This was my most challenging (in a thought-provoking way) visit so far. The Washington State (upper left hand corner of the US, for those whose geography is as hazy as mine was!!) Digital Archives doesn’t seem to be terribly well known in the UK, and I’d certainly recommend colleagues have a look at their website, particularly some of the background documents in the About Us section. The Center for Technology in Government’s case study on the public value of returns to government resulting from the Digital Archives investment (available at http://www.ctg.albany.edu/publications/reports/proi_case_washington?chapter=1) is also well worth reading.
Why was the visit challenging? Well, essentially because this digital repository has been largely conceived and operated as an IT development project, and more recently as a business service and disaster recovery facility for creating agencies and departments within state and local government in Washington (and in this sense has certain parallels with TNA’s Digital Continuity Project). Microsoft, being in Washington’s backyard in Seattle, also have a not inconsiderable influence, and the Digital Archives staff have a strong working relationship and level of support from Microsoft.
Quite a contrast, then, from the Australian operational repositories, whose workflows are firmly rooted in archival and recordkeeping paradigms, often with a strong commitment to the use of open source software and XML open standards.
Initially, I found this approach very difficult to grasp, and indeed the staff at the State Archives freely admit that future developments of the Digital Archives will require a greater degree of partnership between archival staff and technologists. As I learnt more about the detail of the Digital Archives operation, however, I began to see both parallels with other digital archive operations (for instance, in maintaining authenticity and safe transfer of custody of files by means of sealed hard drives and secure FTP transfer) and ways in which the greater level of IT input into this Digital Archives has enabled extremely high levels of automation and efficiency in processing and searching.
The current run rate for ingest of single page TIFF images is over a million a day; use of the website (boosted by the decision to concentrate initially on the ingest of digitised birth, marriage and death records) runs at a level of around fifty to sixty thousand uses a day.
I still struggle, from a conceptual archival point of view, from the way in which different record series are merged together for access, and would hope to see a greater degree of contextual information in series descriptions into the future, although I can understand the processing efficiencies gained through only having to manage the one large database. The approach really makes you think about which of your archival assumptions are vital theoretical foundations for facilitating secondary use of archival resources, and which are merely legacies of a paper world.
Washington will also be of interest to those colleagues who would like to see regional partnerships of digital archives develop in the UK. Washington is leading one of the current round of NDIIPP projects to develop a centralized multi-state digital preservation consortium so that other States in the US can benefit from the expertise and workflows developed in Washington. Further details are available from the project website.
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Probably the best posting I can make on the Internet Archive, based in San Francisco, is to encourage colleagues to have a look at their Archive-It subscription service, and perhaps attend a free webinar about the tool (details on the site) or at least have a look through some of the collections from partner institutions in US State Archives.
Although not yet listed on the site, some UK colleagues are already experimenting with the tool. The Internet Archive offers full hosting and storage, or can also ship the results of the web crawl back to the partner institution – as they will be doing for the major full Australian domain web crawl for the National Library of Australia, which had just completed at the time of my visit. The IA is also working LOCKSS for storage of harvested websites, and hoping to work with the digital repository software platforms DSpace and Fedora. Tools to enable more sophisticated pre-crawl scoping and to bookmark potential sites of interest before harvesting are also due for release soon.
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I hope many archivists working in local authority services in the UK have completed the survey on digital preservation which is currently running. The results of the survey will be fed into an open consultation event to be held at The National Archives on 12 November 2008. Those of us who have been working on the survey and event planning are hoping that this will provide a first step towards a new alliance of interested organisations in the UK to co-ordinate action on digital preservation.
Throughout my Fellowship, I will be encountering examples of successful partnerships which have attempted to address the challenges of digital preservation. In Australia, I was particularly interested in two partnerships – the Australasian Digital Recordkeeping Initiative (ADRI) and the Australian Partnership for Sustainable Repositories (APSR).
ADRI is the partnership most immediately applicable to the local authority sector in the UK, as it is an initiative formed solely of public record keeping authorities across Australia and New Zealand. Both initiatives, however, identified similar strengths and aims:
- enabling information sharing on best practice
- offering encouragement, support and reassurance to practitioners (archivists, librarians) and external stakeholders (eg record creators, users, government) alike
- identifying areas of joint interest
- providing a framework for recognition of partners’ work on new models and paradigms for digital preservation (eg testbed software solutions, model business cases, proposed standards for digital preservation)
Both projects also rely heavily on practical contributions from their member organisations, yet emphasise that these are generally projects which the members would be commited to doing anyway. The benefit to the community comes from pooling these resources towards a common Australasian approach to digital preservation and access within their respective communities (public records bodies in the case of ADRI; University Libraries in the case of APSR).
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One noteworthy factor about several of the digital preservation initiatives I’m visiting during my Churchill Fellowship is how each approach is underpinned by a certain philosophical world view.
For NLA, a key challenge for the digital preservation community is sustainability:
- The community needs to know as much about routes which haven’t worked as those which have.
- How do the parts of the preservation puzzle fit together? Which parts of the puzzle have still to be solved? How do we co-ordinate the game?
- Could we make better use of informal knowledge from enthusiasts? We should recognise that we can’t be experts in everything (and that we can’t preserve everything – a principle most archivists should be happy enough with).
- Perhaps we are better at digital preservation than we think we are, but merely lack confidence in presenting this to management.
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In my previous post, I’ve recommended working with depositors to explain the issues of digital preservation and to suggest simple steps for creating and curating digital records with a view to their long-term preservability.
I guess it would be correct to say though that many local archives staff do not feel confident in giving such advice. Although many UK local archives have been involved in digitisation programmes, much of this work has been outsourced and the funding has rarely extended to longer-term preservation of the digital assets created. In all likelihood, the most pressing digital preservation issue facing most UK local archive services is in fact an ever-growing output of CDs and DVDs from their own digitisation initiatives.
The NLA’s Digitisation of Heritage Materials training course is designed to help organisations with very limited resources design and run an in-house digitisation programme, using free or inexpensive software and hardware. It will be of interest to many UK local authority archive services for just these reasons. However, because it also covers sustainability issues – image file formats suitable for long-term preservation, data storage and backup, legal issues etc. – the course might equally well serve as an introduction to the digital preservation of images. It even includes some free software.
Well worth a look.
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