. “When a musician writes a score on paper, we’ve got it hundreds of years later.”

“But if it’s an interactive performance between a musical instrument and computer software, the interaction has to be documented and preserved if that music is ever going to be recreated when the computer programs are migrated.”

When it comes to science, Duranti believes that accurate, authentic records can mean life or death. “We’re talking about medical records, chemical waste records, anything that can affect the health of people or their survival.”

She points to live and active digital information as an especially thorny area. While organizations welcome the torrents of digital data as vital lifeblood, methods to preserve these records are in their infancy. Duranti describes one case study where municipal employees depend on a web-based city map to make decisions that range from garbage pick up to granting new building permits. The map continually reconfigures itself whenever a municipal department inputs new data.

“But because the data on the map are continually overwritten,” she says, “there’s no record of them at any given time, nor legal or historical accountability for the city employees’ decisions.”

InterPARES is currently collaborating with that municipality to develop a prototype for preserving records that are long term, accurate and authentic while providing city workers a fluid stream of active data.

Memory of the World

The InterPARES Project is sharing its findings with Caribbean and Latin American scholars through funding from the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme.

In 1992, UNESCO launched the program to improve the protection and accessibility of humanity’s documented heritage. The program is supporting close to 70 projects throughout the world, from Armenia to Uzbekistan.

Last fall, InterPARES Director Luciana Duranti hosted at UBC five archival scholars from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico and Peru. Naming themselves the CLAID (Caribbean and Latin America InterPARES Dissemination) team, the participants delved into case studies and sifted through InterPARES research methodology, products and findings.

“UNESCO is concerned about developing countries which are generating and receiving digital materials, but have no knowledge or resources to maintain their archival holdings or library collections,” says Duranti.

Rosely Rondinelli, Head, Archival Services at Brazil’s Museu do Índio, says she found the face-to-face meetings invaluable. “We’ve read Luciana’s work and studied her InterPARES theories, but here I could clarify many points with her,” says Rondinelli.

In February, the CLAID team will return to UBC for another three weeks to further its knowledge and to adapt InterPARES findings to the requirements of the countries involved. The team will also take part in the InterPARES plenary research workshop, an event that will bring 60 international delegates to Vancouver. The CLAID team will discuss how they plan to disseminate the InterPARES knowledge over the next year.

Arien Gonzalez Crespo heads the Research Department of Library and Archives at Casa de las Américas. This Cuban institution has the mandate to promote, collect and preserve Latin American history.

“I like Luciana’s emphasis of applying traditional archival methods to our contemporary electronic records,” says Crespo, “how we can draw a line between the past and present in our ideas and thinking.”

Duranti credits this approach for the success of InterPARES and the trust the Project elicits from older cultures.

“Before, with digital preservation, people never looked at what came before to understand the products of new complex technologies. They always treated the digital world as an entirely new world.”

“My fundamental hypothesis is there is nothing entirely new. Human records may have changed their support from tablets, to parchment to hard drives, but the principles are the same.”

Duranti, who was educated in her native Italy and reads Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, is used to handling records and documents that span millennia. She aims at balancing past and present, high tech and ancient ways in her approach to cyber records. Duranti says that while developing countries may not be so skilled technologically, they boast millennia of knowledge that is extremely useful for the understanding and control of digital material.

“Latin American cultures can refer to Aztec and Mayan records,” says Duranti, “China, Egypt, Babylon and Rome all have maintained records through the centuries.”

She adds, “And younger cultures like the U.S. have the technology so it all evens out. That’s why the InterPARES Project works, everybody is contributing to the solutions.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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