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Friday, 18 August 2017

Benchmarking with the NDSA Levels of Preservation

Anyone who has heard me talk about digital preservation will know that I am a big fan of the NDSA Levels of Preservation.

This is also pretty obvious if you visit me in my office – a print out of the NDSA Levels is pinned to the notice board above my PC monitor!

When talking to students and peers about how to get started in digital preservation in a logical, pragmatic and iterative way, I always recommend using the NDSA Levels to get started. Start at level 1 and move forward to the more advanced levels as and when you are able. This is a much more accessible and simple way to start addressing digital preservation than digesting some of the bigger and more complex certification standards and benchmarking tools.

Over the last few months I have been doing a lot of documentation work. Both ensuring that our digital archiving procedures are written down somewhere and documenting where we are going in the future.

As part of this documentation it seemed like a good idea to use the NDSA Levels:

  • to demonstrate where we are
  • to show where improvements need to be made
  • to demonstrate progress in the future


Previously I have used the NDSA Levels in quite a superficial way – as a guide and a talking point, it has been quite a different exercise actually mapping where we stand.

It was not always straightforward to establish where we are and to unpick and interpret exactly what each level meant in practice. I guess this is one of the problems of using a relatively simple set of metrics to describe what is really quite a complex set of processes.

Without publishing the whole document that I've written on this, here is a summary of where I think we are currently. I'm also including some questions I've been grappling with as part of the process.

Storage and geographic location

Currently at LEVEL 2: 'know your data' with some elements of LEVEL 3 and 4 in place

See the full NDSA levels here


Four years ago we carried out a ‘rescue mission’ to get all digital data in the archives off portable media and on to the digital archive filestore. This now happens as a matter of course when born digital media is received by the archives.

The data isn’t in what I would call a proper digital archive but it is on a fairly well locked down area of University of York filestore.

There are three copies of the data available at any one time (not including the copy that is on original media within the strongrooms). The University stores two copies of the data on spinning disk. One at a data centre on one campus and the other at a data centre on another campus with another copy backed up to tape which is kept for 90 days.

I think I can argue that storage of the data on two different campuses is two different geographic locations but these locations are both in York and only about 1 mile apart. I'm not sure whether they could be described as having different disaster threats so I'm going to hold back from putting us at Level 3 though IT do seem to have systems in place to ensure that filestore is migrated on a regular schedule.

Questions:

  • On a practical level, what really constitutes a different geographic location with a different disaster threat? How far away is good enough?


File fixity and data integrity

Currently at LEVEL 4: 'repair your data'

See the full NDSA levels here


Having been in this job for five years now I can say with confidence that I have never once received file fixity information alongside data that has been submitted to us. Obviously if I did receive it I would check it on ingest, but I can not envisage this scenario occurring in the near future! I do however create fixity information for all content as part of the ingest process.

I use a tool called Foldermatch to ensure that the digital data I have copied into the archive is identical to the original. Foldermatch allows you to compare the contents of two folders and one of the comparison methods (the one I use at ingest) uses checksums to do this.

Last year I purchased a write blocker for use when working with digital content delivered to us on portable hard drives and memory sticks. A check for viruses is carried out on all content that is ingested into the digital archive so this fulfills the requirements of level 2 and some of level 3.

Despite putting us at Level 4, I am still very keen to improve our processes and procedures around fixity. Fixity checks are carried out at intervals (several times a month) and these checks are logged but at the moment this is all initiated manually. As the digital archive gets bigger, we will need to re-think our approaches to this important area and find solutions that are scalable.

Questions:


  • Does it really matter if fixity isn't checked at 'fixed intervals'? That to me suggests a certain rigidity. Do the intervals really need to be fixed or does it not matter as long as it happens within an agreed time frame?
  • At level 2 we are meant to ‘check fixity on all ingests’ - I am unclear as to what is expected here. What would I check if fixity information hasn’t been supplied (as is always the case currently)? Perhaps it means check fixity of the copy of the data that has been made against the fixity information on the original media? I do do that.


Information Security

Currently at LEVEL 2: 'know your data' with some elements of LEVEL 3 in place

See the full NDSA levels here


Access to the digital archive filestore is limited to the digital archivist and IT staff who administer the filestore. If staff or others need to see copies of data within the digital archive filestore, copies are made elsewhere after appropriate checks are made regarding access permissions. The master copy is always kept on the digital archive filestore to ensure that the authentic original version of the data is maintained. Access restrictions are documented.

We are also moving towards the higher levels here. A recent issue reported on a mysterious change of last modified dates for .eml files has led to discussions with colleagues in IT, and I have been informed that an operating system upgrade for the server should include the ability to provide logs of who has done what to files in the archive.

It is worth pointing out that as I don't currently have systems in place for recording PREMIS (preservation) metadata. I am currently taking a hands off approach to preservation planning within the digital archive. Preservation actions such as file migration are few and far between and are recorded in a temporary way until a more robust system is established.


Metadata

Currently at LEVEL 3: 'monitor your data'

See the full NDSA levels here


We do OK with metadata currently, (considering a full preservation system is not yet in place). Using DROID at ingest is helpful at fulfilling some of the requirements of levels 1 to 3 (essentially, having a record of what was received and where it is).

Our implementation of AtoM as our archival management system has helped fulfil some of the other metadata requirements. It gives us a place to store administrative metadata (who gave us it and when) as well as providing a platform to surface descriptive metadata about the digital archives that we hold.

