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Comparing digital preservation approaches, part 3, conclusion – #ICA_2012 (7C)

3 September 2012 Published by 3 Comments

Following up on my first and second posts on different digital preservation approaches among Australasian and the UK archives, let’s see if some general conclusions can be drawn with regard to archives and digital preservation. – by Inge Angevaare

Our host David Fricker (NAA): “Everything will be turned on its head.”

Jan Hutar (now of New Zealand Archives) said in his presentation that the archives seem to be slower to take up digital preservation issues than the libraries. I think that is quite understandable: for libraries digital content has been a reality for some time now, whereas most archives are still living in an analogue day-to-day reality because of legal transfer periods (typically 20 years or more). For most archives, the real digital storm is still to come. But when it comes, it will be a big storm. Cassie Findlay (NSW) explained that no two agencies are the same and there is a huge variety among their systems and approaches. Jan Hutar emphasized that Archives New Zealand expects quite a few databases, and these, as yet, present more questions than answers. To archive and provide (authentic, reliable) access to all of that is truly a challenge.

The vision

Most speakers at ICA 2012 emphasized that access is what archives are all about. The most succinct summary of the digital playing field and the business case for archives came from our host, David Fricker of the National Archives of Australia:

NAA’s David Fricker’s summary


Reality, obviously, lags behind this vision. In most countries, there is no legal basis whatsoever for archives’ wish to comply with users’ demands for instantaneous access. The NAA’s digital archive itself is far from being equipped to provide access “online, anywhere”. Also, as Simon Foudre (South Australia) put it: “Technology that helps generate material will continue to outpace the technology needed to preserve it.” Embedding preservation and archiving in the source systems is, of course, the most logical answer to the challenges, and it gets right to the root of the problem. But can it be done? Can the archives muster enough understanding of the agencies’ workflows, enough manpower, technology, skills and expertise to really become a trusted partner for agencies in the entire information lifecycle? Tricky issues lie ahead, such as distributed custody, custody over long-term temporary records, etc.

I can see the larger archives taking this on, but what about the small ones, the ones in developing countries? There was a wonderful presentation by Fabiao Nhatsave and Arlanza Dias from Mozambique. The archives in Mozambique are just starting out. In terms of leveraging their available resources they did what they could: train 11,600 (!) records managers. But, obviously, they have a long way to go and with much less funding than Western archives.

Mozambique: training 11,600 records managers …

Collaboration between smaller archives (and perhaps even with libraries, as in New Zealand) seems a logical way out of the money predicament. But only one speaker expressly addressed this issue, Robert Kretzschmar of Baden-Württemberg:

Robert Kretzschmar on local archives

I know of a plan for a shared services centre for smaller archives in the Netherlands, which was presented in 2010, but which, alas, still awaits funding. Money is tight at the moment, and there are three tiers of government involved …

Some notes on different approaches to DP issues

Having painted the larger picture, here are some notes on specific aspects of digital preservation and the choices made by various institutions:

To normalize or not to normalize: National Archives Australia (NAA) and the Public Records Office Victoria (PROV) say yes to normalization, because you do not want to get corrupted files into your system and discover only later that they are. Plus, it minimizes the workload. Archives New Zealand: no normalization, but some “pre-conditioning”. The UK National Archives (UK NA) do not normalize, they say that file formats are standardizing themselves. Also, only 25% of the records will ever be used, so it can be a substantial waste of effort. Plus: 85% of what, e.g., the 2012 Olympics will generate, consists of MS Office formats.

To develop your own systems or buy a vendor’s solution: Michael Carden of NAA emphasized that he regards digital preservation core business. Thus NAA develops and maintains all of its own systems, as do PROV and New South Wales (NSW). I myself wonder where this leaves the small archives. Can they ever muster enough resources to build their own systems? Archives New Zealand works with a commercial system (Rosetta by Ex Libris), but “that decision was forced upon us” (Fleming). The Tessella Safety Deposit Box is used by a number of archives (a.o., NA Netherlands, Municipal Archives Rotterdam).

Ex Libris stand at ICA 2012: “working to empower your library” … – faux-pas or visionary?

To keep content and metadata together, or keep them separate: PROV, NSW: together, to avoid the risk of broken linkages; NZ Archives: separate but safeguards for broken linkages.

To quarantine or not to quarantine: NAA quarantine typically is 28 days; PROV quarantine is 3 months. Archives New Zealand: continuous virus checking, because some viruses crop up later than 3 months.

When is custody completed? PROV waits until the entire ingest process (including quarantine and two virus checks) is completed before sending the agency an explicit “custody report”. Archives New Zealand still has to arrange for something like this.

On security: NAA is pretty much a dark archive, which is very secure. PROV provides access immediately, and it has implemented 4 levels of security (firewall, etc.) within the system.

Physical and digital records integrated? Yes, says PROV. For the user a record is a record.

Online transfer or through physical media? PROV has an online inbox, but that is hardly ever used. Typically, records are delivered on physical media. So far, of course …

Preservation strategies: Jan Hutar (Archives New Zealand): “We consider both migration and emulation as viable strategies. Migration has to be done again and again. Emulation is more complicated.” Other archives report that they have not yet performed preservation actions (other than normalization at ingest).

A last note

My reporting on ICA 2012 has been nowhere near complete, of course. I have singled out the presentations that had something to do with digital preservation, in the context of the archival function in the digital age. There was plenty to learn, I am happy to say (from Taipei Airport, where the wifi is good; after some delays I am finally on my way home).

The next ICA congress will be ICA_2016 in Seoul, Korea. The theme: “archives, harmony & friendship”. I wonder how that is going to translate into the digital world …

Tangalooma, 50 years after the whaling station was closed



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