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Posts Tagged ‘digital preservation’

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here purely on digital preservation issues: my work has moved in other directions, although I did attend a number of the digital preservation sessions at the Society of American Archivists’ conference this summer.  I retain a keen interest in digital preservation, however, particularly in developments which might be useful for smaller archives.  Recently, I’ve been engaged in a little work for a project called DiSARM (Digital Scenarios for Archives and Records Management), preparing some teaching materials for the Masters students at UCL to work from next term, and in revising the contents of a guest lecture I present to the University of Liverpool MARM students on ‘Digital Preservation for the Small Repository’.  Consequently, I’ve been trying to catch up on the last couple of years (since I left West Yorkshire Archive Service at the end of 2009) of new digital preservation projects and research.

So what’s new?  Well, from a small archives perspective, I think the key development has been the emergence of several digital curation workflow management systems – Archivematica, Curator’s Workbench, the National Archive of Australia’s Digital Preservation Software Platform (others…?) – which package together a number of different tools to guide the archivist through a sequenced set of stages for the processing of digital content.  The currently available systems vary in their approaches to preservation, comprehensiveness, and levels of maturity, but represent a major step forward from the situation just a couple of years ago.  In 2008, if (like me when WYAS took in the MLA Yorkshire archive as a testbed), you didn’t have much (or any) money available, your only option was – as one of the former Liverpool students memorably pointed out to me – to cobble together a set of tools as best you could from old socks and a bit of string.  Now we have several offerings approaching an integrated software solution; moreover, these packages are generally open source and freely available, so would-be adopters are able to download each one and play about with it before deciding which one might suit them best.

Having said that, I still think it is important that students (and practitioners, of course) understand the preservation strategies and assumptions underlying each software suite.  When we learn how to catalogue archives, we are not trained merely to use a particular software tool.  Rather, we are taught the principles of archival description, and then we move on to see how these concepts are implemented in practice in EAD or by using specific database applications, such as (in the U.K.) CALM or Adlib.  For DiSARM, students will design a workflow and attempt to process a small sample set of digital documents using their choice of one or more of the currently available preservation tools, which they will be expected to download and install themselves.  This Do-It-Yourself approach will mirror the practical reality in many small archives, where the (frequently lone) archivist often has little access to professional IT support. Similarly, students at UCL are not permitted to install software onto the university network.  Rather than see this as a barrier, again I prefer to treat this situation a reflection of organisational reality.  There are a number of very good reasons why you would not want to process digital archives directly onto your organisation’s internal network, and recycling re-purposing old computer equipment of varying technical specifications and capabilities to serve as workstations for ingest is a fact of life even, it seems, for Mellon-funded projects!

In preparation for writing this DiSARM task, I began to put together for my own reference a spreadsheet listing all the applications I could think of, or have heard referenced recently, which might be useful for preservation processing tasks in small archives.  I set out to record:

  • the version number of the latest (stable) release
  • the licence arrangements for each tool
  • the URL from which the software can be downloaded
  • basic system requirements (essentially the platform(s) on which the software can be run – we have surveyed the class and know there is a broad range of operating systems in use, including several flavours of both Linux and Windows, and Mac OS X)
  • location of further documentation for each application
  • end-user support availability (forums or mailing lists etc)
This all proved surprisingly difficult.  I was half expecting that user-friendly documentation and (especially) support might often be lacking in the smaller projects, but several websites also lack clear statements about system requirements or the legal conditions under which the software may be installed and used.  Does ‘educational use and research’ cover a local authority archives providing research services to the general public (including academics)?  Probably not, but it would presumably allow for use in a university archives.  Thanks to the wonders of interpreted programming languages (mostly Java, but Python also puts in an occasional appearance), many tools are effectively cross-platform, but it is astonishing how many projects fail clearly to say so.  This is self-evident to a developer, of course, but not at all obvious to an archivist, who will probably be worried about bringing coffee into the repository, let alone a reptile.  Oh, and if you expect your software to be compiled from code, or require sundry other faffing around at a command line before use, I’m sorry, but your application is not “easy to implement” for ordinary mortals, as more than one site claimed.  Is it really so hard to generate binary executables for common operating systems (or if you have a good excuse – such as Archivematica which is still in alpha development – at least provide detailed step-by-step instructions)?  Many projects of course make use of SourceForge to host code, but use another website for documentation and updates – it can be quite confusing finding your way around.  The veritable ClamAV seems to have undergone some kind of Windows conversion, and although I’m sure that Unix packages must be there somewhere, I’m damned if I could find them easily…

