A guiding principle that helped me in my work with digital public service
Towards the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, it was heavily debated in Denmark how best to explore and exploit our national heritage in order for society to both secure our archives and benefit from the (potential) values stored in them.
The overall theme was digitization, and the more concrete analysis had to do with the financial issues in relation to the digitization, the following preservation and the dissemination, where new methods and technology create possibilities previously unimaginable, and of course the legal issues in relation to these activities.
In the following four viewpoints, I will share my knowledge collected through mine and my colleagues’ work with DRs digitization project: DR’s Cultural Heritage Project (DR=Danish Broadcasting Corporation).
I will share my thoughts, results and insights from our work with innovation, digital workflows and change management, generated through our developed industrialized digitization processes, and our work with value creation through collaboration, and our joint dissemination efforts at the betalab: danskkulturarv.dk.
The insights and thoughts are my own and not DR’s. I am no scholar or library expert, but I have – with my good colleagues and collaborators – met many obstacles on our digitization path. And I have found that the challenges we, publicservice institutions, face in the digital domain often have similarities. My hope is that these coming viewpoints will inspire you and maybe help you do some of your work better or even engage in new projects. Or if nothing else, at least entertain you a bit.
In 2007 DR and the political parties behind the Danish Media Agreement for the period 2007-2010 agreed that DR would receive project funds of DKK75 million or €10 million. The agreement was that DR would receive these as additional funds to start the digitization of its endangered AV archives.
As collaboration and dissemination was widely discussed and analyzed as a part of the political process leading up to the agreement, it was subsequently decided that part of the funds was to be used on experimenting with dissemination of the digital archives in collaboration with other Danish cultural heritage institutions.
Focus on the goal – all the time I remember being appointed as project director in 2007, responsible for the digitization of the DR archives. A very exciting task, which brought me many sleepless nights in the beginning. DR’s internal experts had in 2005 calculated that we were going to need DKK284 million, and we had now received ¼. How on earth would we choose among the estimated 520,000 hours of AV-materials?
All earlier examples in ‘history’ of people trying to select had not been very successful. Often the selection process, with all its needs in terms of clarifying criteria, editorial responsibilities and final says et cetera, had created a very bureaucratic and expensive workflow with a reluctance to make decisions, because all involved were often overwhelmed by the obvious consequences of their choice. Real challenges, which I feared would create a counterproductive environment, before we even got started on this very complex and long project.
However, I was confident that we could get more done than what was estimated in 2005. The technology had evolved and was rapidly not only changing everyone’s life, but also the ways we worked at DR. And as part of my prior work in DR, I had seen how we had developed a new digital workflow, which was much more efficient than earlier known processes. Along with my former director, Leif Lønsmann, I formulated a strategy with two objectives. The first dealt with digitization and the second with dissemination.
To digitize as much as possible, as efficiently as possible. In order to do that, we decided to focus on industrialized digitization processes. Prioritizing collections based on their need for preservation.
We would only sort or select within a collection if the content was either copy of something already digitized, or it was stored on another better source format (tape or film) and if the selection process would not complicate the process too much and generate a higher cost than just digitizing it twice. We would use cost-benefit analyses and would outsource wherever we would benefit financially from it.
To create access to as much as possible, during the period of the project and while making sure the current copyright laws and legal frameworks were respected, while establishing a new understanding of digital dissemination or use of cultural heritage. Creating knowledge, which should be shared with collaborators and other interested parties.
To accomplish both objectives, I needed something to help us steer, a guiding principle. A principle all involved parties could understand in order for them to focus on the goals and objectives while trying to solve their tasks. I coined the phrase: USE = VALUE!
The use and understanding of guiding principles here is my interpretation of a theory developed by Oliver D. & Roos J. work from 2005 on decision making in high velocity environments. A principle that helped, not only the people involved, but also people around the project, to understand our vision, possibilities and challenges. The notion was originally developed to explain our focus on dissemination but immediately became part of the principles we used to secure the digitization work too.
The collections we digitized should facilitate use and be usable. Something that seems obvious, but nevertheless can be challenging at times, because large organizations or institutions often have a series of ongoing complex projects. And these are both often related and/or linked to other processes and projects, which creates an even more complex situation. Getting the right ‘attention’ can therefore be a very challenging issue itself. Your project is constantly fighting for strategic focus, priority even, though it might not have the same financial or immediate importance.
Summarizing my insights
A good guiding principle should highlight the central aspects of a project, task or goal, and it should have the potential to become a core value for all involved. USE = VALUE became our guiding principle. But it did not happen overnight. And at the time I first coined the notion I did not recognize it. I just summarized our needed focus at an early stage of the project and used it to guide me and tell all involved what we were trying to focus on and accomplish.
We, the key personnel, tried to walk the walk, and in 2011 during an internal evaluation of our project, we began to understand how it had helped us, the management, the directly involved employees and other external and related workers and stakeholders. Our vision, mission and goal had become a principle that helped us all prioritize, navigate and self-manage.
The first of January 2014 we officially closed the DR Cultural Heritage Project, and we are now summarizing our knowledge and results. We have digitized more than 70 percent of the archive and are still using the digitization methods developed as a consequence of our principle.
We have established a cultural network where we work with more than 10 other national cultural institutions and it-platforms where we explore the dissemination together and across digital archives. In my future viewpoints I shall try to share my thoughts on these, and what we are facing as public-service institutions in a digital age.