Much to Learn. . .

On September 10, 2009, in Projects, Research, Software Reviews, by Chris Prom

As I review my notes for the Society of Archivists Conference, I’m struck by one paper in particular: that of Malcom Todd.  He reviewed the digital preservation advisory services that the The National Archives (TNA) provides to the broader archives community in the UK.  (As I’ve noted elsewhere, TNA takes a much more expansive role than NARA in providing services for professional archivists, including policy planning and tools development for the entire archvies sector.) They they are hoping to ramp up this activity in providing assistance to broader UK community concerning electronic records and digital preservation planning and tools.

While many of the services and software that Mr. Todd reviewed where not new to me (e.g. DROID* and PRONOM), he provided a useful roadmap of acitivties that TNA is taking to transfer knowledge, including involvement in the “Digital Preservation Roadshows” that are co sposored by the Society of Archivists, TNA, and other organziations.  He noted that there are plans to combine the work from TNA ( PRONOM) and the Harvard  (JHOVE) in a combined Uniform Digital File Registry (UDFR).

There was much to chew on in his talk, but the most salient points I took away were these  (just to be clear–these are my conclusions, not necessarily Malcolm’s):

  1. The digital curation and IT communities have far outpaced the archivists in developing tools to facilitate digital presevation work.
  2. Digital preservation is a solvable problem, but it is only a small part of what we need to be effective in working with e-records (I know, this point is relatively facile and in any case is not new.)
  3. With a few notable exceptions, few pracicing archivists with actual ‘line’ experience have been heavily involved with standards and tool development or even in testing the tools developed to facilitate electronic records work.
  4. It is highly impertive that line archvists become more heavily involved in technial projects.  If we don’t do so, we will never influence the development of  software, methods, and policies.
  5. There is way too much information for one person to read, assess, and assimilate, even if one limits limits oneslef but one aspect of electronic records work, such as digital preservation.

As I’ve been reflecting on all this, I’ve also been reading UNESCO-commissioned paper by Kevin Bradley from the National Library of Australia and his colleages Junran Lei and Chris Blackall at the Australian Parntership for Sustainable Repositories (thanks to Peter van Gardener for the citation).  The paper provides a useful review (ciria 2007) of the state of play concerning digital repository software. It provides recommendations as to how UNESCO might assist in developing a low-cost repository system that can be used in nearly any context (including that of smaller archives and developing nations.  In general the report is surprising upbeat and lays out a set of specific steps the could be taken to develop a low-cost repository system.

Both Malcolm’s talk and the Australian report leave me with a distinct sense of dread:  archivists need to do much more to involve themselves in the nitty gritty of systems design and workflow management.  There are many projects and tools that might be used as part of integrated workflow for electronic records, but there is precious little work being done to tie them together into a software suite that archivists could use without years of study, training, and experimentation.

For example, the Bradley paper I mentioned above notes that there are many tools to ingest and manage technical and preservation metadata for simple archival objects, but the report is silent on the issue of how descriptive metadata should be generated and/or managed in such a system (it seems to imply that each file/object will have its own descriptive record but doesn’t say how it should be created.)   Similarly, a tool like DROID or JHOVE might be useful as one small part of an electronic records workflow, since it is very useful to know what kind of file you are assessing or trying to preserve.  But let’s not kid ourselves–identifying file formats is only a very small part of  our work for– though obviously it  has implications for appraisal, arragement, description,  preservation and access.

Nevertheless, if we want to work effectively with electronic records, I think we can come close to cobbling together a set of tools from existing software.  Admittedly, there are likely to be gaps.  One or more key functional requirments for good archival practice (such as appraisal methods) will be unmet, at least in the short term.  And we need to be careful that in picking and choosing from the smorgaboard of tools that others have created we do not electronically reincarnate the workflow and management issues that left us with staggering backlogs of paper files.

Let me be the first to admit that I have compiled a gigantic folder of  raw ‘electronic records’ that I hope to appraise, arrange, describe, preserve and provide access to–at some future date.  At the same time, we can only gain the expertise we need to influence system design if we use, evaluate, criticize (constructively) and refine  existing products and services.  (Only after we have done this might we consider developing new tools.)

Where am I going with this post?  Simply here: my first few weeks thinking about electronic records have shown me how much I don’t know.  They also provide me the idea for a feasible workplan for the next few months . . . more on that in my next post.

*Older versions of the DROID software and a description of the project are found here.

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