All of which plays into a wider debate about just how far the modern archivist’s digital skills ought to reach (there are many other versions of this debate, the one linked – from 2006 so now quite old – just happens to be one of the most comprehensive attempts to define a required digital skill set for information practitioners).  No doubt there will be readers of this post who believe that archivists shouldn’t be dabbling in this sort of stuff at all, especially if s/he also works for an organisation which lacks the resources to establish a reliable infrastructure for a trusted digital repository.  And certainly I’ve been wondering lately whether some kind of archivists’ equivalent of The Programming Historian would be welcome or useful, teaching basic coding tailored to common tasks that an archivist might need to carry out.  But essentially, I don’t subscribe to the view that all archivists need to re-train as computer scientists or IT professionals.  Of course, these skills are still needed (obviously!) within the digital preservation community, but to drive a car I don’t need to be a mechanic or have a deep understanding of transport infrastructure.  Digital preservation needs to open up spaces around the periphery of the community where newcomers can experiment and learn, otherwise it will become an increasingly closed and ultimately moribund endeavour.
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8am on Saturday morning, and those hardy souls who have not yet fled to beat Hurricane Irene home or who are stranded in Chicago, plus other assorted insomniacs, were presented with a veritable smörgåsbord of digital preservation goodness.  The programme has many of the digital sessions scheduled at the same time, and today I decided not to session-hop but stick it out in one session in each of the morning’s two hour-long slots.

My first choice was session 502, Born-Digital archives in Collecting Repositories: Turning Challenges into Byte-Size Opportunities, primarily an end-of-project report on the AIMS Project.  It’s been great to see many such practical digital preservation sessions at this conference, although I do slightly wonder what it will take before working with born-digital truly becomes part of the professional mainstream.  Despite the efforts of all the speakers at sessions like this (and in the UK, colleagues at the Digital Preservation Roadshows with which I was involved, and more recent similar events), there still appears to be a significant mental barrier which stops many archivists from giving it a go.  As the session chair began her opening remarks this morning, a woman behind me remarked “I’m lost already”.

There may be some clues in the content of this morning’s presentations: in amongst my other work (as would be the case for most archivists, I guess) I try to keep reasonably up-to-date with recent developments in practical digital preservation.  For instance, I was already well aware of the AIMS Project, although I’d not had a previous opportunity to hear about their work in any detail, but here were yet more new suggested tools for digital preservation: I happen to know of FTK Imager, having used it with the MLA Yorkshire archive accession, although what wasn’t stated was that the full FTK forensics package is damn expensive and the free FTK Imager Lite (scroll down the page for links) is an adequate and more realistic proposition for many cash-strapped archives.  BagIt is familiar too, but Bagger, a graphical user interface to the BagIt Library is new since I last looked (I’ll add links later – the Library of Congress site is down for maintenance”).  Sleuthkit was mentioned at the research forum earlier this week, but fiwalk (“a program that processes a disk image using the SleuthKit library and outputs its results in Digital Forensics XML”) was another new one on me, and there was even talk in this session of hardware write-blockers.  All this variety is hugely confusing for anybody who has to fit digital preservation around another day job, not to mention potentially expensive when it comes to buying hardware and software, and the skills necessary to install and maintain such a jigsaw puzzle system.  As the project team outlined their wish list for yet another application, Hypathia, I couldn’t help wondering whether we can’t promote a little more convergence between all these different tools both digital preservation specific and more general.  For instance, the requirement for a graphical drag ‘n’ drop interface to help archivists create the intellectual arrangement of a digital collection and add metadata reminded me very much of recent work at Simmons College on a graphical tool to help teach archival arrangement and description (whose name I forget, but will add it when it comes back to me!*).  I was interested particularly in the ‘access’ part of this session, particularly the idea that FTK’s bookmark and label functions could be transformed into user generated content tools, to enable researchers to annotate and tag records, and in the use of network graphs as a visual finding aid for email collections.

