Making a case for Digital Preservation

Making a case for Digital Preservation

By Georgia Moppet, Community Officer at the OPF.


“Open source is about collaborating; not competing.” 

Kelsey Hightower. Technologist, Principal Engineer for Google Cloud and open source advocate.

Open source describes code that is designed to be publicly accessible – anyone can see, modify, and distribute the code as they want or need. It’s richly complicated, and more than the ‘time consuming, headache’ moniker it was used to describe its purpose to me by a member back in my first days at the Open Preservation Foundation. 

OPF maintains a number of open source digital preservation tools that address common digital preservation challenges. Together, they form a reference toolset for digital preservation which can be adapted for use in different organisational workflows. Our current tools are mainly used in the pre-ingest and ingest stages of preservation, but our toolset is constantly evolving in response to the needs of our members.

The concept of ‘free software’ is from the 1980s, but open source is a bit younger – the late 1990s, or so. Software development communities and numerous nonprofits have explored different relationship models and approaches between developers and the companies with interests in their tools and projects.There has been a lot of progress and collaboration but also fierce competition between workflows, aims, and tools. 

But tools are developed with a collaborative, decentralised approach – relying on peer review and community efforts. Although open source can incur unexpected costs in training users, importing data, and setting up necessary hardware, it is generally cheaper and has better longevity. It’s developed and propelled by community need rather than monetized companies. 

Open source is flexible; developers can examine how the code works and freely make changes to dysfunctional or problematic aspects of the application to better fit their individual needs.

While there’s no danger of the licensing model changing, open source software has the potential to pose liability issues as it rarely contains any warranty or liability protection. This leaves the consumer responsible for maintaining compliance with legal obligations. As a host, OPF ensures that the tools are always secure. For those unsure, permissive licensing means that other people can use the software that you do. A library or archive may use veraPDF, for instance, to validate submissions. It’s trivial to recommend that your submitters use the same software to check before sending. You shouldn’t be asking people to invest in niche software just to make submission to your organisation easier. 

In the same vein, there is increased code visibility; all of the code is available online, and in the distribution. This means that organisations don’t need to take a vendor’s word for things like security, or data retention as they can look for themselves. Open source is also therefore more stable; the source code is publicly distributed, so users can depend on it for their long-term projects since they know that the code’s creators can’t just stop developing, or discontinue the tool. 

Open source facilitates the mindset that rather than investing in software you can invest in people, having someone who works occasionally on an open source product you use is usually a better idea than spending on a commercial vendor if you’re looking to step your toes into development waters. Open source fosters interest and ingenuity; programmers can use pre-existing code to improve the software and even come up with their own innovations.

A combination of good quality open standards and open-source software is hard to beat. People can use the software and standards but also have the option of getting involved themselves and influencing the future dialogues and directions of open source software. It has a dedicated, built-in community that continuously modifies and improves the source code.

While open source software offers a multitude of benefits, it introduces a whole new level of code management that does not exist if solely using commercial software. We recognise here that open source can be harder to use and adopt when setting it up due to unfamiliarity, and unfriendly user interfaces. OPF is an experienced leader in open source development. We are here to help you, via our tech clinics, tutorials, and community connections. 

All in all, open standards and free software are the best way of creating a critical mass of adoption, long-term preservation is best served by fewer high quality standards with appropriate supporting software, not a dazzling array of competing options.

By Georgia Moppet, Community Officer at the OPF.


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