Your assets – here to stay?

Those amongst you who read this blog regularly know that I’ve been thinking a fair bit about digital asset management in museums lately – witness my posts here and here. I’ve had another opportunity to clarify my thinking while musing about a talk for AAM 2006 in Boston. I’ll be on a panel called “Preserving Your Digital Assets: Preserving Your Investment,” and I’ve entitled my talk (at least so far) “From Asset Management to Digital Preservation.” My basic conundrum: figure out how to tell the gathered museum crowd that vendor-based Digital Asset Management Systems (DAMS) are worthwhile for many reasons, but those reasons shouldn’t be confused with fully-fledged digital preservation.

Both from the ClearStory survey (for a quick summary, read here) and from a little informal survey of 17 RLG museum members I know the notion DAMS = digital preservation prevails (out of the 17 respondents of my informal survey in February, 14 indicated just that). To debunk that myth, I turn to the RLG-NARA Audit Checklist for Certifying Digital Repositories, which is a concise articulation of the circumstances enabling long-term preservation. If you hold a DAMS against the checklist, you’ll soon notice that you’re comparing apples and oranges: a DAMS is a technology, while the attributes of a trusted digital repository are only to a degree about technology – most of the checklist details institutional commitments, policies and frameworks which have to be in place in order to ensure the long-term survival of a digital file.

But what if you evaluated a DAMS in its institutional environment? Couldn’t the DAMS be the technological aspect of the trusted digital repository, if everything else (the policies etc.) fell into place? I put that question to Robin Dale (our resident checklist and certification expert), and she agreed that while we couldn’t rule out that possibility in theory, in practice an institution running a vendor-based DAMS would have a hard time even answering any number of the questions in the checklist, because they wouldn’t be privy to the inner workings of their black-box solution.

It would be an interesting exercise to take the checklist and apply it to a museum with a DAMS implementation (any willing self-auditors out there?) In the meantime, I’ll stubbornly maintain my prejudice that a DAMS is a technology and therefore by definition only part of a digital preservation solution. Beyond that, even as a technology, these systems are more geared towards pumping assets around an institution in the here and now rather than maintaining them for the next generation. The way I see it, a trusted digital repository aims to preserve an asset beyond the lifetime of the current technological environment, while a DAMS provides access to assets for many uses over the lifetime of the current technological environment. And aren’t both fine, dandy and eminently worthwhile endeavors, and they even build nicely on one another (more on this maybe during another blog). Just don’t confuse them.