The rabbit-caught-in-headlights issue seems less of an issue for archivists jumping on the Web2.0 bandwagon, which was the theme of session 605, Acquiring Organizational Records in a Social Media World: Documentation Strategies in the Facebook Era, where we heard about the use of social media, primarily facebook, to contact and document student activities and student societies in a number of university settings, and from a university archivist just beginning to dip her toe into Twitter.  As a strategy of working directly with student organisations and providing training to ‘student archivists’ was outlined, as a method of enabling the capturing of social media content (both simultaneously with upload and by web-crawling sites afterwards), I was reminded of my own presentation at this conference: surely here is another example of real-life community development? The archivist is deliberately ‘going out to where the community is’ and adapting to the community norms and schedules of the students themselves, rather than expecting the students themselves to comply with archival rules and expectations.

This afternoon I went to learn about SNAC: the social networks and archival context project (session 710), something I’ve been hearing other people mention for a long time now but knew little about.  SNAC is extracting names (corporate, personal, family) from Encoded Archival Description (EAD) finding aids as EAC-CPF and then matching these together and with pre-existing authority records to create a single archival authorities prototype.  The hope is to then extend this authorities cooperative both nationally and potentially internationally.

My sincere thanks to the Society of American Archivists for their hospitality during the conference, and once again to those who generously funded my trip – the Archives and Records Association, University College London Graduate Conference Fund, UCL Faculty of Arts and UCL Department of Information Studies.

* UPDATE: the name of the Simmons’ archival arrangement platform is Archivopteryx (not to be confused with the Internet mail server Archiveopteryx which has an additional ‘e’ in the name)

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Friday had a bit of a digital theme for me, beginning with a packed, standing-room-only session 302, Practical Approaches to Born-Digital Records: What Works Today. After a witty introduction by Chris Prom about his Fulbright research in Dundee, a series of speakers introduced their digital preservation work, with a real emphasis on ‘you too can do this’.  I learnt about a few new tools: firefly, a tool which is used to scan for American social security numbers and other sensitive information – not much use in a British context, I imagine, but an interesting approach all the same; TreeSize Professional, a graphical hard disk analyser; and several projects were making use of the Duke Data Accessioner, a tool with which I was already familiar but have never used.  During the morning session, I also popped in and out of ‘team-Brit’ session 304 Archives in the Web of Data which discussed developments in the UK and US in opening up and linking together archival descriptive data, and session 301 Archives on the Go: Using Mobile Technologies for Your Collections, where I caught a presentation on the use of FourSquare at Stanford University.

In the afternoon, I mostly concentrated on session 401, Re-arranging Arrangement and Description, with a brief foray into session 407, Faces of Diversity: Diasporic Archives and Archivists in the New Millennium.  Unless I missed this whilst I was out at the other session, nobody in session 410 mentioned the series system as a possible alternative or resolution to some of the tensions identified in a strict application of hierarchically-interpreted original order, which surprised me.  There were some hints towards a need for a more object-oriented view of description in a digital environment, and of methods of addressing the complexity of having multiple representations (physical, digital etc.), but I have been reading my UCL colleague Jenny Bunn’s recently completed PhD thesis, Multiple Narratives, Multiple Views: Observing Archival Description on flights for this trip, which would have added another layer to the discussion in this session.

And continuing the digital theme, I was handed a flyer for an event coming later this year (on 6th October): Day of Digital Archives which might interest some UK colleagues.  This is

…an initiative to raise awareness of digital archives among both users and managers. On this day, archivists, digital humanists, programmers, or anyone else creating, using, or managing digital archives are asked to devote some of their social media output (i.e. tweets, blog posts, youtube videos etc.) to describing their work with digital archives.  By collectively documenting what we do, we will be answering questions like: What are digital archives? Who uses them? How are they created and maanged? Why are they important?

 

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This should be the first of several posts from this year’s Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting in Chicago, for which I have received generous funding to attend from UCL’s Graduate Conference Fund, and from the Archives and Records Association who asked me to blog the conference.  First impressions of a Brit: this conference is huge.  I could (and probably will) get lost inside the conference hotel, and the main programme involves parallel tracks of ten sessions at once.  And proceedings start at 8am.  This is all a bit of a shock to the system; not sure anybody would turn up if you started before 9am at the earliest back home! Anyway, the twitter tag to watch is #saa11, although with no wifi in the session rooms, live coverage of sessions will be limited to those who can get a mobile phone signal, which is a bit of a shame.

