The Signal: Digital Preservation
The following is a guest post by report co-authors and NDSA Standards and Practices Working Group members:
- Winston Atkins, Duke University Libraries
- Andrea Goethals, Harvard Library
- Carol Kussmann, Minnesota State Archives
- Meg Phillips, National Archives and Records Administration
- Mary Vardigan, Inter‐university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR)
The results of the 2012 National Digital Stewardship Alliance Standards and Practices Working Group’s digital preservation staffing survey have just been released! Staffing for Effective Digital Preservation: An NDSA Report (pdf) shares what we learned by surveying 85 institutions with a mandate to preserve digital content about how they staffed and organized their preservation functions. You may remember that The Signal blogged about the survey on August 8, 2012 to encourage readers to participate: “How do you staff your Digital Preservation Initiatives?” As promised in that post and elsewhere, the results of the survey are now publicly available and the survey data have been archived for future use.
We’ll highlight some of the significant findings here, but we encourage you to read the full report and let us know what you think – both about the report and the current state of digital preservation staffing.
The NDSA found that there was no dedicated digital preservation department in most organizations surveyed to take the lead in this area. In most cases, preservation tasks fell to a library, archive or other department. Close to half of respondents thought that the digital preservation function in their organizations was well organized, but a third were not satisfied and many were unsure.
Another key finding is that almost all institutions believe that digital preservation is understaffed. Organizations wanted almost twice the number of full‐time equivalents that they currently had. Most organizations are retraining existing staff to manage digital preservation functions rather than hiring new staff.
The survey also asked specifically about the desired qualifications for new digital preservation managers. Respondents believe that passion for digital preservation and a knowledge of digital preservation standards, best practices, and tools are the most important characteristics of a good digital preservation manager, not a particular educational background or past work experience.
Other findings from the survey showed that most organizations expected the size of their holdings to increase substantially in the next year. Twenty percent expect their current content to double. Images and text files are the most common types of content being preserved. Most organizations are performing the majority of digital preservation activities in‐house but many outsource some activities (digitization was the most common) and are hoping to outsource more.
The survey provides some useful baseline data about staffing needs, and the NDSA Standards and Practices Working Group recommends that the survey be repeated in two to three years to show change over time as digital preservation programs mature and as more organizations self‐identify as being engaged in digital preservation.
What do you think? We welcome your comments on the current report or any recommendations about the next iteration of the survey.
Mitch Fraas, Scholar in Residence at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania and Acting Director, Penn Digital Humanities Forum, writes about using Viewshare for mapping library book markings. We’re always excited to see the clever and interesting ways our tools are used to expose digital collections, and Mitch was gracious enough to talk about his experience with Viewshare in the following interview.
Erin: I really enjoyed reading about your project to map library book markings of looted books in Western Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. Could you tell us a bit about your work at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries with this collection?
Mitch: One of the joys of working in a research library is being exposed to all sorts of different researchers and projects. The Kislak Center at Penn is home to the Penn Provenance Project, which makes available photographs of provenance markings from several thousand of our rare books. That project got me thinking about other digitized collections of provenance markings. I’ve been interested in WWII book history for a while and I was fortunate to meet Kathy Peiss, a historian at Penn working in the field, and so hit upon the idea of this project. After the war, officials at the Offenbach collecting point for looted books took a number of photographs of book stamps and plates and made binders for reference. Copies of the binders can be found at the National Archives and Records Administration and the Center for Jewish History. For the set on Viewshare, I used the digitized NARA microfilm of the binders.
Erin: I was particularly excited to see that you used Viewshare as the tool to map the collection. What prompted your use of Viewshare and why did you think it would be a good fit for your project?
Mitch: Viewshare really made this project simple and easy to do. I first heard about it through the library grapevine maybe a year and half ago and started experimenting with it for some of Penn’s manuscript illuminations. I like the ease of importing metadata from delimited files like spreadsheets into Viewshare and the built-in mapping and visualization features. Essentially it allowed me to focus on the data and worry less about formatting and web display.
Erin: You mentioned that these photographs of the book markings are available through NARA’s catalog and that CJH has digitized copies of albums containing photos of the markings. Could you talk a little about the process of organizing the content and data for your view. For example, what kinds of decisions did you make with respect to the data you wanted to include in the view?
Mitch: This is always a difficult issue when dealing with visualizations. Displaying data visually is so powerful that it can obscure the choices made in its production and overdetermine viewer response. There are several thousand book markings from looted books held by NARA and the CJH but I chose just those identified in the 1940s as originating from “Germany.” Especially when mapping, I worried that providing a smattering of data from throughout the collection could be extremely misleading and wanted as tight a focus as possible. Even with this of course there are still many holes and elisions in the data. For example, my map includes book stamps from today’s Russia, Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. These were of course part of the Third Reich at the time but book markings from those countries are found in many different parts of the albums as the officers at the Offenbach depot sorted book markings had separate “Eastern” albums largely based on language – so for these areas the map definitely shows only an extremely fragmentary picture.
Erin: We’ve found that users of Viewshare often learn things about their collections through the different views they build – maps, timelines, galleries, facets, etc. What was the most surprising aspect of the collection you learned through Viewshare?
Mitch: I have to admit to being surprised at the geographic distribution of these pre-war libraries. Though obviously there are heavy concentrations in large cities like Berlin, there are also an enormous variety of small community libraries spread throughout Germany represented in the looted books. I didn’t get a real sense for this distribution until I saw the Viewshare map for the first time.
Erin: Your project is an interesting example of using digitized data to do cross-border humanities research. Could you talk about some of the possibilities and challenges of using a visualization and access tool like Viewshare for exchanging data and collaborating with scholars around the world?
Mitch: Thanks to what I was able to do with Viewshare I got in touch with Melanie Meyers, a librarian at the CJH, and am happy to say that the library there is working on mapping all of the albums from the Offenbach collection. The easy data structure for Viewshare has allowed me to share my data with them and I hope that it can be helpful in providing a more complete picture of pre-war libraries and book culture.
Erin: Do you have any suggestions for how Viewshare could be enhanced to meet the diverse needs of scholars?
Mitch: Though easier said than done, the greatest need for improvement I see in Viewshare is in creating a larger user and viewer base. The images I use for my Viewshare collection are hosted via Flickr which has much less structured data functionality but has a built-in user community and search engine visibility. In short, I’d love to see Viewshare get all the publicity it can!
If you’ve ever been to a warehouse store on a weekend afternoon, you’ve experienced the power of the sample. In the retail world, samples are an important tool to influence potential new customers who don’t want to invest in an unknown entity. I certainly didn’t start the day with lobster dip on my shopping list but it was in my cart after I picked up and enjoyed a bite-sized taste. It was the sample that proved to me that the product met my requirements (admittedly, I have few requirements for snack foods) and fit well within my existing and planned implementation infrastructure (admittedly, not a lot of thought goes into my meal-planning) so the product was worth my investment. I tried it, it worked for me and fit my budget so I bought it.
Of course, samples have significant impact far beyond the refrigerated section of warehouse stores. In the world of digital file formats, there are several areas of work where sample files and curated groups of sample files, which I call test sets, can be valuable.
The spectrum of sample files
Sample files are not all created equal. Some are created as perfect ideal example of the archetypal golden file, some might have suspected or confirmed errors of varying degrees while still others are engineered to be non-conforming or just plain bad. Is it always an ideal “golden” everything-works-perfectly example or do less-than-perfect files have a place? I’d argue that you need both. It’s always good to have a valid and well-formed sample but you often learn more from non-conforming files because they can highlight points of failure or other issues.
