On a recent trip to NYC I had the good fortune of spending some time with Barbara Bridgers and her staff in the photography studio of the MET. We spent most of the morning chatting about digital asset management, since the MET is on the verge of acquiring a high-end system to keep track of the images shot by their 17 photographers (all but 1 of which have gone completely digital). However, Barbara also mentioned that the MET actually thinks of their digital asset management system (DAMS) as the place where digital files from many different departments would reside – now the DAMS sounded more like what universities think of as an institutional repository. Then we briefly discussed what role the DAMS could play in the MET’s ambition to preserve digital files for the long run, which cast the system again in an entirely new garb, that of a trusted digital repository.
While asset management comes with a nifty acronym, unlike institutional repositories (IR anyone?), they both have a fundamental confusion in common: how far do they go in terms of actually preserving the digital files they harbor? I’ve sat through many conference presentations which left the audience convinced that asset management is synonymous with digital preservation, and the line between institutional repositories and digital preservation systems seems equally blurry. I won’t attempt to speak about institutional repositories (I know my limits!), but in terms of DAMS, it seems that the line should be pretty clear: a DAMS is a system which locates a file – and anybody would agree that knowing where the file lives is a great first step to keeping it around. Fully fledged digital preservation, however, adds additional layers of complexity: not only do you need to know where the file lives, but you need to have strategies and technologies in place to actually keep it alive over time (such as migrating from eclipsing to emerging file formats). Digital preservation also implies an institutional commitment, codified in policy, which takes preservation from the purely technological realm into the realm of social change.
For now, I think museums like the MET are doing the right thing by focusing on asset management – first things first. I’m curious to see how digital preservation will play out in the museum community, and what the transition from DAMS to trusted digital repositories will look like. Will museums ever be in a position where they can afford to build preservation systems themselves? Will they join together to realize economies of scale? Or will they partner with the libraries who are already building preservation repositories? These are topics of great interest to me, and I’ve organized a sessions for MCN Boston (“Who will archive your stuff?”) dedicated to this very topic.