The conference proper starts on Thursday; the beginning of the week is mostly taken up with meetings, but on Tuesday I attended an impressive range of presentations at the SAA Research Forum.  Abstracts and bios for each speaker are already online (and are linked where relevant below), and I understand that slides will follow in the next week or so.  Here are some personal highlights and things which I think may be of interest to archivists back home in the UK:

It was interesting to see several presentations on digital preservation, many reflecting similar issues and themes to those which inspired my Churchill Fellowship research and the beginning of this blog back in 2008.  Whilst I don’t think I’d recommend anyone set out to learn about digital preservation techniques the hard way with seriously obsolete media, if you do find yourself in the position of having to deal with 5.25 inch floppy disks or the like, Karen Ballingher’s presentation on students’ work at the University of Texas – Austin had some handy links, including the UT-iSchool Digital Archaeology Lab Manual and related documentation and an open source forensics package called Sleuth Kit.  Her conclusions were more generally applicable, and familiar: the importance of documenting everything you do, including failures; planning out trials; and just do it – learn by doing a real digital preservation project.  Cal Lee was excellent (as ever) on Levels of Representation in Digital Collections, outlining a framework of digital information constructed of eight layers of representation from the bit(byte-)stream to aggregations of digital objects, and noting that archival description already supports description at multiple levels but has not yet evolved to address these multiple representation layers.  Eugenia Kim’s paper on her ChoreoSave project to determine the metadata elements required for digital dance preservation reminded me of several UK and European initiatives; Siobhan Davies Replay, which Eugenia herself referenced and talked about at some length; the University of the Arts London’s John Latham Archive, which I’ve blogged about previously, because Eugenia commented that choreographers had found the task of entering data into the numerous metadata fields onerous: once again it seems to me there is a tension between the (dance, in this case) event and the assumption that text offers the only or best means of describing and accessing that event; and the CASPAR research on the preservation of interactive multimedia performances at the University of Leeds.

For my current research work on user participation in archives, the following papers were particularly relevant: Helice Koffler‘s report on the RLG Social Metadata Working Group‘s project on evaluating the impact of social media on museums, libraries and archives.  A three-part report is to be issued; part one is due for publication in September 2011.  I understand that this will include some useful and much-needed definitions of ‘user interaction’ terminology.  Part 1 has moderation as its theme – Helice commented that a strict moderation policy can act as a barrier to participation (a point that I agree with up to a point – and will explore further in my own paper on Thursday).  Part 2 will be an analysis of the survey of social media use undertaken by the Working Group (4 U.K. organisations were involved in this, although none were archives).  As my interviews with archivists would also suggest, the survey found little evidence of serious problems with spam or abusive behaviour on MLA contributory platforms.  Ixchel Faniel reported on University of Michigan research on whether trust matters for re-use decisions.

With my UKAD hat on, the blue sky (sorry, I hate that term, but I think its appropriate in this instance) thinking on archival description methods which emerged from the Radcliffe Workshop on Technology and Archival Processing was particularly inspiring.  The workshop was a two-day event which brought together invited technologists (many of whom had not previously encountered archives at all) and archivists to brainstorm new thinking on ways to tackle cataloguing backlogs, streamline cataloguing workflows and improve access to archives.  A collections exhibition was used to spark discussion, together with specially written use cases and scenarios to guide each day’s discussion.  Suggestions included the use of foot-pedal operated overhead cameras to enable archival material to be digitised either at the point of accessioning, or during arrangement and description; experimenting with ‘trusted crowdsourcing’ – asking archivists to check documents for sensitivity – as a first step towards automating the redaction process of confidential information.  These last two suggestions reminded me of two recent projects at The National Archives in the U.K. – John Sheridan’s work to promote expert input into legislation.gov.uk (does anyone have a better link?) and the proposal to use text mining on closed record series which was presented to DSG in 2009.  Adam Kreisberg presented about the development of a toolkit for running focus groups by the Archival Metrics Project.  The toolkit will be tested with a sample session based upon archives’ use of social media, which I think could be very valuable for U.K. archivists.