Oliver Morgan of MetaGlue, Inc., an expert consultant working with the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative AV Working Group on the MXF AS-07 application specification has developed the “Index of Metals” scale for sample files created specifically for testing purposes during the specification drafting process which range from gold (engineered to be good/perfect) to plutonium (engineered poisonous).
Ideally, the file creator would have the capability and knowledge to make files that conform to specific requirements so they know what’s good, bad and ugly about each engineered sample. Perhaps equally as important as the file itself is the accompanying documentation which describes the goal and attributes of the sample. Some examples of this type of test set are the Adobe Acrobat Engineering PDF Test Suites and Apple’s Quicktime Sample Files.
Of course, not all sample files are planned out and engineered to meet specific requirements. More commonly, files are harvested from available data sets, web sites or collections and repurposed as de facto digital file format sample files. One example of this type of sample set is Open Planet’s Format Corpus. These files can be useful for a range of purposes. Viewed in the aggregate, these ad hoc sample files can help establish patterns and map out structures for format identification and characterization when format documentation or engineered samples are either deficient or lacking. Conversely, these non-engineered test sets can be problematic especially when they deviate from the format specification standard. How divergent from the standard is too divergent before the file is considered fatally flawed or even another file format?
Audiences for sample files
In the case of specification drafting, engineered sample files can be useful not only as part of a feedback loop for the specification authors to highlight potential problems and omissions in the technical language, but sample files may be valuable later on to manufactures and open-source developers who want to build tools that can interact with the file type to produce valid results.
At the Library of Congress, we sometimes examine sample files when working on the Sustainability of Digital Formats website so we can see with our own eyes how the file is put together. Reading specification documentation (which, when it exists, isn’t always as comprehensive as one might wish) is one thing but actually seeing a file through a hex viewer or other investigative tool is another. The sample file can clarify and augment our understanding of the format’s structure and behavior.
Other efforts focusing on format identification and characterization issues, such as JHOVE and JHOVE2, the National Archives UK’s DROID, OPF’s Digital Preservation and Data Curation Requirements and Solutions and Archive Team’s Let’s Solve the File Format Problem, have a critical need for format samples, especially when other documentation about the format is incomplete or just plain doesn’t exist. Sample files, especially engineered test sets, can help efforts such as NARA’s Applied Research and their partners establish patterns and rules, including identifying magic numbers which are an essential component to digital preservation research and workflows. Format registries like PRONOM and UDFR rely on the results of this research to support digital preservation services.
Finally, there are the institutional and individual end users who might want to implement the file type in their workflows or adopt it as a product but first, they want to play with it a bit. Sample files can help potential implementers understand how a file type might fit into existing workflows and equipment, how it might compare on an information storage level with other file format options as well as help assess the learning curve for staff to understand the file’s structure and behavior? Adopting a new file format is no small decision for most institutions so the sample files allow technologists to evaluate if a particular format meets their needs and estimate the level of investment.
Crossing the River: An Interview With W. Walker Sampson of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History
The following is a guest post by Jefferson Bailey, Strategic Initiatives Manager at Metropolitan New York Library Council, National Digital Stewardship Alliance Innovation Working Group co-chair and a former Fellow in the Library of Congress’s Office of Strategic Initiatives.
Regular readers of The Signal will no doubt be familiar with the Levels of Digital Preservation project of the NDSA. A number of posts have described the development and evolution of the Levels themselves as well as some early use cases. While the blog posts have generated excellent feedback in the comments, the Levels team has also been excited to see a number of recent conference presentations that described the Levels in use by archivists and other practitioners working to preserve digital materials. To explore some of the local, from the trenches narratives of those working to develop digital preservation policies, resources and processes, we will be interviewing some of the folks currently using the Levels in their day-to-day work. If you are using the Levels within your organization and are interested in chatting about it, feel free to contact us via our email addresses listed on the project page linked above.
In this interview, we are excited to talk with W. Walker Sampson, Electronic Records Analyst, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
JB: Hi Walker. First off, tell us about your role at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and your day-to-day activities within the organization.
WS: I’m officially an ‘electronic records analyst’ in our Government Records section. It’s a new position at the archives so my responsibilities can vary a bit. While I deliver electronic records management training to government employees, I do most of my work in and with the Electronic Archives group here. This ranges from electronic records processing to a number of digital initiatives – Flickr, Archive-It and I think most importantly a reconsideration of our digital repository structure.
JB: What are some of the unique challenges to working on digital preservation within a state agency, especially one that “collects, preserves and provides access to the archival resources of the state, administers museums and historic sites and oversees statewide programs for historic preservation, government records management and publications”? That is a diverse set of responsibilities!
WS: It is! Fortunately for us, those duties are allocated to different divisions within the department. Most of the digital preservation responsibilities are directed to the Archives and Records Services division.
The main challenges here are twofold: a large number of records creators – over two hundred state agencies and committees, and following that, a potentially voluminous amount of born-digital records to process and maintain. I suppose however that this latter challenge may not be a unique to state archives.
I would also say that governance is a perennial issue for us, as it may be for a number of state archives. That is, it can be difficult to establish oversight for any state organization’s records at any given point of the life cycle. According to our state code we have a mandate to protect and preserve, but this does not translate into clear actions that we can take to exercise oversight.
JB: How have MDAH’s practices and workflows evolved as the amount of digital materials it collects and preserves has increased?
WS: MDAH is interesting because we started an electronic archives section relatively early, in 1996. We were able to build up a lot of the expertise in house to process electronic records through custom databases, scripts and web pages. This initiative was put together before I began working here, but one of my professors in the School of Information at UT Austin, Dr. Patricia Galloway, was a big part of that first step.
Since then the digital preservation tool or application ‘ecosystem’ has expanded tremendously. There’s an actual community with stories, initiatives, projects and histories. However, we mostly do our work with the same strategy as we began – custom code, scripts and pages. It has been difficult to find a good time to cross the river and use more community-based tools and workflows. We have an immense amount of material that would need to be moved into any new system, and one can find different strata of description and metadata formatting practices over time.
I think that crossing will help us handle the increasing volume, but I also think this big leap into a community-based software (Archivematica, DSpace and so on) will give us an opportunity to reconsider how digital records processing and management happens.
JB: Having seen your presentation at the SAA 2013 conference during the Digital Preservation in State and Territorial Archives: Current State and Prospects for Improvement panel, I was very interested in your discussion of using the Level of Digital Preservation as part of a more comprehensive self-assessment tool. Tell us both about your overall presentation and about your use of the Levels.
WS: I should start by just covering briefly the Digital Preservation Capability Maturity Model. This is a digital preservation model developed by Lori Ashley and Charles Dollar, and it is designed to be a comprehensive assessment of a digital repository. The intention is to analyze a repository by its constituent parts, with organizations then investigating each part in turn to understand where their processes and policies should be improved. It is up to the particular organization to prioritize what aspects are most relevant or critical to them.
The Council of State Archivists developed a survey based off this model, and all state and territorial archives took that survey in 2011. The intention here was to try and get an accurate picture of where preservation of authentic digital records stands across the country’s state archives.
This brings us to the SAA 2013 presentation. I presented MDAH’s background and follow-up to this survey along with two other state archives, Alabama and Wyoming. In my portion I highlighted two areas for improvement for us here in Mississippi, the first being policy and the second technical capacity.
Although the Levels of Digital Preservation are meant to advise on the actual practice of preservation, we have looked at the chart as a way to articulate policy. The primary reason for this is because the chart really helps to clarify at least some of what we are protecting against. That helps communicate why a body like the legislature ought to have a stake in us.
