Fostering a Community of Practice/Digital Preservation

Through January, we’re publishing year-in-review highlights from FY2021. Download a full PDF of this year’s Annual Report to read more! This week, we’re highlighting stories about how the Library works to build connections in our profession.


A team from UVA joined with teams from five other institutions as part of the grant-funded “Fostering a Community of Practice” project sponsored by the Software Preservation Network (SPN). Led by Digital Preservation Librarian Lauren Work, the team including Archivist Elizabeth Wilkinson, Metadata and Discovery Services Manager Jeremy Bartczak, and IT Manager Mike Durbin came together to work on and share experiences with different aspects of software preservation and emulation. The term “emulation” refers to the ability of a computer program to imitate another program or device, allowing a digital object to run as it did in its original environment — a potentially more sustainable solution to the problem of software obsolescence than endlessly migrating files across a succession of newer platforms.

As a case study of emulation, the UVA team’s “Emulation in the Archive” project focused on the Sheeran architectural papers housed in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. The collection contains filetypes which could be read only by an outdated version of 3D Design software Vectorworks. During the project, the team developed a workflow that leveraged open access Emulation-as-a-Service software (itself an SPN project) to run the files on a modern system as they ran in their native environment. The UVA team also created documentation to aid in the description of software and software-dependent files in archival settings, created guidelines to aid curators in selecting and working with software in collections, and led a free workshop on software preservation and emulation open to other scholarly institutions, students, and interested faculty. The team’s work may point to a time when, instead of addressing problems of compatibility and migration for each digital object, an emulator might be created that would apply to many objects.


Library digital preservation specialists are racing against time to prevent the disappearance of a significant amount of the world’s cultural record, which in the last few decades has increasingly been created digitally in formats that deteriorate after only a few years. The University of Virginia Library continues as a national leader in digital preservation, building on its role in founding the 17-member Academic Preservation Trust in 2014.

In 2016, the Library was a founding member of the Software Preservation Network (SPN), and has since been highly involved in all three legs of SPN activity:

Community Building

As a partner in SPN’s grant-funded Fostering a Community of Practice (FCop) initiative, UVA Library’s Emulation in the Archives project team, led by Digital Preservation Librarian Lauren Work, developed cost-effective workflows for acquiring, preserving, and providing access to born-digital materials and conducted a free workshop on software preservation and emulation in archives. The guidelines are particularly useful to institutions with passionate staff but constrained resources.

Technological Innovation

As part of SPN’s Emulation-as-a-Service-Infrastructure (EaaSI), UVA Library joined with other institutions to test and deploy technical environments that will allow for data and resource sharing and is taking part in a hosted pilot program for this technical work.

Fair Use Legal Protection

The Library is leading efforts to secure the legal protection vital to all institutions that work to preserve and enhance the software needed to access older files. The UVA Library Director of Information Policy has joined a team of fair use experts and digital preservation specialists from UVA and other institutions working to draft a Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Software Preservation. The code will clarify the steps that institutions may legally take to preserve older forms of copyrighted software without which older digital formats may become unusable.

Senior Library specialists Bradley Daigle and Lauren Work have leadership roles on the Levels of Digital Preservation Steering group of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA), contributing expertise to keeping the endangered digital materials viable into the future. In 2020, the International Digital Preservation Awards (sponsored by the Digital Preservation Coalition) presented the team with its International Council on Archives Digital Preservation Award for Collaboration and Cooperation. The award was given for the team’s work in updating and expanding the Levels of Digital Preservation planning grid — a tiered set of recommendations on how organizations can build and enhance digital preservation activities.

The grid is an invaluable tool, helping galleries, libraries, archives, and museums around the world achieve optimal standards in five core areas at the heart of digital preservation — storage, integrity, control, metadata, and content — from beginning steps to full implementation. Over the last several years, Daigle and Work have helped lead the NDSA working group in writing its “2020 Agenda for Digital Stewardship,” a comprehensive review of the international state of digital preservation that identifies successes and challenges, drives research, and serves as both an advocacy and funding tool.

The task of digital preservation never ends and is not often noticed when it is done well. Requests for spending on infrastructure can be a hard sell. But if these efforts are not funded and the necessary investments in staff and technology are not made, the cost to society of losing the lion’s share of scholarship accumulated over the past two decades would be incalculable.

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