Finally only because I couldn’t fit this one into any of the categories above, I found Heather Soyka and Eliot Wilczek‘s questions on how modern counter-insurgency warfare can be documented intriguing and thought-provoking.

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I had a day at the Society of Archivists’ Conference 2010 in Manchester last Thursday; rather a mixed bag. I wasn’t there in time for the first couple of papers, but caught the main strand on digital preservation after the coffee break. It’s really good to see digital preservation issues get such a prominent billing (especially as I understand there few sessions on digital preservation at the much larger Society of American Archivists’ Conference this year), although I was slightly disappointed that the papers were essentially show and tell rehearsals of how various organisations are tackling the digital challenge. I have given exactly this type of presentation at the Society’s Digital Preservation Roadshows and at various other beginners/introductory digital preservation events over the past year.  Sometimes of course this is precisely what is needed to get the nervous to engage with the practical realities of digital preservation, but all the same, it’s a pity that one or more of the papers at the main UK professional conference of the year did not develop the theme a little more and stimulate some discussion on the wider implications of digital archives.  However, it was interesting to see how the speakers assumed familiarity with OAIS and digital preservation concepts such as emulation. I suspect some of the audience were left rather bewildered by this, but the fact that speakers at an archives conference feel they can make such assumptions about audience understanding does at least suggest that some awareness of digital preservation theory and frameworks is at last crawling into the professional mainstream.

I was interested in Meena Gautam’s description of the National Archives of India‘s preparations for receiving digital content, which included a strategy for recruiting staff with relevant expertise. Given India’s riches in terms of qualified IT professionals, I would have expected a large pool of skilled people from which to recruit. But the direction of her talk seemed to suggest that, in actual fact, NAI is finding it difficult to attract the experts they require. [There was one particular comment – that the NAI considers conversion to microfilm to be the current best solution for preserving born-digital content – which seemed particularly extraordinary, although I have since discovered the website of the Indian National Digital Preservation Programme, which does suggest that the Indian Government is thinking beyond this analogue paradigm.]  Anyway, NAI are not alone in encountering difficulties in attracting technically skilled staff to work in the archives sector.  I assume that the reason for this is principally economic, in that people with IT qualifications can earn considerably more working in the private sector.

It was a shame that there was not an opportunity for questions at the end of the session, as I would have liked to ask Dr Gautam how archives could or should try to motivate computer scientists and technicians to work in the area of digital preservation.  Later in the same session, Sharon McMeekin from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland advocated that archives organisations should collaborate to build digital repositories, and I and several others amongst the Conference twitter audience agreed.  But from observation of the real archives world, I would suggest that, although most people agree in principle that collaboration is the way forward, there is very little evidence – as yet at least – of partnership in practice. I wonder just how likely it is that joint repositories will emerge in this era of recession and budget cuts (which might be when we need collaboration most, but when in reality most organisations’ operations become increasingly internally focused).  Since it seems archives are unable to compete in attracting skilled staff in the open market, and – for a variety of reasons – it seems that the establishment of joint digital repositories is hindered by traditional organisational boundaries, I pondered whether a potential solution to both issues might lie in Yochai Benkler‘s third organisational form of commons-based peer-production: as the means both to motivate a community of appropriately skilled experts to contribute their knowledge to the archives sector, and to build sustainable digital archives repositories in common.  There are already of course examples of open source development in the digital archives world (Archivematica is a good example, and many other tools, such as the National Archives of Australia’s Xena and The (UK) National Archives DROID are available under open source licences), since the use of open standards fits well with the preservation objective.  Could the archives profession build on these individual beginnings in order to stimulate or become the wider peer community needed to underpin sustainable digital preservation?

After lunch, we heard from Dr Elizabeth Shepherd and Dr Andrew Flinn on the work of the ICARUS research group at UCL’s Department of Information Studies, of which my user participation research is a small part.  It was good to see the the twitter discussion really pick up during the paper, and a good question and answer session afterwards.  Sarah Wickham has a good summary of this presentation.