Whether we actually have descriptive metadata or not for digital archives will remain an issue. Much metadata for the digital archive can be generated automatically but descriptive metadata isn't quite as straightforward. In some cases a basic listing is created for files within the digital archive (using Dublin Core as a framework) but this will not happen in all cases. Descriptive metadata typically will not be created until an archive is catalogued which may come at a later date.

Our plans to implement Archivematica next year will help us get to Level 4 as this will create full preservation metadata for us as PREMIS.

Questions:


  • What is the difference between the 'transformative metadata' as mentioned at Level 2 and Preservation metadata as mentioned at Level 4? Is this to do with the standards used? For example, at Level 2 you need to be storing metadata about transformations and events that have occured, but at Level 4 this must be in PREMIS?


File formats

Currently at LEVEL 2: 'know your data' with some elements of LEVEL 3 in place

See the full NDSA levels here


It took me a while to convince myself that we fulfilled Level 1 here! This is a pretty hard one to crack, especially if you have lots of different archives coming in from different sources, and sometimes with little notice. I think it is useful that the requirement at this level is prefaced with "When you can..."!

Thinking about it, we do do some work in this area - for example:

To get us to Level 2, as part of the ingest process we run DROID to get a list of file formats included within a digital archive. Summary stats are kept within a spreadsheet that covers all content within the digital archive so we can quickly see the range of formats that we hold and find out which archives they are in.

This should allow us to move towards Level 3 but we are not there yet. Some pretty informal and fairly ad hoc thinking goes into  file format obsolescence but I won't go as far as saying that we 'monitor' it. I have an awareness of some specific areas of concern in terms of obsolete files (for example I've still got those WordStar 4.0 files and I really do want to do something with them!) but there are no doubt other formats that need attention that haven't hit my radar yet.

As mentioned earlier, we are not really doing migration right now - not until I have a better system for creating the PREMIS metadata, so Level 4 is still out of reach.

Questions:


  • I do think there is more we could at Level 1, but there has also been concern raised by colleagues that in being too dictatorial you are altering the authenticity of the original archive and perhaps losing information about how a person or an organisation worked. I'd be interested to hear how others walk this tricky line.
  • Is it a valid answer to simple note at Level 1 that input into the creation of digital files is never given because it has been decided not to be appropriate in the content in which you are working?
  • I'd love to hear examples of how others monitor and report on file obsolescence - particularly if this is done in a systematic way


Conclusions

This has been a useful exercise and it is good to see where we need to progress. Going from using the Levels in the abstract and actually trying to apply them as a tool has been a bit challenging in some areas. I think additional information and examples would be useful to help clear up some of the questions that I have raised.

I've also found that even where we meet a level there is often other ways we could do things better. File fixity and data integrity looks like a strong area for us but I am all too aware that I would like to find a more sustainable and scalable way to do this. This is something we'll be working on as we get Archivematica in place. Reaching Level 4 shouldn't lead to complacency!

An interesting blog post last year by Shira Peltzman from the UCLA Library talked about Expanding the NDSA Levels of Preservation to include an additional row focused on Access. This seems sensible given that the ability to provide access is the reason why we preserve archives. I would be keen to see this developed further so long as the bar wasn't set too high. At the Borthwick my initial consideration has been preservation - getting the stuff and keeping it safe - but access is something that will be addressed over the next couple of years as we move forward with our plans for Archivematica and AtoM.

Has anyone else assessed themselves against the NDSA Levels?  I would be keen to see how others have interpreted the requirements.






Monday, 31 July 2017

The mysterious case of the changed last modified dates

Today's blog post is effectively a mystery story.

Like any good story it has a beginning (the problem is discovered, the digital archive is temporarily thrown into chaos), a middle (attempts are made to solve the mystery and make things better, several different avenues are explored) and an end (the digital preservation community come to my aid).

This story has a happy ending (hooray) but also includes some food for thought (all the best stories do) and as always I'd be very pleased to hear what you think.

The beginning

I have probably mentioned before that I don't have a full digital archive in place just yet. While I work towards a bigger and better solution, I have a set of temporary procedures in place to ingest digital archives on to what is effectively a piece of locked down university filestore. The procedures and workflows are both 'better than nothing' and 'good enough' as a temporary measure and actually appear to take us pretty much up to Level 2 of the NDSA Levels of Preservation (and beyond in some places).

One of the ways I ensure that all is well in the little bit of filestore that I call 'The Digital Archive' is to run frequent integrity checks over the data, using a free checksum utility. Checksums (effectively unique digital fingerprints) for each file in the digital archive are created when content is ingested and these are checked periodically to ensure that nothing has changed. IT keep back-ups of the filestore for a period of three months, so as long as this integrity checking happens within this three month period (in reality I actually do this 3 or 4 times a month) then problems can be rectified and digital preservation nirvana can be seamlessly restored.

Checksum checking is normally quite dull. Thankfully it is an automated process that runs in the background and I can just get on with my work and cheer when I get a notification that tells me all is well. Generally all is well, it is very rare that any errors are highlighted - when that happens I blog about it!

I have perhaps naively believed for some time that I'm doing everything I need to do to keep those files safe and unchanged because if the checksum is the same then all is well, however this month I encountered a problem...

I've been doing some tidying of the digital archive structure and alongside this have been gathering a bit of data about the archives, specifically looking at things like file formats, number of unidentified files and last modified dates.