For example, when I look across the Storage and Geographic Location row of the chart, I’m closer to communicating what we should say in a storage section of a larger digital preservation policy. It’s easier for me to move from “MDAH will create backup copies of preserved digital content” to “MDAH will ensure the strategic backup of digital content which can protect against internal, external and environmental threats,” or something to that effect.
Second, I think the chart can help build internal consensus on what our preservation goals are, and what the basic preservation actions should be, independent of any specific technology. Those are important prerequisites to a policy.
Last, and I think this goes along with my second point, I don’t think policies come out of nowhere. In other words, while it strikes me that some part of a policy should be aspirational, for the most part we want to deliver on our stated policy goals. The chart has helped to clarify what we can and can’t do at this point.
JB: Using the Levels within a larger preservation assessment model is an interesting use case. What specific areas of the DPCMM did the Levels help address? The DPCMM is a much more extensive model and focuses more on self-assessment and ranking, whereas the Levels establish accepted practices at numerous degrees. What were the benefits or drawbacks of using these two documents together?
WS: Besides helping to demonstrate some policy goals, I think the Levels apply most directly to objectives in Digital Preservation Strategy, Ingest, Integrity and Security. There’s some significant overlap in content there, in terms of fixity checks, storage redundancy, metadata and file playback. When you look at the actual survey (a copy of this online somewhere…?), they recommend generally similar actions. I think that’s a good indication of consensus in the digital preservation community, and that these two resources are on target.
While I don’t think there’s a marked drawback to using the two documents together – I’ve haven’t spotted any substantive differences in their preservation advice where their subject areas overlap – one does have to keep in mind the more narrowed scope of the Levels. In addition, the DPCMM has the OAIS framework as one of its touchstones, so you find ample reference to SIPs, DIPs, AIPs, designated communities and other OAIS concepts. The Levels of Digital Preservation are not going to explicitly address those expectations.
JB: One aspect of the Levels that has been well received is the functional independence of the boxes/blocks. An individual or institution can currently be at different levels in different activity areas of the grid. I would be interested to hear how this aspect helped (or hindered) the document’s use in policy development specifically.
WS: I think it’s been very helpful in formulating policy. The functional independence of the levels lets the chart identify more preservation actions than it might otherwise. While some of those actions won’t ever be specifically articulated in a policy, some certainly will.
For example the second level of the File Formats category – “Inventory of file formats in use” – is probably not going to be expressed in a policy, levels 3 and 4 may though. It isn’t necessarily the case though that higher levels correlate to policy material however. For instance level 1 for Information Security is really more applicable to a policy statement than the level 4 action.
JB: One of the goals of the Levels of Preservation project is to keeps its guidance clear and concise, while remaining sensitive to the varied institutional contexts in which the guidance might be used. I would be interested to hear how this feature informed the self-assessment process.
WS: Similar to the functional independence, I think it’s a great feature. The Levels don’t present a monolithic single-course track to preservation capacity, so it doesn’t have to be dismissed entirely in the case that some actions don’t really apply. That said, I felt like really all the actions applied to us quite well, so I think we’re well within the target audience for the document.
The DPCMM really shares this feature. Although it’s meant to help an institution build to trustworthy repository status, it’s not a linear recommendation where an organization is expected to from one component section to the next. The roadmap would change considerably from one institution to the next.
The December 2013 issue of the Library of Congress Digital Preservation newsletter (pdf) is now available!
- Beyond the Scanned Image: Scholarly Uses of Digital Collections
- Ten Tips to Preserve Holiday Digital Memories
- Anatomy of a Web Archive
- Updates on FADGI: Still Image and Audio Visual
- Guitar, Bass, Drums, Metadata
- Upcoming events: CNI meeting, Dec 9-10; NDSA Regional meeting, Jan 23-24; Ala Midwinter, Jan 24-28; CurateGear, Jan 8; IDCC, Feb 24-27.
- Conference report on Best Practices Exchange
- Insights Interview with Brian Schmidt
- Articles on personal digital archiving, residency program, and more
To subscribe to the newsletter, sign up here.
This is part two of the Content Matters interview series interview with Diane Papineau, a geographic information systems analyst at the Montana State Library.
Part one was yesterday, December 5, 2013.
Butch: What are some of the biggest digital preservation and stewardship challenges you face at the Montana State Library?
Diane: The two biggest challenges seem to be developing the inventory system and appraising and documenting 25 years of clearinghouse data. MSL is developing the GIS inventory system in-house—we are fortunate that our IT department employs a database administrator and a web developer tasked with this work. The system is in development now and its design is challenging. The system will record not just our archived data, but the Dissemination Information Packages created to serve that data (zipped files, web map services, map applications, etc.) and the relationships between them. For data records alone, we’re wrestling with how to accommodate 13 use cases (data forms and situations), including accommodating parent/child relationships between records. Add to this that we are anxious to be up and running with a sustainable system and the corresponding data discovery tools as we simultaneously appraise and document the clearinghouse data before archiving.
We have archiving procedures in place for the frequently-changing datasets we produce (framework data). However, the existing large collection of clearinghouse data presents a greater challenge. We’re currently organizing clearinghouse data that is actively served and data that’s been squirreled away on external drives, staff hard drives, and even CDs. Much of the data is copies or “near copies” and many original datasets do not have metadata. We need to review the data and document it and for the copies, decide which to archive and which to discard.
When I think of the work ahead of us, I’m reminded of something I read in the GeoMAPP materials. The single most important thing GIS organizations can do to start the preservation process is to organize what they have and document it.
Butch: How have the technologies of digital mapping changed over the past five years? How have those changes affected the work you do?
Diane: The influence of the internet is important to note. Web programmers and lay people are now creating applications and maps using live map services that we make available for important datasets. These are online, live connections to select map data, making mapping possible for people who are not desktop GIS users. With online map makers accessing only a subset of our data (the data provided in these services), we note that they may not make use of the full complement of data we offer. Also, we notice that our patrons are more comfortable these days working with spatial databases, not just shapefiles. This represents a change in patron download data selection, but it would not affect our data and map protocols.
Technology gaining popularity that may assist our data management and archiving include scripting tools like Python. We anticipate that these tools will help us automate our workflow when creating DIPs, generating checksums, and ingesting data into the archive.
Butch: At NDIIPP we’ve started to think more about “access” as a driver for the preservation of digital materials. To what extent do preservation considerations come into play with the work that you do? How does the provision of enhanced access support the long-term preservation of digital geospatial information?
Diane: MSL is in the process of digitizing its state publications holdings. Providing easier public access to them was a strong driver for this effort. Web statistics indicated that once digitized, patron access to a document can go up dramatically.
Regarding our digital geographic data, we have a long history of providing online access to this data. Our current efforts to gain physical and intellectual control over these holdings will reveal long-lost and superseded data that we’ll be anxious to make available given our mandate to provide permanent public access. It may be true that patron access to all of our inventoried holdings may result in more support for our GIS programs, but we’ll be preserving the materials and providing public access regardless.
Butch: How widespread is an awareness of digital stewardship and preservation issues in the part of the geographic community in which the Montana State library operates?
Diane: MSL belongs to a network of professionals who understand and value GIS data archiving and who can be relied on to support our efforts with GIS data preservation. That said, these supportive state agencies and local governments may be in a different position with regard to accomplishing their own data preservation. They are likely wrestling with not having the financial and staff resources or perhaps the policies and administrative level support for implementing data preservation in their own organizations. It’s also quite likely that their business needs are focused on today’s issues. Accommodating a later need for data may be seen as less important. The Montana Land Information Advisory Council offers a grant for applicants wanting to write their metadata and archive their data. To date there have been no applicants.