Finally, at the end of the day, I helped out with the session to raise awareness of the UK Archives Discovery Network, and to gather input from the profession of how they would like UKAD to develop.  We asked for comments on post-it notes on a series of ‘impertinent questions‘.  I was particularly interested in the outcome of the question based upon UKAD’s Objective 4: In reality, there will always be backlogs of uncatalogued archives.” Are volunteers the answer?  From the responses we gathererd, there does appear to be increasing professional acceptance of the use of volunteers in description activities, although I suspect our use of the word ‘volunteer’ may be holding back appreciation of an important difference between the role of ‘expert’ volunteers in archives and user participation by the crowd.

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Under the avuncular eye of fellow Pembrokian William Pitt the Younger, I was presented with my Churchill Fellowship Medallion by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall at the City of London Guildhall on Friday 21st May.  Unfortunately, I can’t blog the picture of me receiving my medallion; partly because its locked down by some horrible DRM system, partly because it looks as if my head has been stuck on at the wrong angle.  I also couldn’t find a decent picture of Mr Pitt’s Guildhall monument (slightly naff, it has to be said – with Britannia riding a sea-horse – apparently the design was chosen for its cheapness rather than its artistic merit).  So here instead is a picture of the much nicer Pitt statue at Pembroke, although I have often worried that a toga is really not the best costume for sitting outside on a cold Cambridge day.  No wonder his toes are blue:

;

Pitt the Younger, Pembroke College, Cambridge. Photo by James UK on flickr

I was amused by the text of the inscription¹ at the Guildhall:

HE REPAIRED THE EXHAUSTED REVENUES, HE REVIVED AND INVIGORATED
THE COMMERCE AND PROSPERITY OF THE COUNTRY;
AND HE HAD RE-ESTABLISHED THE PUBLICK CREDIT ON DEEP AND SURE FOUNDATIONS;

Sounds like he’d be a handy chap to have as Prime Minister right now really, although I’m less sure about this part (just about pulls it back in the last line):

HIS INDUSTRY WAS NOT RELAXED BY CONFIDENCE IN HIS GREAT ABILITIES;
HIS INDULGENCE TO OTHERS WAS NOT ABATED BY THE CONSCIOUSNESS 
OF HIS OWN SUPERIORITY;
HIS AMBITION WAS PURE FROM ALL SELFISH MOTIVES;

Joking aside, it was a suitably grand occasion to celebrate the incredible variety of all the recent Churchill Fellowships.  After the award ceremony, 2009 Fellow Michael Kernan sought me out.  Michael is the Honorary Historian and Archivist at the Fire Service College in Gloucestershire, and wanted advice on digital preservation with regard to the Fire Service College’s collection – both for digitised archive documents and born-digital oral histories of firemen’s exeriences of the Blitz.  So further proof, if proof were needed, of the ongoing relevance of the central tenet of my Fellowship – that we need to develop digital preservation solutions which scale down to the local level, as well as scale up to the (inter-)national.

I was able to point Michael towards the work in both digitisation and digital preservation taking place locally to him at Gloucestershire Archives.  This would not have been possible when I first put my Churchill Fellowship application together back in 2007.  Last week I also heard from a colleague at Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Archives, where similarly they are now taking some real, practical steps towards addressing digital preservation at a local level.  I would like to think that my Churchill Fellowship has played a small part in encouraging local archivist colleagues in the UK and giving them the confidence to take up the digital archives challenge.

Coincidentally, as I was picking up my Churchill medallion at the Guildhall, Viv Cothey, the developer at Gloucestershire Archives, was speaking at the seminar, ‘Practical Approaches to Electronic Records: the Academy and Beyond‘, organised by Chris Prom and held at the University of Dundee.  I was very sorry indeed to have to miss this event, but fortunately it has been covered in the blogosphere by Sue Donnelly of the LSE Archives and Simon Wilson from the University of Hull, representing another new digital preservation project, AIMS – Born Digital Collections: An Inter-Institutional Model for Stewardship.  Chris Prom will shortly be returning to Illinois at the end of his Fulbright scholarship.  I am sure that the following sentiments were expressed copiously on the day at Dundee, but I would also like to add my own personal vote of thanks to Chris for the huge contribution his project has made over the last year in discovering, developing and disseminating practical digital preservation methods and tools for ‘real’ archivists.  Safe journey home!

Edit: to add a link to Peter Cliff’s presentation from the Dundee seminar on Developing and Implementing Tools to Manage Hybrid Archives (slideshare).

¹ Copyright, apparently, George Canning – why do these people follow me about?

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