Whilst doing this I noticed that one of the archives that I had received in 2013 contained 26 files with a last modified date of 18th January 2017 at 09:53. How could this be so if I have been looking after these files carefully and the checksums are the same as they were when the files were deposited?

The 26 files were all EML files - email messages exported from Microsoft Outlook. These were the only EML files within the whole digital archive. The files weren't all in the same directory and other files sitting in those directories retained their original last modified dates.

The middle

So this was all a bit strange...and worrying too. Am I doing my job properly? Is this something I should be bringing to the supportive environment of the DPC's Fail Club?

The last modified dates of files are important to us as digital archivists. This is part of the metadata that comes with a file. It tells us something about the file. If we lose this date are we losing a little piece of the authentic digital object that we are trying to preserve?

Instead of beating myself up about it I wanted to do three things:

  1. Solve the mystery (find out what happened and why)
  2. See if I could fix it
  3. Stop it happening again
So how could it have happened? Has someone tampered with these 26 files? Perhaps unlikely considering they all have the exact same date/time stamp which to me suggests a more automated process. Also, the digital archive isn't widely accessible. Quite deliberately it is only really me (and the filestore administrators) who have access.

I asked IT whether they could explain it. Had some process been carried out across all filestores that involved EML files specifically? They couldn't think of a reason why this may have occurred. They also confirmed my suspicions that we have no backups of the files with the original last modified dates.

I spoke to a digital forensics expert from the Computer Science department and he said he could analyse the files for me and see if he could work out what had acted on them and also suggest a methodology of restoring the dates.

I have a record of the last modified dates of these 26 files when they arrived - the checksum tool that I use writes the last modified date to the hash file it creates. I wondered whether manually changing the last modified dates back to what they were originally was the right thing to do or whether I should just accept and record the change.

...but I decided to sit on it until I understood the problem better.

The end

I threw the question out to the digital preservation community on Twitter and as usual I was not disappointed!




In fact, along with a whole load of discussion and debate, Andy Jackson was able to track down what appears to be the cause of the problem.


He very helpfully pointed me to a thread on StackExchange which described the issue I was seeing.

It was a great comfort to discover that the cause of this problem was apparently a bug and not something more sinister. It appears I am not alone!

...but what now?

So I now I think I know what caused the problem but questions remain around how to catch issues like this more quickly (not six months after it has happened) and what to do with the files themselves.

IT have mentioned to me that an OS upgrade may provide us with better auditing support on the filestore. Being able to view reports on changes made to digital objects within the digital archive would be potentially very useful (though perhaps even that wouldn't have picked up this Windows bug?). I'm also exploring whether I can make particular directories read only and whether that would stop issues such as this occurring in the future.

If anyone knows of any other tools that can help, please let me know.

The other decision to make is what to do with the files themselves. Should I try and fix them? More interesting debate on Twitter on this topic and even on the value of these dates in the first place. If we can fudge them then so can others - they may have already been fudged before they got to the digital archive - in which case, how much value do they really have?


So should we try and fix last modified dates or should we focus our attention on capturing and storing them within the metadata. The later may be a more sustainable solution in the longer term, given their slightly slippery nature!

I know there are lots of people interested in this topic - just see this recent blog post by Sarah Mason and in particular the comments - When was that?: Maintaining or changing ‘created’ and ‘last modified’ dates. It is great that we are talking about real nuts and bolts of digital preservation and that there are so many people willing to share their thoughts with the community.

...and perhaps if you have EML files in your digital archive you should check them too!


Friday, 7 July 2017

Preserving Google docs - decisions and a way forward

Back in April I blogged about some work I had been doing around finding a suitable export (and ultimately preservation) format for Google documents.

This post has generated a lot of interest and I've had some great comments both on the post itself and via Twitter.

I was also able to take advantage of a slot I had been given at last week's Jisc Research Data Network event to introduce the issue to the audience (who had really come to hear me talk about something else but I don't think they minded).

There were lots of questions and discussion at the end of this session, mostly focused on the Google Drive issue rather than the rest of the talk. I was really pleased to see that the topic had made people think. In a lightening talk later that day, William Kilbride, Executive Director of The Digital Preservation Coalition mused on the subject of "What is data?". Google Drive was one of the examples he used, asking where does the data end and the software application start?

I just wanted to write a quick update on a couple of things - decisions that have been made as a result of this work and attempts to move the issue forward.

Decisions decisions

I took a summary of the Google docs data export work to my colleagues in a Research Data Management meeting last month in order to discuss a practical way forward for the institutional research data we are planning on capturing and preserving.

One element of the Proof of Concept that we had established at the end of phase 3 of Filling the Digital Preservation Gap was a deposit form to allow researchers to deposit data to the Research Data York service.

As well as the ability to enable researchers to browse and select a file or a folder on their computer or network, this deposit form also included a button to allow deposit to be carried out via Google Drive.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Google Drive is widely used at our institution. It is clear that many researchers are using Google Drive to collect, create and analyse their research data so it made sense to provide an easy way for them to deposit direct from Google Drive. I just needed to check out the export options and decide which one we should support as part of this automated export.

However, given the inconclusive findings of my research into export options it didn't seem that there was one clear option that adequately preserved the data.

As a group we decided the best way out of this imperfect situation was to ask researchers to export their own data from Google Drive in whatever format they consider best captures the significant properties of the item. By exporting themselves in a manual fashion prior to upload, this does give them the opportunity to review and check their files and make their own decision on issues such as whether comments are included in the version of their data that they upload to Research Data York.

