German Network of Expertise for Digital Preservation

Data centre at GWD in Göttingen
Data centre at GWD in Göttingen | Photo (detail): ©Thomas Meyer / Ostkreuz

Given the rapid pace of technological change, the long-term preservation of digital objects requires constant attention. The nestor network is gathering the requisite expertise all over Germany.

In Book 9 of the Odyssey, the old man Nestor is described as wise and well-meaning; his advice to the Greeks in Troy is considered to be felicitous and helpful. Just like this character from antiquity, the nestor network also regards itself as an expert advisor on strategic questions – albeit from another millennium.

The acronym “nestor” stands for “Network of Expertise in long-term Storage and availability of digital Resources in Germany”.

Interdisciplinary network

Within Germany’s federal system, no central authority is responsible for the digital preservation of the country’s cultural heritage. In 2003, nestor was launched as a project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Today, ten years on, the network of expertise is run by 18 institutions working in partnership – libraries, museums, archives and research institutes.

“We joined forces with a view to exchanging views and ideas and to jointly tackling problems”, explains Armin Straube, who runs the nestor office at the German National Library in Frankfurt am Main. “Our activities are based on three key elements: we establish a network of institutions that work in the field of long-term preservation; we attempt to create joint standards; and we provide training, for instance to librarians and archivists, in the form of continuing education courses and workshops.”

Further developing strategies

Problems of long-term preservation cannot be solved once and for all. “The main challenges we face are that we are dealing with extremely different types of digital objects and that both software and hardware are changing all the time”, says Armin Straube. The experts therefore monitor and keep track of technological developments and check their compatibility with the objects that need to be preserved.

When problems can be foreseen – for example the fact that it will soon no longer be possible to play a film on a certain medium – action needs to be taken. Two fundamental strategies are followed here: either migration, where an outdated object is converted into a new form, or emulation, where the original software or hardware environment is recreated.

nestor gathers together practical experience and research results relating to digital preservation, processes this information and makes it available to the community. “Unfortunately, our workshops, publications and information services have so far only been able to reach a handful of the many institutions that are acutely affected by this problem in Germany. Our goal is for the tools and recommendations we are working on to be implemented in the great majority of these institutions.”

International networking

nestor is not only a network of institutions in Germany, but also a part of international initiatives. One central forum when it comes to sharing know-how and expertise is the APARSEN project run by the European Alliance for Permanent Access. This association of national libraries, archives and networks functions as a kind of umbrella organization. A key role is also played by the Open Planets Foundation. The result of an EU project, the Foundation drives forward technical developments in the area of digital preservation.

“One of our role models – especially in terms of the scope of its activities – is without doubt the British Digital Preservation Coalition, with whom we cooperate closely”, says Armin Straube. Although the DPC boasts far more members, and thus greater resources, nestor has no need to hide its light under a bushel. “The certification system we developed has for example achieved international acclaim.”

nestor has compiled a comprehensive catalogue of criteria for trusted digital repositories. “We worked out which elements are needed, in institutional and technical terms, to ensure that objects stored in a long-term archive will have a good chance of being preserved in the future.” Institutions can have their repositories checked against this catalogue of criteria and – assuming the criteria are met – acquire the nestor seal.

Incidentally, the Nestor of Greek mythology is supposed to have lived three human lifespans – a very considerable length of time. When the nestor experts talk about the “long term”, they are not concerned with concrete figures. “It would be unprofessional to make any promises, guaranteeing for example that it will still be possible to view a particular object in 50 years’ time. All we can do is establish the conditions to ensure that it will be easier in future to take the next step in adapting to technological progress.”