Beyond Montana, I’ve delivered a GIS data preservation talk at two GIS conferences in New England this year. The information was well-received and engagement in these sessions was encouraging. Two New England GIS leaders with similar state data responsibilities showed interest in how Montana implemented archiving based on GeoMAPP best practices.
Butch: Any final thoughts about the general challenges of handling digital materials within archival collections?
Diane: By comparison to the technical hurdles a GIS shop navigates every day, the protocols for preserving GIS data are pretty straight forward. Either the GIS shop packages and archives the data in house or the shop partners with an official archiving agency in their state. For GIS organizations, libraries, and archives interested in GIS data preservation, there are many guiding documents available. Start exploring these materials using the NDSA’s draft Geospatial Data Archiving Quick Reference document (pdf).
In this installment of the Content Matters interview series of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Content Working Group we’re featuring an interview with Diane Papineau, a geographic information systems analyst at the Montana State Library.
Diane was kind enough to answer questions, in consultation with other MSL staff and the state librarian, Jennie Stapp, about the MSL’s collecting mission, especially in regards to their geospatial data collections.
This is part one of a two part interview. The second part will appear tomorrow, Friday December 6, 2013.
Butch: Montana is a little unusual in that the geospatial services division of the state falls under the Montana State Library. How did this come about and what are the advantages of having it set up this way.
Diane: In addition to a traditional role of supporting public libraries and collecting state publications, the Montana State Library (MSL) hosts the Natural Resource Information System (NRIS), which is staffed by GIS Analysts.
NRIS was established by the Montana Legislature in 1983 to catalog the natural resource and water information holdings of Montana state agencies. In 1987, NRIS gained momentum (and funding) from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Montana Department of Health and Environmental Sciences to support their mining clean-up work on the Superfund sites along the Clark Fork River between Butte and Missoula. This project generated a wealth of GIS data such as work area boundaries, contaminated area locations, and soil sampling sites, which NRIS used to make a multitude of maps for reports and project management. Storing the data and resulting maps at MSL made sense because it is a library and therefore a non-regulatory, neutral agency. Making the maps and data available via a library democratized a large collection of timely and important geographic information and minimized duplication of effort.
GIS was first employed at NRIS in 1987; from that point forward, NRIS functioned as the state’s GIS data clearinghouse, generating and collecting GIS data. NRIS operated for a decade essentially as a GIS service bureau for state government; during this period, NRIS grew into a comprehensive GIS facility, unique among state libraries. In fact, in the mid-1990s, NRIS participated in the first national effort to provide automated search and retrieval of map data. Today, beyond data clearinghouse activities, MSL is involved with state GIS Coordination as well as GIS leadership and education. We also are involved with data creation or maintenance for 10 of the 15 framework datasets (cadastral, transportation, hydrography, etc.) for Montana, and also host a GIS data archive, thanks to our participation as a full partner in the Geospatial Multistate Archive and Preservation Partnership (GeoMAPP)—a project of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA).
Butch: Give us an example of some of the Montana State Library digital collections. Any particularly interesting digital mapping collections?
Diane: Our most important digital geographic collection is the full collection of GIS clearinghouse data gathered over the past 25 years. The majority of this data is “born digital” content made available for download and other types of access via our Data List. Within that collection, one of our most sought-after datasets is the Montana Cadastral framework—a statewide dataset of private land ownership illustrated by tax parcel boundaries. The dataset is updated monthly and is offered for download and as a web map service for desktop GIS users and online mapping. We have stored periodic snapshots of this dataset as it has changed through time and we also serve the most recent version of the data via the online Montana Cadastral map application. The map application makes this very popular data accessible to those without desktop GIS software or training in GIS. Another collection to note is our Clark Fork River superfund site data, which may prove invaluable at some point in the future.
In terms of an actual digital map series, our Water Supply/Drought maps come to mind. For at least 10 years now, NRIS has partnered with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) to create statewide maps illustrating the soil moisture conditions in Montana by county. DNRC supplies the data; NRIS creates the map and maintains the website that serves the collection of maps through time.
Butch: Tell us a bit about how the collection is being (or might be) used. To what extent is it for the general public? To what extent is it for scholars and researchers?
Diane: Our GIS data collection serves the GIS community in Montana and beyond. Users could be GIS practitioners working on land management issues or city/county planning for example. Other collections, such as our land use and land cover datasets and our collection of aerial photos, may be of particular interest to researchers. The general public also utilizes this data; because of phone inquiries we receive, we know that hunters, for example, frequently access the cadastral data in order to obtain landowner permission to hunt on private lands. Though we don’t track individual users due to requirements of library confidentiality, we know that the uses for this collection are virtually limitless.
The general public can access much of the geographic data we serve by using our online mapping applications. For example, patrons can use the Montana Cadastral application that I mentioned plus tools like our Digital Atlas to see GIS datasets for their area of interest. They can use our Topofinder to view topographic maps online or to find a place when, for example, all that’s known is the location’s latitude and longitude. In 2008, in partnership with the Montana Historical Society, we published the Montana Place Names Companion—an online map application that helps patrons to learn the name origin and history of places across the state.
Butch: What sparked the Montana State Library to join the National Digital Stewardship Alliance?
Diane: While we’ve played host to this large collection of GIS data and we have long been recognized as the informal GIS data archive for the state, we had yet to maintain an inventory of our holdings. Thankfully, we never threw data out.
We realized that in order to gain physical and intellectual control over this collection of current and superseded data, we needed to modernize our approach. The timing couldn’t have been better because it coincided with the concluding phase of GeoMAPP. In 2010 MSL participated as an Information Partner, beginning our exposure to formal GIS data archiving issues. Then in 2011, MSL joined GeoMAPP as the project’s last Full Partner. This partnership permitted us to envision applying archivists’ best practices while we reworked and modernized our data management processes.
In some ways we were the GeoMAPP “guinea pig” and we are grateful for that role—so much research had already been done by the other partners and so much information was already available. In return, what MSL could offer to this group was the perspective of three important GeoMAPP target audiences: libraries, archives, and GIS shops.
Butch: Tell us about some of the archiving practices that the Montana State Library has defined as a result of its partnership with GeoMAPP and the National Digital Stewardship Alliance. Why is preservation important for GIS data?
Diane: I’ll start with the “why.” GIS data creation is expensive. By preserving geographic data via archiving, we store that investment of time and money. GIS data is often used to create public policy. Montana has incredibly strong “right to know” laws so preserving data that was once available to decision makers supports later inquiry about current laws and policies. Furthermore, making superseded data discoverable and accessible promotes historically-informed public policy decisions, wise land use planning, and effective natural disaster planning to name just a few use cases. From a state government perspective, the published GIS datasets created by state agencies are considered state publications. Our agency is statutorily mandated to preserve state publications and make them permanently accessible to the public.
To guide us in this modernization, MSL developed data management standards, policies, and procedures that require data preservation using archivists’ best practices. I’ll discuss a few highlights from these standards that illustrate our particular organizational needs as a GIS data collector and producer.
In order to appeal to the greater GIS community in Montana, we decided to use more GIS-friendly terms in place of the three “package” terms from the OAIS model. We think of a Submission Information Package (SIP) as “working data,” a Dissemination Information Package (DIP) as a Published Data Package, and an Archive Information Packages (AIP), as an Archive Data Package.
MSL chose to take a “library collection development policy” approach to managing a GIS data collection rather than a “records management” approach, which makes use of records retention schedules. What this means is we’re on the lookout for data we want to collect—appraisal happens at the point of collection. If we take the data, we both archive it (creating an AIP) and make DIPs at the same time. The archive is just another data file repository, though a special one with its own rules. If the data acquired is not quite ready for distribution, we modify it from a SIP (our “working data”) to make it publishable. We do not archive the SIP.
