Archive for the ‘Research Projects’ Category

Some exciting news today –  the West Yorkshire Archive Service [WYAS] submission to the InterPares 3 Research Project for a case study of the MLA Yorkshire archives has been accepted.  MLA Yorkshire, the lead strategic agency for museums, libraries and archives in the region, closes this week (so that live website might not be available for too much longer! – In fact, I’ve been experimenting with the Internet Archives’ Archive-It package as part of the MLA Yorkshire archives work) as part of a national restructuring of the wider organisation, and I’ve spent much of the past few days arranging the transfer of both paper and digital archives from the local office in Leeds. 

InterPares 3 focuses on implementing the theory of digital preservation in small and medium-sized archives, and should provide an excellent chance for WYAS to build up in-house digital preservation expertise as we feel our way with this, our first large-scale digital deposit.  I’m really excited about this opportunity, and I hope to document how we get on with the project on this blog.

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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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A couple of articles in the most recent edition of the International Journal of Digital Curation caught my eye this week as I prepare for my forthcoming Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship to Australia and the US.

Martha Anderson reviews the evolution of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program initiated by the Library of Congress, and draws some conclusions about lessons learned, many of which will be familiar to those of us working within existing partnership organisations, such as West Yorkshire Joint Services. The layered stewardship model introduced in the paper is nevertheless a useful concept to bear in mind as the UK archive sector begins to build our own national network of diverse stakeholders to tackle the digital preservation challenge. The full paper is available at http://www.ijdc.net/ijdc/article/view/59/60.

David Pearson and Colin Webb discuss issues of file format obsolescence and introduce the AONS II Project, something I hope to find out more about when I visit the National Library of Australia in September. The project aimed to develop a software tool that would find and report indicators of obsolescence risks. It will be interesting to see how this works fits with European Planets Project and their PLATO preservation planning tool. The IJDC paper can be found at http://www.ijdc.net/ijdc/article/view/76/78.

I see more papers have appeared on the PeDALS project website in Arizona too – plenty of reading to get through…

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This article was written for the Society of Archivists ARC magazine, October 2008

It was pleasing to see a good number of archivists at this event, organised by the Digital Preservation Coalition (http://www.dpconline.org/) in conjunction with the European digital preservation research consortium, Planets (http://www.planets-project.eu/). The day was billed as an informal and interactive workshop, allowing attendees to share knowledge and experience of digital preservation policy and strategy, together with a hands-on session using PLATO, Planets’ automated preservation planning tool.

There was considerable interest in the morning session in Natalie Walters’ account of the Wellcome Library’s Digital Curation in Action Project (http://library.wellcome.ac.uk/node288.html). The Wellcome is typical of many collecting archive services in the UK in that it has little control over the types of material offered for preservation by its private depositors, but the Digital Curation Project is an excellent example of how traditional archival practice can be successfully adapted to the digital world in a practical setting. As Matthew Wollard from the UK Data Archive pointed out, one cannot hope to construct a sustainable digital preservation policy from a purely theoretical point of view: both UKDA and the Wellcome approach digital preservation planning as a strategic imperative for the organisation and its user community, coupling this with a solid understanding of relevant standards and the technological and legal constraints, something which can only really be gained from practical experience of actually working with digital archives. The continued relevance of archival practice in the digital realm should offer encouragement to those just setting out to address the digital archives challenge. Our professional training provides a sustainable platform from which to build capacity and understanding in handling digital material.

PLATO is an online tool designed to help organisations identify, evaluate and select the best preservation methods for individual types of digital object. It is designed to enable comparison of the various strategies (migration, emulation etc.) available, and experimentation in the use of third-party preservation tools. The experiments can then be uploaded into PLATO and stored for re-evaluation at a later point. The process starts with a detailed mapping of relevant object characteristics (content, structure, context, appearance etc.) for a representative collection sample within a specific institutional and user community setting. Only after this very detailed planning does the tool proper come into play in assessing alternative strategies for preservation.

There are concerns, certainly, about the scalability of the PLATO tool. For my own local authority archive service, for instance, the bulk and variety of digital archives we can expect to receive would make the detailed utility analysis overly onerous to use on every occasion, even selecting a small sample of records for planning purposes. The intention is to build template solutions using the tool, for organisations facing similar type problems to adopt, and one of the options being considered for the sustainability of PLATO itself is to develop the project into a third party preservation service, into which external partners could submit their own custom-built tools as a community resource.