So for the time being we are disabling the Google Drive upload button from our data deposit interface....which is a shame because a certain amount of effort went into getting that working in the first place.

This is the right decision for the time being though. Two things need to happen before we can make this available again:


  1. Understanding the use case - We need to gain a greater understanding of how researchers use Google Drive and what they consider to be 'significant' about their native Google Drive files.
  2. Improving the technology - We need to make some requests to Google to make the export options better.


Understanding the use case

We've known for a while that some researchers use Google Drive to store their research data. The graphic below was taken from a survey we carried out with researchers in 2013 to find out about current practice across the institution. 

Of the 188 researchers who answered the question "Where is your digital research data stored (excluding back up copies)?" 22 mentioned Google Drive. This is only around 12% of respondents but I would speculate that over the last four years, use of Google Drive will have increased considerably as Google applications have become more embedded within the working practices of staff and students at the University.

Where is your digital research data stored (excluding back up copies)?

To understand the Google Drive use case today I really need to talk to researchers.

We've run a couple of Research Data Management teaching sessions over the last term. These sessions are typically attended by PhD students but occasionally a member of research staff also comes along. When we talk about data storage I've been asking the researchers to give a show of hands as to who is using Google Drive to store at least some of their research data.

About half of the researchers in the room raise their hand.

So this is a real issue. 

Of course what I'd like to do is find out exactly how they are using it. Whether they are creating native Google Drive files or just using Google Drive as a storage location or filing system for data that they create in another application.

I did manage to get a bit more detail from one researcher who said that they used Google Drive as a way of collaborating on their research with colleagues working at another institution but that once a document has been completed they will export the data out of Google Drive for storage elsewhere. 

This fits well with the solution described above.

I also arranged a meeting with a Researcher in our BioArCh department. Professor Matthew Collins is known to be an enthusiastic user of Google Drive.

Talking to Matthew gave me a really interesting perspective on Google Drive. For him it has become an essential research tool. He and his colleagues use many of the features of the Google Suite of tools for their day to day work and as a means to collaborate and share ideas and resources, both internally and with researchers in other institutions. He showed me PaperPile, an extension to Google Drive that I had not been aware of. He uses this to manage his references and share them with colleagues. This clearly adds huge value to the Google Drive suite for researchers.

He talked me through a few scenarios of how they use Google - some, (such as the comments facility) I was very much aware of. Others, I've not used myself such as the use of the Google APIs to visualise for example activity on preparing a report in Google Drive - showing a time line and when different individuals edited the document. Now that looks like fun!

He also talked about the importance of the 'previous versions' information that is stored within a native Google Drive file. When working collaboratively it can be useful to be able to track back and see who edited what and when. 

He described a real scenario in which he had had to go back to a previous version of a Google Sheet to show exactly when a particular piece of data had been entered. I hadn't considered that the previous versions feature could be used to demonstrate that you made a particular discovery first. Potentially quite important in the competitive world of academic research.

For this reason Matthew considered the native Google Drive file itself to be "the ultimate archive" and "a virtual collaborative lab notebook". A flat, static export of the data would not be an adequate replacement.

He did however acknowledge that the data can only exist for as long as Google provides us with the facility and that there are situations where it is a good idea to take a static back up copy.

He mentioned that the precursor to Google Docs was a product called Writely (which he was also an early adopter of). Google bought Writely in 2006 after seeing the huge potential in this online word processing tool. Matthew commented that backwards compatibility became a problem when Google started making some fundamental changes to the way the application worked. This is perhaps the issue that is being described in this blog post: Google Docs and Backwards Compatibility.

So, I'm still convinced that even if we can't preserve a native Google Drive file perfectly in a static form, this shouldn't stop us having a go!

Improving the technology

Along side trying to understand how researchers use Google Drive and what they consider to be significant and worthy of preservation, I have also been making some requests and suggestions to Google around their export options. There are a few ideas I've noted that would make it easier for us to archive the data.

I contacted the Google Drive forum and was told that as a Google customer I was able to log in and add my suggestions to Google Cloud Connect so this I did...and what I asked for was as follows:

  • Please can we have a PDF/A export option?
  • Please could we choose whether or not to export comments or not ...and if we are exporting comments can we choose whether historic/resolved comments are also exported
  • Please can metadata be retained - specifically the created and last modified dates. (Author is a bit trickier - in Google Drive a document has an owner rather than an author. The owner probably is the author (or one of them) but not necessarily if ownership has been transferred).
  • I also mentioned a little bug relating to comment dates that I found when exporting a Google document containing comments out into docx format and then importing it back again.
Since I submitted these feature requests and comments in early May it has all gone very very quiet...

I have a feeling that ideas only get anywhere if they are popular ...and none of my ideas are popular ...because they do not lead to new and shiny functionality.

Only one of my suggestions (re comments) has received a vote by another member of the community.

So, what to do?

Luckily, since having spoken about my problem at the Jisc Research Data Network, two people have mentioned they have Google contacts who might be interested in hearing my ideas.

I'd like to follow up on this, but in the meantime it would be great if people could feedback to me. 

  • Are my suggestions sensible? 
  • Are there are any other features that would help the digital preservation community preserve Google Drive? I can't imagine I've captured everything...

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The UK Archivematica group goes to Scotland



Yesterday the UK Archivematica group met in Scotland for the first time. The meeting was hosted by the University of Edinburgh and as always it was great to be able to chat informally to other Archivematica users in the UK and find out what everyone is up to.


