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Moving Image Archive

Born Digital Archiving: An Interview with Kieran O’Leary

By Sarah Bull

Kieran O’Leary, the Digital Preservation Manager at the National Library of Ireland, has had a successful career in digital preservation and digital asset management. Kieran’s professional work mixes passion for moving images with solving real digital preservation needs of institutions. Through his mix of formal education and self-guided learning, Kieran’s unique career path has earned him a position as a leader in the field of digital preservation. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Kieran, which included: discussing his career development, his current role, and his thoughts on the future of digital preservation in archives.

Color photograph of Kieran O'Leary in a pub.
Kirean O’Leary

Starting as an intern at the Irish Film Institute (IFI), Kieran leveraged his passion for moving images and photography with his interest in digital media to make himself indispensable to the institution. “When I got in [to the IFI as an intern], I was told: ‘There is no job for you.’ Which is what they tell all the interns, but I got it into my head—I’m going to make sure they hire me.” Working towards this goal, Kieran began upskilling. He worked on his abilities in film and film and video digitization, being particularly interested in migrating tapes and examining digital cinema standards. This work occurred at the dawn of “the big move to digital,” which centered around digitizing physical media collections. As more and more moving pictures and broadcasts were born digital, an entirely new need arose in archives across the globe. Seeing this gap in the market, Kieran devoted himself to becoming an expert in digital curation methodologies for moving images.

After becoming indispensable, Kieran was hired officially with the IFI where he continued advancing his skills in digital preservation. In about 2014, facing growing concerns related to digital issues, the IFI made a strategic transition to fully embrace digital preservation. As Kieran explained it, this was, “A big turning point where we needed to come up with some file preservation formats.” This included the adoption of FFV1, a mathematically lossless format in media preservation. It was while first working with this format that Kieran began to experiment with scripting. This eventually led to coding which could serve many needs for a digital archive using a concept similar to microservices. Rather than taking a centralized approach to asset management, you instead take a fragmental approach wherein many command line tools perform the same work as a larger system. This allows for a highly customizable asset management system, and, in Kieran’s case, did away with the IFI’s need to pay for a large, proprietary asset management system. The script development Kieran did, especially with the IFI’s Loopline Project, was lauded within the digital preservation community, including winning the Safeguarding Digital Legacy Award from the Digital Preservation Coalition in 2018 and the Joint Technical Symposium Award in 2019 from the Co-ordination Council of Audiovisual Archives Associations. Though Kieran has moved on from the IFI to the National Library of Ireland, the scripts he wrote are still in use and working to benefit the preservation of Irish film heritage for future generations. The materials are available on GitHub for public and archival consumption.

The mission of the National Library of Ireland (NLI) is to “collect, preserve, promote, and make accessible the documentary and intellectual record of the life of Ireland and to contribute to the provision of access to the larger universe of recorded knowledge.” As such, the library holds an extensive collection of traditional library materials including books, periodicals, newspapers, and manuscripts. In recent years the NLI has shifted its priorities to incorporate digital objects, which encompasses the digitization of physical materials and the preservation and curation of born digital materials. Kieran O’Leary, as the Digital Preservation Manager at the NLI, is in charge of this. His first-of-a kind role with the NLI is constantly changing with the evolving field of digital curation.

Our discussion moved to current projects at the NLI. At present, Kieran describes his current work with the NLI as being in a building phase:

I’m working with librarians and archivists to come up with practical workflows for every phase of born digital collecting. Currently, this involves figuring out how best to move from born digital photo collections to much more general collections. The one in particular that we are currently working on has a born digital video, a bunch of doc/docx/pdf chapter drafts of a novel, a bunch of supporting material, like interviews and spreadsheets containing the outcomes of Twitter Q+As, and of course more photos.

Much of his work is in workflow and format development to efficiency and effectively ingest materials into the NLI and continue preservation goals for processed collections. To reach these goals, communication between NLI departments is critical. Kieran explains these points through another project example:

At the same time, I’m preparing for a few other upcoming acquisitions. One involves oral histories, another involves photo and video. Both of these will involve some discussion around formats and methods of transfer. In a few weeks time, all this will change for me, and I’ll move onto later parts of the workflow which will get a lot more technical as I’ll be digging into metadata and building up requirements for our software development team, who might need to improve our ingest pipelines and repository in general in order to be able to handle files that aren’t photos.

We also discussed the trends in moving image archives and their future as the field becomes farther and farther removed from the physical medium. Kieran affirmed the ultimate need to preserve the original physical items, saying: “When you look at film from the emulsion side in a light box and you see film raised up off the base, and you see the three-dimensionality of it which can never be replicated…ultimately preserving the original is the most important thing of all.” Additionally, he commented on the movement he sees in open source development, “The trend I’ve seen is this normalization now of open source tools [rather than going through archival vendors], and I think there is this awareness of the need to familiarize yourself with the command line… A greater awareness that using command line tools, using open source tools—there’s just a sustainable business case for doing that.”

The 21st century has changed many things about library and archival responsibilities and services. Institutions like the NLI need people like Kieran to fulfill their missions in the digital age of information. While digital preservation alone is not an effective defense against the trials of time, a skilled digital curator can continue preserving information for the years to come.

I sincerely thank Kieran for his time. To keep up with Kieran’s latest projects follow him on Twitter or GitHub.

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