It occurred to me, however, that perhaps the greatest value from the PLATO tool to smaller archive services derives not so much from the output results as from the discussion and debate which informs the experiment definition. Throughout the day, contributors to the workshop emphasised that successful preservation planning required input from a wide range of stakeholders – creators, curators, IT staff, users, managers etc. This reminded me of the Revisiting Archives approach to cataloguing. At West Yorkshire Archive Service, I hope to adapt the PLATO approach to preservation planning into awareness raising and training sessions emphasising the need for a rounded community effort to help preserve our local digital heritage.

All the presentations from the workshop are now available at http://www.dpconline.org/graphics/events/080729PlanetsBriefing.html. You can find out more about PLATO and register at http://www.ifs.tuwien.ac.at/dp/plato.

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Having read through the original LIFE project documentation, I was looking forward to the project conference for the follow-on research, LIFE2. It is all too common, unfortunately, to hear doom-laden rumours being peddled about the supposed high costs of digital preservation, often in contexts where this truism becomes a convenient excuse to avoid addressing the real challenges of digital curation and preservation. Chris Rusbridge argued in an ARIADNE article that digital preservation being expensive is simply a fallacy. For the local government archives context at least, it seems to me that there is simply insufficient evidence to either support or discredit the assertion. Would LIFE2 offer us an objective tool to assess the likely costs of developing and running a digital preservation service for local government?

LIFE2 promised a revised lifecycle costing model, including mappings to relevant digital preservation standards such as OAIS, clearer element descriptions, and a new set of case studies, including an examination of non-born digital newspaper material. This case study was designed to allow for the comparison of analogue and digital lifecycles and to begin a cost comparison.

Whilst the revised LIFE2 model is more closely aligned in terminology to OAIS, and the elements now appear in a more logical order, I admit I was disappointed that the model does not seem as transferable to the local government archives context as I had hoped. As Neil Beagrie pointed out in his presentation of the costs of curating research data, the decision to exclude infrastructure costs such as the start-up costs of building a digital repository or of maintaining a technology watch service means that the tool could not be used in business cases making the comparison case for or against curating digital material in-house or for outsourcing – the major decision facing me at West Yorkshire Archive Service – although some attempt to address this shortcoming is being made with the development of a Generic Preservation Model (GPM), which will be released at the end of the LIFE2 Project.

The newspaper case study also ran into difficulties around differing patterns of access and the problems of retrospective costing. Although the case study continued using a per entity costing model to assess the relative costs of preserving a digitised newspaper collection with a year’s analogue curation costs of legal deposit newspapers, the results, although interesting, are not truely comparable.

I had hoped I might be able to use the tool to compare the not inconsiderable costs of building and fitting out an archives building for traditional materials conforming to BS5454, with the costs of developing automated tools and digital storage and management capacity for born-digital and hybrid collections. There was discussion at the end of the day about how the LIFE project might progress in a next phase, which – promisingly – included the development of a predictive tool for costing, further case studies and scenario building, and a proposal that comparison studies are made between the costs of a shared preservation service versus an in-house digital repository.

There was also extensive discussion during the panel session about the need to demonstrate the value of digital preservation, particularly to funding bodies. The LIFE tool offers a method for digital repositories to assess costs; different kinds of value assessments are required to convince funders. The point was also made that the more significant properties of digital objects a repository attempts to preserve, the greater the cost – making me ponder on the potential for integrating the lifecycle costing models into preservation planning tools, such as PLATO.

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A useful sneak preview of the PLATO preservation planning tool, something I’d heard about but not really understood how it might fit in to a practical digital preservation context.

PLATO is designed to help organisations identify, evaluate and select the best preservation methods for individual types of digital object. It is designed to enable experimentation on sample objects of the various strategies (migration, emulation etc.) and tools available (eg DROID). The experiments can then be uploaded into PLATO and stored for re-evaluation at a later point.

I’m not really sure how practical a tool this will prove to be (in its current state of development) in the local authority archive service. The bulk of digital records we can expect to receive might make the detailed utility analysis approach overly onerous to use, even selecting a small sample of records for planning purposes. Nevertheless, one to keep an eye on. There is a DPC Digital Preservation Planning event in London later in July which will give an opportunity to discuss and experiment with the tool in more detail.

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