We’re employing the library discipline’s construct of series’ and collections and their associated parent/child metadata records, which is new to the GIS group here at MSL. In turn, that decision influenced the file structure of our archive. Though ISO topic categories were GeoMAPP suggestions for both data storage as well as for data discovery, MSL chose instead to organize archive data storage by the time period of content unless the data is part of a series (i.e. cadastral) or if it was generated as part of a discrete project and is considered a collection (i.e the Superfund data). Additional consistency and structure should also come from the use of a new file naming convention (<extent><theme><timeframe>).
MSL is archiving data in its original formats rather than converting all data to an archival format (i.e. shapefile) because each data model offers useful spatial characteristics that we did not want to strip from the archived copy. For archive data packaging, we use the Library of Congress tool “Bagger” and we specifically chose to zip all the associated files together before “bagging” to save space in the archive. Zipping the data also permits us to produce one checksum for the entire package, which simplifies dataset management and dataset integrity checking in the workflow. We decided not to use Bagger’s zip function for this because the resulting AIP produced an excessively deep file structure, burying the data in multiple folder levels. To document the AIP in our data management system, we’ve established new archive metadata fields such as date archived, checksum, data format, and data format version.
Part two of this interview will appear tomorrow, Friday December, 2013.
Recently, the world of web archiving has been a busy one. Here are some quick updates:
- The National Library of Estonia released the Estonian Web Archive to the public. This is of particular note because the Legal Deposit Law in Estonia allows the archive to be publicly accessible online. If you read Estonian you can browse the 1003 records that make up the 1.6 TB of data in the archive. A broad crawl of the entire Estonian domain is planned in 2014.
- Ed Summers from the Library of Congress gave the keynote address at the National Digital Forum in New Zealand titled The Web as Preservation Medium. Ed is a software developer and offers a great perspective into some technical aspects of preserving the Web. He covers the durability of HTML, the fragility of links, how preservation is interlaced with access, the importance of community action and the value of “small data”.
- The International Internet Preservation Consortium 2014 General Assembly will be held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris May 19-13, 2014. There is still a little time to submit a proposal to speak at the public event on May 19th titled Building Modern Research Corpora: the Evolution of Web Archiving and Analytics.
Libraries, archives and other heritage or scientific organizations have been systematically collecting web archives for over 15 years. Early stages of web archiving projects were mainly focused on tackling the challenges of harvesting web content, trying to capture an interlinked set of documents, and to rebuild its different layers through time. Institutions, especially those on a national level, were also defining their legal and institutional mandates. Meanwhile, approaches to web studies developed and influenced researchers’ and academics’ use of web archives. New requirements have emerged. While the objective of building generic collections remains valid, web archiving institutions and researchers also need to collaborate in order to build specific corpora – from the live web or from web archives.
At the same time, “surfing the web the way it was” is no longer the only way of accessing archived web content. Methods developed to analyse large data sets – such as data or link mining – are applicable to web archives. Web archive collections can thus be a component of major humanities and social sciences projects and infrastructures. With relevant protocols and tools for analysis, they will provide invaluable knowledge of modern societies.
This conference aims to propose a forum where researchers, librarians, archivists and other digital humanists will exchange ideas, requirements, methods and tools that can be used to collaboratively build and exploit web archive corpora and data sets. Contributions are sought that will present:
- models of collaboration between archiving institutions and researchers,
- methods and tools to perform data analytics on web archives,
- examples of studies performed on web archives,
- alternative ways of archiving web content.
Abstracts (no longer than one page) should be sent to Peter Stirling (peter dot stirling at bnf dot fr) by Friday December 9, 2013. Full details are available at the IIPC website.
In 1971, Gary Marchionini had an epiphany about educational technology when he found himself competing with teletype machines for his students’ attention.
Marchionini was teaching mathematics at a suburban Detroit junior high school the year that the school acquired four new teletype machines. The machines were networked to a computer, so a user could type something into a teletype and the teletype would transmit it to the computer for processing.
The school teletypes accessed “drill and practice” programs. The paper-based teletype would print a math problem, a student would type in the answer, wait patiently for the response over the slow, primitive network and eventually the teletype would print out, “Good” (if it was correct).
“The thing was noisy,” said Marchionini. “But the kids still wanted to leave my math classroom to go do this in the closet. There was something about this clickety clackety paper-based terminal that attracted them.
“Eventually I realized that there were two things going on. One was personalization; each kid was getting his own special attention. The other thing was interactivity; it was back and forth, back and forth with the kids. It was engaging.
“That’s what sparked my interest in computer interaction as a line of research.”
That interest became a lifelong mission for Marchionini. He went on to get his Masters and Doctorate in Math Education and Educational Computing from Wayne State University, he quit teaching public school in 1978, joined the faculty at Wayne State and trained teachers in computer literacy.
In 1983, Marchionini joined the faculty at the University of Maryland College of Library and Information Services; he also joined the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory.
“It was easy to make the transition from education to library and information services because I always thought of information retrieval as a learning function,” said Marchionini. “The goal of my work was always to enhance learning. And information seeking, from a library perspective… well, people are learning. It could be casual or it could be critical but they are trying to learn something new.”
Marchionini’s research encompassed information science, library science, information retrieval, information architecture and human/computer interaction…interface research. He was especially keen on the power of graphics to help people visualize and conceptualize information, and to help people interact with computers to find that information. In fact, as early as 1979, before the explosion of graphic interfaces on personal computers, Marchionini was coding rudimentary graphic representations on his own.
“One of my projects [in 1979] involved addition ‘grouping’ and subtraction ‘regrouping’ – borrowing and carrying and all that stuff,” said Marchionini. “I wrote a computer program that graphically showed that process as a bundling and unbundling of little white dots on a Radio Shack screen.”
Marchionini is quick to point out that graphics were only a part of his interface research, and there is a time and a place for graphics and for declarative text in human/computer interaction. He said that the challenge for researchers was to determine the appropriate function of each.
One interface project that he worked on at UMd also marked his first involvement with the Library of Congress: working with UMd’s Nancy Anderson, professor of psychology (now retired), and Ben Shneiderman, professor of computer science, to add touch screens to the Scorpio and MUMS online catalog interfaces. UMd’s collaborative relationship with the Library continued on into the American Memory project.
“They contracted with us at Maryland to do a series of training events on the user-interface side of American Memory,” said Marchionini. “We did a lot of prototypes. This is some of the early dynamic-query work that Ben Shneiderman and his crew and those of us in the Human Computer Interaction lab were inventing. We worked on several of the sub-collections.”
Marchionini’s expertise is in creating the underlying data architecture and determining how the user will interact with the data; he leaves the interface design — the pretty page — to those with graphic arts talent.
A lot of analysis, thought, research and testing goes into developing appropriate visual cues and prompts to stimulate interactivity with the user. How can people navigate dense quantities of information to quickly find what they’re searching for? What kind of visual shorthand communicates effectively and what doesn’t?
When an interface is well-designed, it doesn’t call attention to itself and the user experience is smooth and seamless. Above all, a well-designed interface always answers the two questions “Where am I?” and “What are my options?”.
Regarding his work on cues and prompts, Marchionini cites another early UMd/Library of Congress online project, the Coolidge-Consumerism collection.
“We wanted to give people ‘look aheads’ and clues about what might happen and what they were getting themselves into if they click on something,” said Marchionini. “The idea was to see if we can show samples of what’s down deep in the collection right up front, either on the search page or on what was in those days the early search-and-results page. It was a lot of fun to work with Catherine Plaisant and UMd students on that. We made some good contributions to interface design.” Marchionini and Paisant delivered a paper at the Computer-Human Interaction group’s CHI 97 conference titled, “Bringing Treasures to the Surface: Iterative Design for the Library of Congress National Digital Library Program,” which details UMd’s interface design process.
