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Comparing digital preservation approaches, continued – #ICA_2012 (7B)

1 September 2012 Published by 4 Comments

Following on from my previous post from ICA_2012, on Friday the Australasian Digital Recordkeeping Initiative (ADRI) organized a truly inspiring workshop. Ably led by Simon Foudre of Southern Australia (the only state in Australia that does not yet have a digital archive for public records … [– corrected by Andrew Wilson in comments below: PROV and NSW are the only states with a digital archive]), the workshop showcased four different approaches to digital preservation: the National Archives of Australia (NAA), New South Wales (NSW), Victoria (PROV) and Archives New Zealand. After an introduction to each of these initiatives, the 30 workshop attendees were invited to do a SWOT analysis of all four approaches. – by Inge Angevaare

Simon Foudre leading the ADRI workshop

What impressed me most about the workshop was the honesty and willingness to share and learn of each of the initiatives involved. What surprised me a bit, was that in a small country like Australia (I mean, there are only 22 million inhabitants), the states would have different approaches. When I asked about that, I was told that state autonomy is quite a big thing in Australia. Also, digital preservation is probably too young a discipline to put all of our eggs in one basket. We need room to experiment. And the States do exchange information, e.g., in ADRI, to learn from each other. Andrew Waugh (PROV, Victoria): “OAIS is great … for two months. Once you start designing a system, its usefulness declines fast. Connecting with existing systems is something OAIS does not provide for. Then you should talk to other archives.” (See also Waugh’s comments during the plenary session in previous post).

Each table was asked to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of a particular system.

On SWOT analyses

At the risk of stating the obvious: SWOT analyses are rarely black-and-white judgements. Any strength can be a weakness as well.  Andrew Waugh: “Our greatest strength is that we have an operational digital archive [since 2005]. Our greatest weakness is that we have an operational digital archive, because it means that the urgency for granting funding for much-needed improvements is much less.” Similarly, the NAA’s system is very secure, because there is hardly any access – but if you make access your main goal, it turns into a weakness (see previous post). Some of the weaknesses identified, especially of the older systems (NAA, PROV) have been recognized by those that manage the systems, but require additional funding. As Simon Foudre emphasized, we live in an era of “heightened fiscal prudence” (some understatement) – which are aggravated by increased user expectations for instant access and fast technological changes.

I described the approaches of NAA and PROV in some detail in my previous post, so here is some more information about the other two participants: New South Wales and the New Zealand Archives.

Taking proactivity to a whole new level: State Records New South Wales

Cassie Findlay of State Records New South Wales (NSW) agreed with many of the principles outlined by Hofman of the Dutch Archives (earlier post): “State Records and NSW government agencies need to work together to tackle digital archives challenges.” Records are a by-product of the agencies’ core business, and therefore the archives have to offer whatever they can in terms of tools and advice to make it easier for agencies to manage and transfer their records. They’ve got to get involved at the creation phase.

Cassie Findlay: “Systems migrations is what agencies know.”

State Records NSW has decided not to accession individual records, but to migrate entire records keeping systems forward. For each agency, a migration project is set up which is specifically attuned to the agency’s requirements. “Each project will have different requirements, but all will involve analysis of recordkeeping system structures, metadata; preservation issues; possible migration protocols; indexing points/potential uses.” The options for storing the recordkeeping systems are:

  • as objects with metadata in text files
  • XML DB normalisation
  • RDF/XML DB normalisation
  • Migration to non-proprietary dbase, e.g., SQLITE
  • … probably combinations of these.

NSW also plans to make available a digital archives dashboard, with all sorts of tools and resources: a register of migration pathways, a register of metadata terms, file format identification tools, metadata mapping tools, forms and templates and a knowledge base. This dashboard will be based on best practices, and will grow over time. Also, the approach is open to distributed custody of records. More info on the project’s blog.

Discussions continue during lunch break. Is the NSW approach sustainable? Only time will tell.

Workshop attendees agreed that the approach takes digital archiving to a whole new level. They saw the flexibility of the approach as a great strength, and the development of entirely new relationships between agencies and archives as a great way to prove the value of archives. However, the approach is resource intensive, it requires skilled staff, and it does not (yet) nail the management of source records.

Sharing a system with the national library: Archives New Zealand

Alison Fleming of Archives New Zealand told the workshop about the “interesting journey” which has been the result of a May 2010 government decision that the core of the Australian National Library’s Rosetta system must be shared with the national archives.

Alison Fleming pointing to the part of the system (circle) that is shared with the National Library.

Some of the key principles of the Archives New Zealand approach are:

  • share central digital preservation system with National Library
  • describe digital archives at item level, not just aggregates
  • integration of digital and non-digital processes, automation
  • support for agencies is critical
  • “file formats we accept” depend on circumstances
  • digital repository will hold digitised material too
  • “We will not get it right first time, or even for a long time”
  • collaboration is critical.
Fleming reported that “libraries and archives do speak different dialects of the same language.” “This has led to robust discussions about occasions where the library and the archives make different choices.” In my own country, the Dutch National Archives and National Library are merging in 2013, which also was a political decision. A merger of the digital repositories has not yet been decided upon; perhaps they should talk to New Zealand first?


In a separate, more technical presentation about preservation strategies, Jan Hutar (who moved from the Czech Republic to New Zealand) summarised the “Rendering Matters” report recently published by the Archives:

Jan Hutar, now of Archives New Zealand

On the subject of preservation strategies, Hutar concluded:

In the workshop SWOT analysis, the use of a commercial system (Rosetta) was identified as a weakness rather than a strength; there were doubts whether the archives could get their information out if they wanted to make major changes. Interestingly, budget cuts were not only identified as a threat; they were also seen as an opportunity to get involved in actual collaboration rather than “tick-the-box collaboration”.

Noting strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats

So much for now; I will write a third post with some (tentative) conclusions. First I have some hassles to clear up. I am still down under. My flight was cancelled; a delay of at least 48 hours. So much for trying to save money …

On a positive note: yes, I did get to see some active whales and at least two beautiful jumps. Taking pictures was more of a challenge. The seas were rough, I needed both hands on the railing most of the time just to stay on the boat. At least I was one of the lucky ones who did not get sick. Interestingly, whale watching now brings in more money to the area than whale catching and slaughtering did in the 1950s and early 1960s. That’s the way.


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