Retaining Digital Memory

Steinbeis experts safeguard the sustainability of digitization projects

Data storage is no longer a problem these days. The more interesting question is how to store the massive volumes of data we create in such a way that we can guarantee reliable and secure access to it in the future. This issue of administering digital documents and archived information has driven work at the Rostock-based Steinbeis Transfer Center for Databases, Search Engines and Digital Libraries (DBIS) for more than ten years. The center is involved in a number of research projects, particularly digitization projects, resulting in massive data volumes of digital documents.

Even digital documents have a so-called life cycle: They are created, evaluated and edited, released and published. They are then classified and shared, supplemented with metadata, researched and archived. Then, perhaps some day, they are sorted out and deleted. A life cycle can be very short, as in fast-paced websites; but it can also span hundreds of years, as is the case with antique documents.

However, whereas the content chiseled on a stone tablet survives several thousands of years, some floppy disks from the 80s and 90s are now no longer readable. The bits and bytes of a document are the first hurdle: Can these even still be physically accessed on a given data medium? Even if they can be physically read, there’s no guarantee they are even useful anymore. The data will be stored in a certain format or in a specific document type that still has to be relevant many years down the line. What’s more, we need the right software to open and display the files. Standard software is perhaps the best option, since it can generally take old data formats and convert these into newer ones. However, particularly with research projects, small groups of experts develop specialized, highly complex systems for processing digital documents and data. The difficultly comes when a project ends and the developers are no longer available.

The Rostock model was developed to ensure that users of such archiving solutions at the University of Rostock – which typically involves specialized software – can continue to work with and process their data. This model is aimed at those interested and invested in sustainability, to help them take on specific tasks and organize their collaboration. The German Research Foundation (DFG) has officially recognized the model as a method for promoting the sustainability of research findings.

To develop the Rostock model, the primary users of digital archive solutions at the university – the university library, the university’s data processing center and the faculty for database and information systems – committed to a collaborative project with the Steinbeis Transfer Center DBIS. In addition to laying down concrete action plans, it was decided exactly who would look after the technical side of things. The experts at the Steinbeis Transfer Center have taken on the technical maintenance of the special software developed for the digitization projects. Working with the university’s information systems department, all of the functions needed for research will have to be analyzed in terms of sustainability, adapted, and, where necessary, transferred to a modern platform. The reason why it will not be possible for the university partners to take on this long-term maintenance job is simply the limited budget: They are not in a position to line up all the individual, fixed-term project tasks, which mainly consist of smaller maintenance jobs.

The Rostock model has already been tested and implemented in some initial projects. For example, the eNoteHistory project from 2003 involved digitizing hand-written sheet music. Using several specialized functions, the software identified the author by the penmanship. This project is vital for musicology but faces a serious problem: Use of this complex method may not be possible in the future without the aid of the original developers. This is where DBIS steps in, not just to monitor functionality, but also to attempt to migrate the functions to new hardware and software platforms. Another project, “Mecklenburg’s Yearbooks,” involves a cooperation between the Steinbeis Transfer Center and the university library thanks to close ties through the university’s digital library.

The project WossiDiA involved digitizing the large paper-based archive created by the Mecklenburg folklorist Richard Wossidlo. After digitization, researchers and anyone else interested in the data could obtain special authorized access. The key to success on this project was the fact that everyone involved in the project was on board since the early development stage – something that is not to be taken for granted. The advantage of this is that, unlike on earlier projects, the right know-how didn’t have to be painstakingly “re-engineered” and design decisions were made from the outset with sustainability in mind.

In another current project, a song repertoire from the 15th century is being digitized and will be made available online as the “digital archive of the Rostock song book.” Here, too, the Steinbeis experts will maintain special access to the data once the project has come to an end in order to ensure sustainability, even in the event of a platform change.

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