Marchionini has long had an interest in video as a unique means of conveying information. Indeed, he may have recognized video’s potential long before many of his peers did.
In 1994, he and colleagues from the UMd School of Education worked on a project called the Baltimore Learning Community that created a digital library of social studies and science materials for teachers in Baltimore middle schools.
Apple donated about 50 computers. The Discovery Channel offered 100 hours of video, which Marchionini and his colleagues planned to digitize, segment, index and map to the instructional objectives of the state of Maryland. It was an ambitious project and Marchionini said that he learned a lot about interactive video, emerging video formats, video copyrights and the programming challenges for online interactivity.
“We built some pretty neat interfaces,” said Marchionini. “At the time, Java was just coming out and we were developing dynamic query interfaces in the earliest version of Java. We were moving toward web-based applets. And we were building resources for the teachers to save their lesson plans, including comments on how they used the digital assets and wrote comments on them and shared them with other teachers. Basically we were building a Facebook of those days — getting these materials shared with one another and people making comments and adding to other people’s lesson plans so they could re-use them.”
Marchionini adds that the Baltimore Learning Community project is a good example of the need for digital preservation. Today, nothing remains from the project except for some printouts of screen displays of the user interfaces and website, and a few videotapes that show the dynamics.
“Today’s funding agencies’ data-management plan requirements are a step in the right direction of ensuring preservation,” said Marchionini.
In 1998, Marchionini joined the faculty at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he continued his video research along with his other projects. In 2000, he and Barbara Wildemuth and their students launched Open Video, a repository of rights-free videos that people could download for education and research purposes. Open Video acquired about 500 videos from NASA, which Open Video segmented and indexed. Archivist and filmmaker Rick Prelinger donated many films from his library to Open Video before he allied with the Internet Archive. Open Video even donated hundreds of videos to Google Video before Google acquired YouTube.
In 2000, around the time that NDIIPP was formed, Marchionini started discussing video preservation with his colleague Helen Tibbo and others. He concluded that one of the intriguing aspects of preserving video from online would be to also capture the context in which the video existed.
Marchionini said, “What kind of context would you need, say in 2250, if you see a video of some kids putting Mentos in Coke bottles and squirting stuff up in the air? You would understand the chemistry of it and all that but you would never understand why half a million people watched that stupid video at one time in history.”
“That’s where you need the context of knowing that this was the time when YouTube was happening and people were discovering ways to make their own videos without having to have a million dollar production lab or a few thousand dollars worth of equipment. The importance of it is that the video is associated with what was going on in the world at the time.”
With NDIIPP grant money, by way of the National Science Foundation, Marchionini and his colleagues created a tool called ContextMiner, a sort of tightly focused, specialized web harvester that is driven by queries rather than link following. A user gives ContextMiner a query or URL to direct to YouTube, Flickr, Twitter or other services. In the case of YouTube, ContextMiner then regularly downloads not only the video files returned from the search but whatever data on the page is associated with that video. A typical YouTube page will have comments, ratings and links to related videos. For awhile, ContextMiner even harvested incoming links, which placed the video in a sort of contextual constellation of related topics.
The inherent educational value of video is that it can show a process. You can either read about how to juggle or how to tie your shoe laces, or you can watch a demonstration. Modelling communicates processes more effectively than written descriptions of processes.
Marchionini also sees video as a means of recording a process for research purposes. As an example, he described a situation where he wanted to capture and review the actions of users as they conducted queries and negotiated the search process.
He said, “I wanted to see a movie of a thousand people’s searches going through these states, from query specification to results examination and back to queries. Video is a way to preserve some things that have dynamics and interactions involved, things that you just can’t preserve in words. This is critical for showing processes, such as interaction dynamics, in a rapidly changing web environment. Because old code and old websites may no longer work, video is an important tool to capture those dynamics. That’s the only way I have of going back and saying, ‘Ten years ago, here were these interfaces we were designing and here’s why they worked the way they did.’ And I show a video.”
Today Marchionini is dean of the UNC School of Information and Library Science and he heads its Interaction Design Laboratory. The results of Marchionini’s research over the years have influenced our daily human/computer interaction in ways that we’ll never know. Interfaces will continue to evolve and get refined but it is important to remember the work of people like Marchionini who did the early research and testing, labored on the prototypes and laid the foundation of effective human-computer interface design, making it possible for modern users to interact effortlessly with their devices.
Professors may not get the glory and attention that their work deserves but that’s not the point of being a teacher. Teachers teach. They pass their knowledge along to their students and often inspire them to create the Next Big Thing.
“University professors create ideas and prototypes and then the people who get paid to build real systems do that last difficult 10% of making something work at scale,” said Marchionini. “We train students. And it’s the students that we inspire, hopefully, who go on to industry or government work or libraries. And they put these ideas into place.
“My job is ideas and directions. Some stick and others do not. I hope they all get preserved so we can learn from both the good ones and the not-so-good ones.”
<<Digital Preservation Pioneer index
Open source software is playing an important role in digital stewardship. In an effort to better understand the role open source software is playing, the NDSA infrastructure working group is reaching out to folks working on a range of open source projects. Our goal is to develop a better understanding of their work and how they are thinking about the role of open source software in digital preservation in general.
For background on discussions so far, review our interviews with Bram van der Werf on Open Source Software and Digital Preservation, Peter Van Garderen and Courtney Mumma on Archivematica and the Open Source Mindset for Digital Preservation Systems and Mark Leggott on Islandora’s Open Source Ecosystem and Digital Preservation. In this interview, we talk with Cal Lee, Associate Professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill about BitCurator.
Trevor: The title of your talk about BitCurator to the NDSA infrastructure working group explained it as “An Open-Source Project for Libraries and Archives that Takes Bitstreams Seriously.” Could you unpack that a bit for us? What does it mean to take bitstreams seriously and why is it important for archives to do so?
Cal: Computers store and process information through physical mechanisms, such as turning transistors on/off and changing/detecting the magnetic properties of the surface of a disk. However, software is designed to deal with bitstreams, which are abstractions of those physical properties into sequences of 1s and 0s. As I’ve expressed elsewhere, the bitstream is a powerful abstraction layer, because it allows any two computer components to reliably exchange data, even if the underlying structure of their physical components is quite different. In other words, even though the bits that make up the bitstream must be manifested through physical properties of computer hardware, the bitstreams are not inextricably tied to any specific physical manifestation. So the bitstream will be treated the same, regardless of whether it came off a hard drive, solid state drive, CD or floppy disk.
The bitstreams can be (and often are) reproduced with complete accuracy. By using well-established mechanisms – such as generation and comparison of cryptographic hashes (e.g. MD5 or SHA1) – one can verify that two different instances of a bitstream are exactly the same. This is more fundamental than simply saying that one has made a good copy. If the two hash values are identical, then the two instances are, by definition, the same bitstream.
In our everyday use of computers, we luckily don’t need to worry about bitstreams. We focus on higher-level representations such as documents, pages and programs. We click on things, copy things and open things, without having to worry about their constituent parts. But those responsible for the long-term preservation of digital information need to attend to bitstreams. They need to ensure the integrity of bitstreams over time by generating and then periodically verifying the cryptographic hashes that I mentioned earlier. They also often need to view files through hex editors, which are programs that allow them to see the underlying bitstreams (presented in 8-bit chunks called bytes), so they can identify file types, extract data from otherwise unreadable files, figure out the underlying contents and structures of files, and even reverse engineer formats in order to bring otherwise obsolete files back to life.