The first thing to note was that since this group of Archivematica ‘explorers’ first met in 2015 real and tangible progress seems to have been made. This was encouraging to see. This is particularly the case at the University of Edinburgh. Kirsty Lee talked us through their Archivematica implementation (now in production) and the steps they are taking to ingest digital content.


One of the most interesting bits of her presentation was a discussion about appraisal of digital material and how to manage this at scale using the available tools. When using Archivematica (or other digital preservation systems) it is necessary to carry out appraisal at an early stage before an Archival Information Package (AIP) is created and stored. It is very difficult (perhaps impossible) to unpick specific files from an AIP at a later date.


Kirsty described how one of her test collections has been reduced from 5.9GB to 753MB using a combination of traditional and technical appraisal techniques. 

Appraisal is something that is mentioned frequently in digital preservation discussions. There was a group talking about just this a couple of weeks ago at the recent DPC unconference ‘Connecting the Bits’. 

As ever it was really valuable to hear how someone is moving forward with this in a practical way. 

It will be interesting to find out how these techniques can be applied at scale of some of the larger collections Kirsty intends to work with.


Kirsty recommended an article by Victoria Sloyan, Born-digital archives at the Wellcome Library: appraisal and sensitivity review of two hard drives which was helpful to her and her colleagues when formulating their approach to this thorny problem.


She also referenced the work that the Bentley Historical Library at University of Michigan have carried out with Archivematica and we watched a video showing how they have integrated Archivematica with DSpace. This approach has influenced Edinburgh’s internal discussions about workflow.


Kirsty concluded with something that rings very true for me (in fact I think I said it myself the two presentations I gave last week!). Striving for perfection isn’t helpful, the main thing is just to get started and learn as you go along.


Rachel McGregor from the University of Lancaster gave an entertaining presentation about the UK Archivematica Camp that was held in York in April, covering topics as wide ranging as the weather, the food and finally feeling the love for PREMIS!


I gave a talk on work at York to move Archivematica and our Research Data York application towards production. I had given similar talks last week at the Jisc Research Data Network event and a DPC briefing day but I took a slightly different focus this time. I wanted to drill in a bit more detail into our workflow, the processing configuration within Archivematica and some problems I was grappling with. 

It was really helpful to get some feedback and solutions from the group on an error message I’d encountered whilst preparing my slides the previous day and to have a broader discussion on the limitations of web forms for data upload. This is what is so good about presenting within a small group setting like this as it allows for informality and genuinely productive discussion. As a result of this I over ran and made people wait for their lunch (very bad form I know!)


After lunch John Kaye updated the group on the Jisc Research Data Shared Service. This is becoming a regular feature of our meetings! There are many members of the UK Archivematica group who are not involved in the Jisc Shared Service so it is really useful to be able to keep them in the loop. 

It is clear that there will be a substantial amount of development work within Archivematica as a result of its inclusion in the Shared Service and features will be made available to all users (not just those who engage directly with Jisc). One example of this is containerisation which will allow Archivematica to be more quickly and easily installed. This is going to make life easier for everyone!


Sean Rippington from the University of St Andrews gave an interesting perspective on some of the comparison work he has been doing of Preservica and Archivematica. 

Both of these digital preservation systems are on offer through the Jisc Shared Service and as a pilot institution St Andrews has decided to test them side by side. Although he hasn’t yet got his hands on both, he was still able to offer some really useful insights on the solutions based on observations he has made so far. 

First he listed a number of similarities - for example alignment with the OAIS Reference Model, the migration-based approach, the use of microservices and many of the tools and standards that they are built on.


He also listed a lot of differences - some are obvious, for example one system is commercial and the other open source. This leads to slightly different models for support and development. He mentioned some of the additional functionality that Preservica has, for example the ability to handle emails and web archives and the inclusion of an access front end. 

He also touched on reporting. Preservica does this out of the box whereas with Archivematica you will need to use a third party reporting system. He talked a bit about the communities that have adopted each solution and concluded that Preservica seems to have a broader user base (in terms of the types of institution that use it). The engaged, active and honest user community for Archivematica was highlighted as a specific selling point and the work of the Filling the Digital Preservation Gap project (thanks!).


Sean intends to do some more detailed comparison work once he has access to both systems and we hope he will report back to a future meeting.


Next up we had a collaborative session called ‘Room 101’ (even though our meeting had been moved to room 109). Considering we were encouraged to grumble about our pet hates this session came out with some useful nuggets:


  • Check your migrated files. Don’t assume everything is always OK.
  • Don’t assume that just because Archivematica is installed all your digital preservation problems are solved.
  • Just because a feature exists within Archivematica it doesn’t mean you have to use it - it may not suit your workflow
  • There is no single ‘right’ way to set up Archivematica and integrate with other systems - we need to talk more about workflows and share experiences!


After coffee break we were joined (remotely) by several representatives from the OSSArcFlow project from Educopia and the University of North Carolina. This project is very new but it was great that they were able to share with us some information about what they intend to achieve over the course of the two year project. 

They are looking specifically at preservation workflows using open source tools (specifically Archivematica, BitCurator and ArchivesSpace) and they are working with 12 partner institutions who will all be using at least two of these tools. The project will not only provide training and technical support, but will fully document the workflows put in place at each institution. This information will be shared with the wider community. 

