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What To Do When a Service Provider Closes


This seven point checklist presents some steps that creators and managers of community digital archives might take to make sure that their data is available in the long term. It is useful for many circumstances but it will be particularly relevant to community archives that depend on third party suppliers to provide technical infrastructure.

The economic downturn and poor trading conditions mean that some technology providers are unable to continue providing the services upon which community groups have depended. Because hardware, software and services are often very tightly integrated, the failure of a technology company can be very disruptive to its customers. This is especially true if systems are proprietary and customers are 'locked in' to particular services, tools or data types. The key message is that community archives need to retain sufficient control of content in order that services can be moved from one service provider to another. Change brought about through insolvency is disruptive and unwelcome: the more control that a group has over content, the less disruptive it will be.

Consideration of the following seven points might help reduce disruption in the event that a content management company withdraws its services.

1. Keep the Masters

Many community groups hold a mix of photographs, sound recordings, video and text in digital form. Some of these are digital copies that have been scanned - such as old photographs, letters: some are 'born digital' using digital cameras or digital sound recording equipment. In every case the underlying data will be captured in one of a series of file formats. A simple rule of thumb is that a high quality 'original' is retained which has not been processed or edited and that the community group has direct access to this high quality 'original' without relying on the content management company.

2. Know What's What

The rapid proliferation of digital content means that it can be hard to keep track of content - even in a relatively small organisation. Typically a content management company will use a database to catalogue content and then use the database to drive a Web site that makes it available to the public. So, to retain control over content community archives should keep a copy of the catalogue. The database can be complex and even when it is implemented in open source software, it can be proprietary.

The tools used to describe a collection depend on the nature of the collection. For example archives are often described in 'Encoded Archival Description' while an images might best be described using the 'VRA Core' standard. It's useful to know a little about the standards that apply in your area.

3. There Should be a Disaster Plan

Most content management companies will have some kind of disaster plan - a backup copy which can be made available in the event of some unforeseen break of service. Good practice means that the content management company should keep multiple copies of data in multiple locations. It is reasonable for a community group to see a copy of the disaster plan and for parts of the disaster plan to be written into the contract between the contractor and the community group. You should ask for evidence that the disaster plan has been tried out and agree how quickly your data would be restored should a disaster occur. It is also reasonable to request or keep a copy of your data for safekeeping, though you may need to plan how and in what format you receive this and you may want to update it periodically.

A common approach to backups is called the 'Grandfather - Father - Son' approach. A complete copy is taken every month and stored remotely (Grandfather). A complete copy is taken every week but kept locally (Father) and a daily backup is made of recent changes (Son). The frequency of backups should be dictated by the frequency of changes. Ask your service provider how they approach this.

3. Agree a Succession Plan

A good content management company will also have a succession plan and be willing to involve you in this. Although it is not a happy topic, a shared understanding of rights and expectations of what should happen when either partner is no longer able maintain a contractual relationship can go a long way to reassuring both parties. This is particularly important where a hosting company is employed to deliver content which is not theirs. It is not unreasonable to include a note within the contract clearly identifying that content provided to the hosting company remains the property of the party supplying it and that should there be any break in the contract that the contractor will be obliged to return it. In reality this does not guarantee that you will get content back if a company goes into liquidation but it does secure your right to ask the administrator for it, and if that is not successful then you are then clear about your rights to use the masters and backups which have been lodged with you.

5. Know Your Rights

Rights management can be daunting but it is important to be clear when engaging a third party contractor of the limits of what they are entitled to do with content that a community archive might produce. A good content management contract is likely to give the content management company a licence to distribute content on your behalf for a given period - and it should also specify that technical parts of the service such as software are the property of the content management company. In reality this can be complicated because the community archive may itself be depending on agreements from the actual copyright holders and elements of design and coding will be shared. But so long as you are clear that the content provider will not become the owner of the content once it's on their site, and that you can terminate their licence after appropriate notice, then it will be easier for you to pass the masters to a new company.

6. Find a Digital Preservation Service

A small number of services exist to look after data for you: either funded as part of existing infrastructure or as a service you can buy. Many local government archives and libraries are developing digital preservation facilities for their own use and might welcome an approach from a community group. Other types of partnership might also make sense: many universities now maintain digital archives for research so it might be useful to talk to a university archivist. Facilities also operate thematically - for example there is a national facility allowing archaeologists to share short reports of excavations. Image and sound libraries may also be able to provide an archival home to data or provide advice, while other services provide digital preservation on a commercial basis. In the same way publishers have started sharing some of their content to reduce their risks and risks to their clients. Having a preservation partner can be very useful for you in the short term and in the long term and will make you a lot more confident that your data will be safe even if the content management company is not around to service it.

7. Put a Copy of your Web Site in a Web Archive

There are a number of services that can make copies of online content before a supplier goes into liquidation. A free service from the British Library called the UK Web Archive exists to 'harvest' Web sites in the UK. It can create a simple static copy of your Web site and present this back to you under certain limitations. The UK Web Archive is free but it is based on a recommendation: you need to ask them to take a copy and need to give them permission to do so. But once you've given them permission they can harvest the site periodically and so build up a picture of your Web site through time. The UK Web Archive is ideal for relatively static Web sites - but is less good with sites that require passwords, which change quickly or which contain lots of dynamic content. Similar services exist such as the US-based Internet Archive have paid for services that allow users to control the harvesting of content and allow more complicated data types to be managed. Considering the ease of use and how quickly it can gather content, every community archive should consider registering with a service like this as a way to offset the risks of a supplier going into liquidation.

See the briefing paper on Web Archiving for further information [1].

The UK Web Archive is one of a number of services that can make a copy of your Website. So, in the worst case, users can be directed to a version of your site fixed at one point in time [2].


This briefing paper was written by William Kilbride of the Digital Preservation Coalition [3].


  1. Web Archiving, Cultural Heritage briefing paper no. 53, UKOLN, <>
  2. 2. UK Web Archive, <>
  3. 3. Digital Preservation Coalition, <http://>
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