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Archive for October, 2008

Lots of interesting work going on at North Carolina State Archives – plenty to read on their electronic records page. One project I’d particularly like to highlight is their work on the preservation of e-mail.

E-mail seems to be one of those types of electronic record about which there’s been lots and lots of discussion about how difficult it is to preserve, but not so much (at least that I knew of) in the way of practical advice of how you might go about attempting to keep it.

As well as the very practical guidelines for users, and suggested retention periods for e-mail, staff in the North Carolina State Archives Government Records Branch have been working on a collaborative project to transform e-mail from its native format into XML for preservation. The catalyst for this project was the deposit of e-mail messages from a former North Carolina governor and his staff. The website for the e-mail project has a full set of documentation, and links to other e-mail preservation initiatives. More recently, North Carolina has been working with the Collaborative Electronic Records Project (CERP) at the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the Rockefeller Archive Center, and an XML schema for a single e-mail account has now been published.

I have also visited the Smithsonian Institution Archives, who have also developed some automated tools to help with the processing of e-mail archives, which they hope to make available on their website in due course. The CERP Project will be of particular interest to UK local archives, since this work has been achieved with an emphasis on low-cost solutions suitable for small and medium-sized organisations.

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An ongoing sub-theme of my Fellowship has been to look at where success in digital preservation has come by means of collaborative partnerships, and to investigate how communities of shared practice can be built up and best practice ideas exchanged.

The Best Practice Exchanges take place annually, and provide a forum for those working on digital information management initiatives in US State government to meet and discuss issues, challenges and potential solutions.  All of the State Archives I’ve visited on my Fellowship have participated at one time or another.  The Exchanges are hosted and organised by volunteer States on a cost recovery basis.  The sessions are run more informally than a traditional conference, with a facilitator to encourage discussion in small groups.

Lots of ideas here for future training workshops in the UK?

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Visiting Arizona was a useful way of pulling together many of the strands of what I’ve learnt so far. I was particularly interested in the Persistent Digital Archives and Library System (PeDALS) project, which aims to create an automated workflow for processing digital collections, but also to keep costs as low as possible in an effort to reduce the barriers to addressing the challenges of digital preservation.

The automation aim is of course shared with another of the State Government NDIIPP projects at Washington State Digital Archives, and there are indeed some conceptual similarities in the workflow. However, PeDALS also makes use of a LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe) private network to provide inexpensive storage with plenty of redundancy and automatic error detection and correction. Having visited the LOCKSS team earlier in my Fellowship, I was curious to see how this system (originally designed to enable libraries to collect and preserve locally materials published on the internet) could be implemented in an archival context.

The envisaged workflow for PeDALS works best when there are clear series of records – in other words, it should work pretty well for government record series, but less well for miscellaneous private and personal accessions.  This is because the system is based upon the application to systematic ‘business rules’ to process large sets of similar records in the most efficient way possible.  This programming work could only be justified where there are sufficient records of a similar type, being created as the result of a routine process.  As has become something of a theme in most of the operational digital archives I have visited, the PeDALS team originally intended to focus on born-digital records but has found that many routine processes are still embedded in a paper system, and hence is currently working primarily with digital records.

The current phase of the collaborative, inter-State NDIIPP PeDALS project is looking at writing these business rules and setting up the PeDALS workflow and storage systems.  Without going into all of this in a tremendous amount of detail (I’d suggest a look at the PeDALS website for further details), the basic idea is to write the rules once and then allow individual participants in the network to tweak them to suit their local circumstances.

Whilst very much in the early stages of building the system, the project is definitely work colleagues in the UK local archives network keeping an eye on – not least because of the emphasis on keeping costs down.  As well as the main project website, there is an update log at https://pedals.updatelog.com/login (you need to register for a username and password).

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