Bitstreams are also important when it comes to preserving the information acquired on removable media such as hard drives, flash drives, CDs or floppy disks. Well-established practices in the field of digital forensics involve using a write blocker to ensure that none of the bits on the medium are accidentally changed or overwritten, and then creating a disk image. A disk image is a perfect copy of the bitstream that is read off the disk through the computer’s input/output equipment. It essentially allows librarians and archivists to retain all of the contents of a disk without having to rely on the physical medium. This is important, because the medium will not be readable forever, so the bits need to be “lifted” off and placed in other storage. It’s also important because there are many forms of data stored on the disk that may not be replicated correctly simply by copying and pasting the files from the disk. The standard forensics software that creates a disk image also generates a cryptographic hash of the entire disk image (as opposed to the hashes of the individual files), so someone in the future can verify the disk image and ensure that none of the bits have changed.
Trevor: Disk images are an important part of that bitstream focus. At its core, BitCurator functions to help create disk images and then enable a user to carry out a range of operations on disk images. Could you tell us a bit about how your team is thinking about disk images themselves as a format? For example, to what extent is the image the artifact and the process of creating an image a preservation action? Or, conceptually is the image more of akin to a derivative of the artifact?
Cal: As I explained earlier, a bitstream is the same bitstream regardless of how it’s physically stored. So if you navigate to a file that’s stored on your computer and send it to me as an email attachment, and I then save it to my computer, my copy of the bitstream will be exactly the same as your copy. The associated metadata, such as the file name and timestamps could be completely different, but the file as a bitstream will not change (assuming there has been no corruption of the file along the way). We can verify this by generating hashes on the two copies and seeing that they match.
This same set of relationships applies to disk images. If you create a disk image of a floppy disk and send it to me, I’ll then have the exact same bitstream that you have. If you create another disk image of that disk, it should also be exactly the same (again, assuming no data loss due to hardware failure). It is this disk image that we need to treat as the “original” in a digital environment. This is true for two fundamental reasons. First, software on your computer doesn’t have access to the underlying physical properties of a disk the same way that a reader has direct access to the physical properties of a printed page. The bitstreams that computers read, manage and process are always mediated through the computers’ input/output equipment. So, except in extremely rare cases of heroic recovery, there’s no practical value in treating the contents of a disk as anything other than the stream of bits that can be read through the I/O equipment. In other words, for practical purposes, the disk image is the disk.
The second reason to treat the disk image as the original is that the physical disk will not be readable forever. The industry will abandon support for the hardware and low-level software/firmware required to read it. The performance of the medium (its storage capacity and input/output transfer rate) will become less acceptable over time – ever try to store a terabyte of data on floppy disks? And the bits will eventually be lost through natural physical aging.
This doesn’t mean that the artifactual properties of hardware are never important. Understanding the original hardware can be important to knowing what the user experience was like at the time. And taking pictures of original media in order to reflect things written on them can be a good way to reflect aspects of the creator’s intentions and work habits.
Trevor: How is the BitCurator team approaching interoperability between this tool and other digital preservation tools?
Cal: Probably the most important answer to your question is that all of the BitCurator software is distributed under an open-source license. This means that people can download, manipulate and redistribute whatever parts they find useful.
We’re also in regular contact and collaborate with people involved in various other development activities. For example, Courtney Mumma from Artefactual Systems is on the BitCurator Development Advisory Group, and we work closely with Artefactual to ensure that the BitCurator software and its data output are structured and packaged in ways that can be incorporated into Archivematica. Mark Matienzo is also on the DAG, and we’ve had many discussions with him about how the BitCurator software can play well with ArchivesSpace. Similarly, we strive to stay abreast of related software development activities being carried out within collecting institutions, such as the valuable work of Peter Chan at Stanford, Don Mennerich at the New York Public Library, Mark Matienzo at Yale, and activities outside the US that are represented well by the documentation that Paul Wheatley has developed for the Open Planets Foundation.
Kam Woods, who is the BitCurator Technical Lead, carries out extremely important liaison activities between our team and not just developers in the cultural heritage sector but also developers of standards and software in the forensics industry. This is particularly important for BitCurator, because we’re repurposing, adapting and repackaging many existing open-source digital forensics tools. Identifying and managing software dependencies is an ongoing process.
Trevor: Could you tell us a bit about the design principles at work in the BitCurator project? That is, instead of trying to build things from scratch you seem to be bringing together a lot of open source software created for somewhat different use cases and make it useful to archives. Why did your team develop this approach and what do you see as its benefits and limitations?
Cal: Almost twenty years ago, in a book called Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett argued that complex systems evolve through what he called the “accumulation of design.” New products, services and theories and various other human products build off of existing ones. Software development is no different. Programmers know that it’s usually better to make use of existing code than to build it from scratch. Why write the code required to write text to the screen, for example, if someone else has already done that? Open-source software facilitates this process, because reusing someone else’s code doesn’t require the negotiation of permissions or payment.
Code adaptation and reuse is a particularly powerful proposition for the application of digital forensics to digital collections, because there is a great deal of powerful software that has already been developed, and it’s unlikely that collecting institutions would ever have sufficient resources to develop such tools completely on their own. As someone who has been working with digital archives for many years, I’ve been amazed by how many tools being developed for digital forensics can be applied to the problems we face. A great place to see leading-edge development in this space is the Digital Forensics Research Workshop, which is an annual conference that publishes its papers in a journal called Digital Investigation. I’ve been particularly grateful for the open-source (or public domain) software developed by Simson Garfinkel at the Naval Postgraduate School and Brian Carrier of Basis Technologies.
Of course, all design decisions involve costs and benefits. The main challenges of using software developed by others are that your specific use case may not have been the primary priority of those developers, and as I mentioned earlier, you have to stay on top of dependencies with that existing software as their (and your) software evolves over time. The BitCurator team and I believe strongly that these costs are well worth the numerous benefits. And we’re working to support the kinds of use cases that are most important to collecting institutions.
Trevor: Could you tell us a bit about how you are thinking about the sustainability of BitCurator? For example, are you thinking about building a community of users and developers? What kinds of future funding streams are you looking to?
Cal: There are various elements of BitCurator that are designed to build capacity and ensure the sustainability of our activities. I’ve already explained that the software is distributed under an open source license, so diverse constituencies will be able to extend our tools at will. Members of the BitCurator team have been offering a lot of continuing professional education opportunities (including a module for Rare Book School and classes for the Digital Archives Specialist program of the Society of American Archivists), which help to build and cultivate a community of users. There’s a BitCurator user group that interested professionals can join, and our project wiki includes an increasing body of documentation to help people to install and use the software.
A significant focus of the second phase (October 2013 to October 2014) of BitCurator is to devise and implement a sustainability plan. This is being overseen and coordinated by Porter Olsen, who is the Community Lead for BitCurator. We’re currently exploring a variety of membership models. We should have a much more detailed answer to your question in the coming year.
Trevor: Could you tell us a bit about how you are trying to engage and build a community around the software? What kinds of approaches are you taking and to what ends are you taking those approaches?
Cal: I’ve already talked about most of them within the context of sustainability. The two issues (sustainability and community building) are closely related. The products of the BitCurator project will ultimately be sustainable if there are professionals working in a variety of institutions who value them, use them, and contribute back to their ongoing development through evaluative feedback, bug reports and code revisions/enhancements. In addition to our educational offerings and guidance resources, we’ve also published many papers/articles about this work and given talks at a variety of conferences and other professional events.