This is going to be really helpful for those of us who are adopting open source preservation tools, helping to answer some of those niggling questions such as how to fill the gaps and what happens when there are overlaps in the functionality of two tools.


We registered our interest in continuing to be kept in the loop about this project and we hope to hear more at a future meeting.

The day finished with a brief update from Sara Allain from Artifactual Systems. She talked about some of the new things that are coming in version 1.6.1 and 1.7 of Archivematica.

Before leaving Edinburgh it was a pleasure to be able to join the University at an event celebrating their progress in digital preservation. Celebrations such as this are pretty few and far between - perhaps because digital preservation is a task that doesn’t have an obvious end point. It was really refreshing to see an institution publicly celebrating the considerable achievements made so far. Congratulations to the University of Edinburgh!

Friday, 23 June 2017

Emulation for preservation - is it for me?

I’ve previously been of the opinion that emulation isn’t really for me.

I’ve seen presentations about emulation at conferences such as iPRES and it is fair to say that much of it normally goes over my head.

This hasn’t been helped by the fact that I’ve not really had a concrete use case for it in my own work - I find it so much easier to relate and engage to a topic or technology if I can see how it might be directly useful to me.

However, for a while now I’ve been aware that emulation is what all the ‘cool kids’ in the digital preservation world seem to be talking about. From the very migration heavy thinking of the 2000’s it appears that things are now moving in a different direction.

This fact first hit my radar at the 2014 Digital Preservation Awards where the University of Freiburg won the The OPF Award for Research and Innovation award for their work on Emulation as a Service with bwFLA Functional Long Term Archiving and Access.

So I was keen to attend the DPC event Halcyon, On and On: Emulating to Preserve to keep up to speed... not only because it was hosted on the doorstep in the centre of my home town of York!

It was an interesting and enlightening day. As usual the Digital Preservation Coalition did a great job of getting all the right experts in the room (sometimes virtually) at the same time, and a range of topics and perspectives were covered.

After an introduction from Paul Wheatley we heard from the British Library about their experiences of doing emulation as part of their Flashback project. No day on emulation would be complete without a contribution from the University of Freiburg. We had a thought provoking talk via WebEx from Euan Cochrane of Yale University Library and an excellent short film created by Jason Scott from the Internet Archive. One of the highlights for me was Jim Boulton talking about Digital Archaeology - and that wasn’t just because it had ‘Archaeology’ in the title (honest!). His talk didn’t really cover emulation, it related more to that other preservation strategy that we don’t talk about much anymore - hardware preservation. However, many of the points he raised were entirely relevant to emulation - for example, how to maintain an authentic experience, how you define what the significant properties of an item actually are and what decisions you have to make as a curator of the digital past. It was great to see how engaged the public were with his exhibitions and how people interacted with it.

Some of the themes of the day and take away thoughts for me:


  • Choosing the best strategy - It is not all about which preservation strategy to use it is more about how we can use them together - as Paul Wheatley pointed out - emulation is a good partner to migration as it can help you to test a migration strategy. The British Library showed off their lab of old hardware - they use this to check whether their emulators are working OK. As digital archivists we can (and should) use all of the tools at our disposal to make sure we are doing the job well.
  • A window of emulation opportunity? - Simon Whibley from the British Library mentioned that older material tends to emulate better than the more recent material they worked with. Later on in the day Euan Cochrane talked about the ways technology is rapidly moving forward (see for example The Internet of Things). This offers up new challenges for those working in digital preservation, whatever strategy they employ. Will there be a relatively small window of opportunity for emulation (from the 1980's to the 2000's)? Beyond that point, will it all get just too complex?
  • Software is a problem - setting up the emulation environments is easy (in that some people have this solved) but if you don’t have the necessary software to install in order to read your files then you are stuck. Obviously this is a thorny problem due to licencing and IPR and not one which has been systematically solved. The British Library have been ‘accidentally’ collecting software but this area continues to be a problematic one.
  • What constitutes an 'authentic experience'? - most of the presentations mentioned this idea of the authentic experience - ultimately this is what we are trying to provide. Simon Whibley asked whether an emulation that appears in full colour is authentic if it would have been monochrome on the original hardware? Jim Boulton mentioned that some of the artists he worked with wanted the bandwidth to be throttled on their historic websites to recreate the authentic speed (or lack of it!). Some of the emulators demonstrated over the course of the day also provided the original sounds of the operating system and this is an important element in providing an authentic experience. It isn't just about serving up the data.
Thinking about how this all relates to me and my work, I am immediately struck by two use cases.

Firstly research data - we are taking great steps forward in enabling this data to be preserved and maintained for the long term but will it be re-usable? For many types of research data there is no clear migration strategy. Emulation as a strategy for accessing this data ten or twenty years from now needs to be seriously considered. In the meantime we need to ensure we can identify the files themselves and collect adequate documentation - it is these things that will help us to enable reuse through emulators in the future.

Secondly, there are some digital archives that we hold at the Borthwick Institute from the 1980's. For example I have been working on a batch of WordStar files in my spare moments over the last few years. I'd love to get a contemporary emulator fired up and see if I could install WordStar and work with these files in their native setting. I've already gone a little way down the technology preservation route, getting WordStar installed on an old Windows 98 PC and viewing the files, but this isn't exactly contemporary. These approaches will help to establish the significant properties of the files and assess how successful subsequent migration strategies are....but this is a future blog post.

