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Why write alone when you can write together?

Photograph of Bristol, river in foreground and houses in background

DPC Preservation Policy Booksprint, 29 November 2019

Natalie Harrower, Director of DRI

Collective writing is more than just writing together: it's a way of building community, testing ideas, honing processes, and articulating things just that much better. I highly recommend it, given my recent experience at a 'booksprint'.

I spent the better part of last week in Bristol, as part of a team assembled by the Digital Preservation Coalition and the University of Bristol to complete a booksprint on digital preservation policy. The DPC had asked a few digital preservation people from different sectors and locations to join in the effort and, sensing how valuable it would be to really dig into the essentials of digital preservation policy, I happily agreed to join. 

The purpose of the event was twofold: to rough out the guts of a new toolkit for writing a digital preservation policy, and to test that kit in real-time by writing an actual digital preservation policy for a unit at the University of Bristol’s libraries. From start to finish, we had three days to figure out what that kit would look like, determine what the content would be, and then actually write that content, collectively. The process was amazing—intense writing sessions punctuated by ‘where are we at now’ discussions, and additionally punctuated by reviewing and commenting on sections written by others in the group. Jenny and Paul of the DPC ran a tight ship.

This is the second booksprint I’ve joined, and I find the process really remarkable. The first booksprint I took part in was at the invitation of DARIAH in Poland, where we met for a couple of days to produce some guidance on how humanities scholars and cultural heritage institutions could better work together—how data could be managed and shared to enable scholarly exchange. I was really proud at the time to ensure that the creation of FAIR data got its rightful place in that book, because FAIR was being discussed widely in the higher education and research sectors, but not so much in the GLAM sector; it seemed inevitable to me that good practices in data preparation and sharing in the research sector would also benefit memory institutions, whose wealth of content feeds heavily into the research process. A short post on that sprint by Eliza Papaki is available on the DARIAH website, and you can freely download the book at the following DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.3472984. It’s had almost 1,000 downloads to date and the print run was about that high as well.

'With the policies reviewed and pulled apart for common threads, we organised a plan of attack, divided it up, and started writing.' 

For this sprint in Bristol, we first reviewed a number of policies we liked, and quite fortunately, found that the author of one of the most-admired policies, Edith Halversson from Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, was also in the room. Added to her was Adrian Brown, who literally wrote the book on digital preservation, long time expert Neil Grindley from JISC, four of the famed DPC folks—William, Sarah, Paul, Jenny—and some very focused and committed staff from Bristol (who were also excellent hosts)—Debra, Emma, Hannah, Julian and Stephen. With the policies reviewed and pulled apart for common threads, we organised a plan of attack, divided it up, and started writing. There was a moment when we started with a blank Google page filled with a dozen or so headings, and barely over an hour later, pages and pages were filled and ready for revising!

The sheer accomplishment in a short period really points out the positive value of collaborative writing, and despite what seems like a huge commitment in the diary (3 days in a row), I think it’s more efficient that the back and forth that would take place if this were done in the interstices of the everyday chock-a-block diary. The focus of the days was so clear, and with many around you hunkered over laptops, the sense of a collective mission was palpable. 

'How can ideas and perspectives and styles, under a deadline, actually congeal into something coherent and logical?'

To some, the process of writing collectively like this may seem odd - how can ideas and perspectives and styles, under a deadline, actually congeal into something coherent and logical? 

I can tell an old story about this… When I first started at the DRI, I was tasked with contributing to a 100-page proposal for a major European grant. I was told to write the section on digital preservation—a term I was only beginning to understand at the time. I briefly balked—how could I start writing about something I wasn’t an absolute expert on? I was not too far away from having finished my humanities PhD, and just on the heels of a postdoc; the idea of writing without a long history of expertise was daunting. But that turned out to be the easy part! When I asked how I could write about something outside of my expertise, the answer was: don’t worry, you’ll write a bit, pass it on, someone else will take it up and add to it, etc. This was meant to be a salve to my academic soul, but  I was horrified! You are going to do what with my writing?! How is this possible? As a humanities scholar, I had written a few papers with a trusted colleague who was also my best friend, but we were really on the same wavelength. And it was still tough. I had collaborated plenty with others—especially as a theatre director. But collaborate on writing? Nope. The goal of all humanities scholars, as it had been passed on to me by the institution of academia, was to write a single monograph by yourself with only your name on the spine: any other names just diluted your claim to intellectual achievement! But that first truly collaborative writing venture, on that big EC proposal, was eye-opening, and I learned not just how other disciplines work, but importantly, I also learned that this kind of collaboration was the only way forward for interdisciplinary work, where expertise must be built collectively. I think humanities approaches have changed a lot since that time, and it wasn't terribly long ago, in the scheme of things. And now with the rapid rise and value of open scholarship, open research and open science, the ability to collaborate and open the research process is only growing. 

'I really look forward to testing out the toolkit in the future'

So needless to say, I had an excellent time at the DPC booksprint, and I really look forward to testing out the toolkit in the future. I learned a lot, and could say much more about it, but the tireless and articulate Jenny Mitcham from the DPC has written an excellent and more focused blogpost, so I’ll send you over there: https://www.dpconline.org/blog/ready-steady-sprint-or-how-to-write-a-policy-toolkit-in-3-days  

[We also got invited to a play for young people about digital preservation, so here we are looking into one of the props: a time capsule. The age-old preservation method!]

In the photos, L-R: William Kilbride, Sarah Middleton, Natalie Harrower at the Knowle West Media Centre, Bristol for the performance 'To Those Born Later' by Univited Guests

See other blogposts by DRI