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Seamless integration between source systems and digital archives: Can we have it? Do we need it? – #ICA_2012 (4)

22 augustus 2012 Gepubliceerd door 1 Commentaar

To my mind, conferences are at their best when they manage to bring together different viewpoints on sticky issues within a single session. The ICA_2012 congress managed to do just that on Tuesday afternoon, when Estonian archivist Kuldar Aas and Tessella’s Robert Sharpe reflected on what – I assume – is the ultimate digital archivist’s dream: seamless integration or transition of records from government agencies to archives. – by Inge Angevaare

Kuldar Aas presenting; at left Rob Sharpe and Master of Ceremonies Steve Stuckey

First, let’s look at the problem. Records which are to be archived inevitably come from many sources with different systems and thus they are likely to have all sorts of different metadata schemas which, inevitably, do not match the archival description formats used by digital archives. Standards are designed to help solve these problems, but, as all of us know, they are typically not complied with. Aas: “Standards are only being used as inspiration for tenders.”

Kuldar Aas: “It’s feasible, in about 5 years”

To deal with the issue, the Estonian National Archives designed a software tool, the Universal Archiving Module or UAM. This tool is designed to streamline the ingest process (more details in Aas’s full paper on the ICA website):

UAM software tool

The tool has now been in use for a few years, and here is some feedback from the agencies:

Feedback from the agencies

Interestingly, the agencies report that the tool has forced them to get their records management better organised. Now, that’s music in any archivist’s ears. On the negative side, they regret losing flexibility, which is inherent in any standardization process. And implementation is still very time-consuming.

UAM: lessons learned

Aas concluded that “seamless integration” is not yet possible at the present time, but he expects it to become possible in, say, five years.

Robert Sharpe: “We don’t really need it.”

Robert Sharpe represents Tessella, a vendor of digital preservation systems (Safety Deposit Box). He agreed with the problem, but challenged Aas’s solution, arguing that the combined schema will change over time, thus requiring further conversions or necessitating the system to work with multiple versions. Also, Sharpe argued, every conversion carries the risk of data loss. Alternatively, Tessella designed a system that can work with multiple metadata schemas (full details in Sharpe’s full paper)

Rob Sharpe: “Why bother?”

Here’s Tessella’s alternative:

Tessella’s alternative approach

And here are the advantages, according to Sharpe:

Advantages of the Tessella approach

Now, I am in no position to tell which approach is “better” (if such can be determined at all, at this stage), but there is one thing about Sharpe’s approach that appealed to me very much: the fact that it reduces barriers to ingest, that it allows organizations to get stuff into their systems without much ado. All too often valuable data remain “on the other side of the wall”, because ingest is too problematic. In this way, at least, the data gets into a system where it is protected and backed up. Extra metadata can always be added at a later stage. I am reminded of the social media debate (yesterday’s post): because it is complicated, nothing is done at the moment, and that is certainly the worst of options.

On the other hand: how does this compare with the adagium “garbage in, garbage out”, in other words: “What about access?” Sharpe: “Nowadays metadata are not the only way to search content, there are such facilities as full-text search. Besides, if you make use of the original metadata, you might even be able to get in deeper.”

“Might this approach be too simple for complicated data such as census data?”, someone asked. “That is quite possible,” Sharpe allowed.

Entr’acte: archivist, diplomat’s wife, spy, novelist: the story of Dame Stella

On another note altogether, there was a charming presentation by Dame Stella Rimington. She started out her career as an archivist, then became a diplomat’s wife in Delhi (mostly hosting tea parties), eventually to be recruited by MI5, the British Secret Service, where she ended her career as the first female Director. Since then, she has written seven novels …

Dame Stella discussing secrecy and freedom of information with ICA President (and Dutch National Archivist) Martin Berendse

Dame Stella described the Cold War years when everything revolved around secrecy. She indicated that the emergence of terrorism, and the consequent need to share information, in large part contributed to the present demand for more openness. However, she strongly condemned such initiatives as Wikileaks, which “indiscriminately” leak information, putting “live sources” (now there’s a spy-word!) at risk. She warned that the risk of leaks will cause government agencies to make decisions without leaving any paper trail, which is quite the opposite of what movements like Wikileaks profess to strive for.

She concluded by saying that since her own days as an archivist (when her main worry was to prevent parchment records from being turned into fashionable lamp shades), the life of an archivist has become more complicated, “and thus more interesting.” Now that’s the spirit!

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