It was a fun event and it was clear that everybody loves a bit of nostalgia. Jim Boulton ended his presentation saying "There is something quite romantic about letting people play with old hardware".

We have come a long way and this is most apparent when seeing artefacts (hardware, software, operating systems, data) from early computing. Only this week whilst taking the kids to school we got into a conversation about floppy disks (yes, I know...). I asked the kids if they knew what they looked like and they answered "Yes, it is the save icon on the computer"(see Why is the save icon still a floppy disk?)...but of course they've never seen a real one. Clearly some obsolete elements of our computer history will remain in our collective consciousness for many years and perhaps it is our job to continue to keep them alive in some form.


Friday, 16 June 2017

A typical week as a digital archivist?

Sometimes (admittedly not very often) I'm asked what I actually do all day. So at the end of a busy week being a digital archivist I've decided to blog about what I've been up to.

Monday

Today I had a couple of meetings. One specifically to talk about digital preservation of electronic theses submissions. I've also had a work experience placement in this week so have set up a metadata creation task which he has been busy working on.

When I had a spare moment I did a little more testing work on the EAD harvesting feature the University of York is jointly sponsoring Artefactual Systems to develop in AtoM. Testing this feature from my perspective involves logging into the test site that Artefactual has created for us and tweaking some of the archival descriptions. Once those descriptions are saved, I can take a peek at the job scheduler and make sure that new EAD files are being created behind the scenes for the Archives Hub to attempt to harvest at a later date.

This piece of development work has been going on for a few months now and communications have been technically quite complex so I'm also trying to ensure all the organisations involved are happy with what has been achieved and will be arranging a virtual meeting so we can all get together and talk through any remaining issues.

I was slightly surprised today to have a couple of requests to talk to the media. This has sprung from the news that the Queen's Speech will be delayed. One of the reasons for the delay relates to the fact that the speech has to be written on goat's skin parchment, which takes a few days to dry. I had previously been interviewed for a article entitled Why is the UK still printing its laws on vellum? and am now mistaken for someone who knows about vellum. I explained to potential interviewers that this is not my specialist subject!

Tuesday

In the morning I went to visit a researcher at the University of York. I wanted to talk to him about how he uses Google Drive in relation to his research. This is a really interesting topic to me right now as I consider how best we might be able to preserve current research datasets. Seeing how exactly Google Drive is used and what features the researcher considers to be significant (and necessary for reuse) is really helpful when thinking about a suitable approach to this problem. I sometimes think I work a little bit too much in my own echo chamber, so getting out and hearing different perspectives is incredibly valuable.

Later that afternoon I had an unexpected meeting with one of our depositors (well, there were two of them actually). I've not met them before but have been working with their data for a little while. In our brief meeting it was really interesting to chat and see the data from a fresh perspective. I was able to reunite them with some digital files that they had created in the mid 1980's, had saved on to floppy disk and had not been able to access for a long time.

Digital preservation can be quite a behind the scenes sort of job - we always give a nod to the reason why we do what we do (ie: we preserve for future reuse), but actually seeing the results of that work unfold in front of your eyes is genuinely rewarding. I had rescued something from the jaws of digital obsolescence so it could now be reused and revitalised!

At the end of the day I presented a joint webinar for the Open Preservation Foundation called 'PRONOM in practice'. Alongside David Clipsham (The National Archives) and Justin Simpson (Artefactual Systems), I talked about my own experiences with PRONOM, particularly relating to file signature creation, and ending with a call to arms "Do try this at home!". It would be great if more of the community could get involved!

I was really pleased that the webinar platform worked OK for me this time round (always a bit stressful when it doesn't) and that I got to use the yellow highlighter pen on my slides.

In my spare moments (which were few and far between), I put together a powerpoint presentation for the following day...

Wednesday

I spent the day at the British Library in Boston Spa. I'd been invited to speak at a training event they regularly hold for members of staff who want to find out a bit more about digital preservation and the work of the team.

I was asked specifically to talk through some of the challenges and issues that I face in my work. I found this pretty easy - there are lots of challenges - and I eventually realised I had too many slides so had to cut it short! I suppose that is better than not having enough to say!

Visiting Boston Spa meant that I could also chat to the team over lunch and visit their lab. They had a very impressive range of old computers and were able to give me a demonstration of Kryoflux (which I've never seen in action before) and talk a little about emulation. This was a good warm up for the DPC event about emulation I'm attending next week: Halcyon On and On: Emulating to Preserve.

Still left on my to do list from my trip is to download Teracopy. I currently use Foldermatch for checking that files I have copied have remained unchanged. From the quick demo I saw at the British Library I think that Teracopy would be a more simple one step solution. I need to have a play with this and then think about incorporating it into the digital ingest workflow.

Sharing information and collaborating with others working in the digital preservation field really is directly beneficial to the day to day work that we do!

Thursday

Back in the office today and a much quieter day.

I extracted some reports from our AtoM catalogue for a colleague and did a bit of work with our test version of Research Data York. I also met with another colleague to talk about storing and providing access to digitised images.

In the afternoon I wrote another powerpoint presentation, this time for a forthcoming DPC event: From Planning to Deployment: Digital Preservation and Organizational Change.

I'm going to be talking about our experiences of moving our Research Data York application from proof of concept to production. We are not yet in production and some of the reasons why will be explored in the presentation! Again I was asked to talk about barriers and challenges and again, this brief is fairly easy to fit! The event itself is over a week away so this is unprecedentedly well organised. Long may it continue!


Friday

On Fridays I try to catch up on the week just gone and plan for the week ahead as well as reading the relevant blogs that have appeared over the week. It is also a good chance to catch up with some admin tasks and emails.

Lunch time reading today was provided by William Kilbride's latest blog post. Some of it went over my head but the final messages around value and reuse and the need to "do more with less" rang very true.

Sometimes I even blog myself - as I am today!




Was this a typical week - perhaps not, but in this job there is probably no such thing! Every week brings new ideas, challenges and surprises!

I would say the only real constant is that I've always got lots of things to keep me busy.

Friday, 12 May 2017

AtoM Camp take aways

The view from the window at AtoM Camp ...not that there was
any time to gaze out of the window of course...
I’ve spent the last three days in Cambridge at AtoM Camp. This was the second ever AtoM Camp, and the first in Europe. A big thanks to St John’s College for hosting it and to Artefactual Systems for putting it on.

It really has been an interesting few days, with a packed programme and an engaged group of attendees from across Europe and beyond bringing different levels of experience with AtoM.

As a ‘camp counsellor’ I was able to take to the floor at regular intervals to share some of our experiences of implementing AtoM at the Borthwick, covering topics such as system selection, querying the MySQL database, building the community and overcoming implementation challenges.

However, I was also there to learn!

Here are some bits and pieces that I’ve taken away.

My first real take away is that I now have a working copy of the soon to be released AtoM 2.4 on my Macbook - this is really quite cool. I'll never again be bored on a train - I can just fire up Ubuntu and have a play!

Walk to Camp takes you over Cambridge's Bridge of Sighs
During the camp it was great to be able to hear about some of the new features that will be available in this latest release.

At the Borthwick Institute our catalogue is still running on AtoM 2.2 so we are pretty excited about moving to 2.4 and being able to take advantage of all of this new functionality.

Just some of the new features I learnt about that I can see an immediate use case are:

  • Being able to generate slugs (the end bit of the URL to a record in AtoM) from archival reference numbers rather than titles - this makes perfect sense to me and would make for neater links
  • A modification of the re-indexing script which allows you to specify which elements you want to re-index. I like this one as it means I will not need to get out of bed so early to carry out re-indexes if for example it is only the (non-public facing) accessions records that need indexing.
  • Some really helpful changes to the search results - The default operator in an AtoM search has now been changed from ‘OR’ to ‘AND’. This is a change we already made to our local instance (as have several others) but it is good to see that AtoM now has this built in. Another change focuses on weighting of results and ensures that the most relevant results appear first. This relevance ranking is related to the fields in which the search terms appear - thus, a hit in the title field would appear higher than a hit in scope and content.
  • Importing data through the interface will be carried out through the job scheduler so will be better and won't time out. This is great news as it will give colleagues the ability to do all imports themselves rather than having to wait until someone can do this through the command line


On day two of camp I enjoyed the implementation tours, seeing how other institutions have implemented AtoM and the tweaks and modifications they have made. For example it was interesting to see the shopping cart feature developed for the Mennonite Archival Image Database and most popular image carousel feature on front page of the Chinese Canadian Artifacts Project. I was also interested in some of the modifications the National Library of Wales have made to meet their own needs.

It was also nice to hear the Borthwick Catalogue described  by Dan as “elegant”!


There was a great session on community and governance at the end of day two which was one of the highlights of the camp for me. It gave attendees the chance to really understand the business model of Artefactual (as well as alternatives to the bounty model in use by other open source projects). We also got a full history of the evolution of AtoM and saw the very first project logo and vision.

The AtoM vision hasn't changed too much but the name and logo have!

Dan Gillean from Artefactual articulated the problem of trying to get funding for essential and ongoing tasks, such as code modernisation. Two examples he used were updating AtoM to work with the latest version of Symfony and Elasticsearch - both of these tasks need to happen in order to keep AtoM moving in the right direction but both require a substantial amount of work and are not likely to be picked up and funded by the community.

I was interested to see Artefactual’s vision for a new AtoM 3.0 which would see some fundamental changes to the way AtoM works and a more up-to-date, modular and scalable architecture designed to meet the future use cases of the growing AtoM community.

Artefactual's proposed modular architecture for AtoM 3.0

There is no time line for AtoM 3.0, and whether it goes ahead or not is entirely dependent on a substantial source of funding being available. It was great to see Artefactual sharing their vision and encouraging feedback from the community at this early stage though.

Another highlight of Camp:
a tour of the archives of St John's College from Tracy Deakin
A session on data migrations on day three included a demo of OpenRefine from Sara Allain from Artefactual. I’d heard of this tool before but wasn’t entirely sure what it did and whether it would be of use to me. Sara demonstrated how it could be used to bash data into shape before import into AtoM. It seemed to be capable of doing all the things that I’ve previously done in Excel (and more) ...but without so much pain. I’ll definitely be looking to try this out when I next have some data to clean up.

Dan Gillean and Pete Vox from IMAGIZ talked through the process of importing data into AtoM. Pete focused on an example from Croydon Museum Service who's data needed to be migrated from CALM. He talked through some of the challenges of the task and how he would approach this differently in future. It is clear that the complexities of data migration may be one of the biggest barriers to institutions moving to AtoM from an alternative system, but it was encouraging to hear that none of these challenges are insurmountable.

My final take away from AtoM Camp is a long list of actions - new things I have learnt that I want to read up on or try out for myself ...I best crack on!