Porter Olsen is taking on many new engagement activities this year. Among other things, this includes site visits and webinars. The first two webinars that Porter is offering have filled up within a few days of announcing them, so there seems to be a lot of interest.
Trevor: It strikes me that one of the biggest opportunities and challenges here is that there is a significant literacy gap within the community around how to deal with born digital archival materials. For example, if you were making a tool to turn out finding aids there would be relatively solid requirements within the archives community of practice. In contrast, in working with born digital archival materials there is still an extensive need for developing those practices and a significant lack of knowledge about the issues at hand among many in the archives profession. First off, do you agree with this perspective? Second, if so how are you approaching designing a tool while the archives community is still simultaneously bootstrapping its way into working with?
Cal: I agree with you that the landscape is currently undergoing dramatic evolution. This is what makes the work so fun and so fulfilling. Professionals in a diverse range of collecting institutions are developing workflows that involve digital forensics tools and methods. They’re learning from each other and making changes as they go along.
This is also a very exciting situation for an educator. I don’t know if they always believe me when I tell them this, but today’s students in a program like the one at UNC SILS will be defining and establishing archival practices of the future. If you want to continuously take on new challenges and creatively developed entirely new ways of working, then this is a great profession to join right now. If you want a profession that’s safe and predictable, I recommend looking elsewhere.
Trevor: How has your work on BitCurator shaped your general perspective on the role that open source software can and should play in digital preservation? I would be particularly interested in any comments and connections you have to some of the interviews we have already done in this series. For reference, those include Bram van der Werf on Open Source Software and Digital Preservation, Peter Van Garderen & Courtney Mumma on Archivematica and the Open Source Mindset for Digital Preservation Systems and Mark Leggott on Islandora’s Open Source Ecosystem and Digital Preservation.
Cal: It’s hard for me to argue with much that Bram, Peter, Courtney or Mark have said to you. I think we are of a like mind on many things. The curation of digital collections is a collective endeavor, and it can benefit greatly from open-source software development. But it’s definitely not a panacea. We have to learn from each other, assist each other, and celebrate each other’s victories.
During Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season, you might take photos and video of friends and loved ones. You might make audio recordings of voices, conversations and music. Whatever you photograph or record, we hope you will take time to backup and preserve your digital stuff.
- As soon as you can, transfer the digital files off the camera, cell phone or other device and onto backup storage. That storage could be your computer, a thumb drive, a CD, a hard drive or an online cloud service. You should also backup a second copy somewhere else, preferably on a different type of storage device than the first.
- If you have time, browse your files and decide if you want to keep everything or just cull the best ones. Twenty photos of the same scene might be unnecessary, no matter how beautiful the scene might be. And despite who is in that video, if the video is blurry and dark and shaky, you probably will never watch it again.
- When you back your files up, organize them so you can easily find them. You can rename files without affecting the contents. And renaming a file will help you find it quickly when you search for it later.
- Organize file folders however you want but be consistent with your system. Label folders by date, description or file type (such as “Photos” or “Thanksgiving 2013″). Organization makes it easy to find your stuff later.
- You can add descriptions to your digital photos, much as you would write a description to a paper photo. We’ve gone into depth in few blog posts, to describe how it works.
- Similarly, if you make any digital audio recordings, you can add descriptive information into the audio files themselves, information that will display in the MP3 player.
- If you have a special correspondence with someone, you can archive the emails and cell phone texts much as you would a paper letter or card.
- Remember that all storage devices eventually become obsolete; maybe you can recall devices and disks from just a decade ago that are now either obsolete or on their way out of fashion. If you have valuable files still on those obsolete media, those files become increasingly difficult to access with every passing year.
- So in order to keep your files accessible, you should move your collection to a new storage medium about every five to seven years. That is about the average time for something new and different to come out. At the least, if you use the same backup device frequently — like a favorite thumb drive — get a new one. Migrate your collection to new media periodically.
- Write down where you have important files, along with any passwords needed to access them, and keep that information in a secure place that a designated person can access if you aren’t around. Allow your memories to live on!
Treat your digital files responsibly, preserve those memorable moments and you can enjoy them again and again for years.
For more information on personal digital archiving, visit digitalpreservation.gov/personalarchiving/.
There is a growing community of individuals who are interested in the preservation of personal digital information. Those individuals may include professionals working in libraries and archives who are receiving personal collections, scholars working with their own research materials and data, commercial companies working on consumer products to help people organize and save their digital content, and other people who create multitudes of personal digital content for various reasons. They come together annually to share practical solutions to preserving and archiving all types of personal digital content.
Personal Digital Archiving 2014 will be held at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 10-11, 2014. This is the first time the conference will be held in the Midwest. It was previously held San Francisco, California (2010-2012) and in College Park, Maryland (2013.)
The Personal Digital Archiving conference explores the intersections between individuals, public institutions, and private companies engaged in the creation, preservation, and ongoing use of the digital records of our daily lives. The conference reflects upon the current status of personal archiving, its achievements, challenges, issues, and needs as evidenced through research, education, case studies, practitioner experiences, best practices, the development of tools and services, storage options, curation, and economic sustainability. There is also interest in the role of libraries, archives and other cultural heritage organizations in supporting personal digital archiving through outreach or in conjunction with developing community history collections.
Some of the issues the conference committee is looking for the community to explore together are:
- How do we preserve the ability to access digital content over time when every app/community/network has a lifecycle that involves the end of its existence?
- How should libraries, museums and archives collect personal digital materials? How do we better share our knowledge and communicate about our work (including the failures as well as the successes)?
- How are archivists, curators, genealogists using born-digital and/or digitized material in their research?
- How can individuals be encouraged to undertake personal digital archiving activities?
- What are effective strategies and best practices for personal digital archiving in social media and ecommerce settings?
- What tools and services now exist to help with personal archiving? What do we need to make the process easier or more effective?
If you’re working with personal digital archives, please consider sharing your work at PDA2014. The call for proposals is open and the submission deadline is December 2.
For those interested in attending, registration will open early in the new year on February 1, 2014.
The first images I recall of the Kennedy Assassination are grainy black and white television broadcasts. I was in the fourth grade 50 years ago today, and after an anguished announcement on the public address system, we were sent home.
The TV was on in the living room with solemn reports. What followed over the next few days was a stunning flow of amazing events, all rendered in a few hundred flat lines of grey tones. I remember a strange mix of feelings, awash in horrible facts relayed by reassuringly familiar news correspondents. Those sober faces, rendered the same way as the thousands of hours of TV I had already consumed, helped me accept what had happened. Maybe it was my youth, but even the repeated rebroadcast of disturbing video clips–Jack Ruby’s shooting of Oswald in particular–eventually became an acceptable, if terribly sad, part of reality.
The Zapruder film upended that complacency. I first saw frames from the film in Life magazine shortly after the shooting, but their impact was minimal. They were static and in black and white. The full color version of the film was kept from public view for many years due to intellectual property restrictions, and it wasn’t until 1975 that it had a widespread public viewing. But even then most people saw the film on distinctly non-HD television, and perhaps not in color.
I didn’t see the film clearly until 1991 when it was used as part of the movie JFK. The lurid Kodachrome colors, the oddly intimate home movie jerkiness, the abrupt transition from banal to horrific–the film was a waking terror dream, something that couldn’t be happening actually was happening.
The nightmare quality was further enhanced by radical differences the film had from the original TV coverage: overly saturated colors in contrast with drab black and white; eerie silence in contrast with the soothing voices of newscasters; powerful, gut-churning visual reality in contrast with calm narrative descriptions.
With the internet came another change in my visual impression of the assassination. Beforehand, the Zapruder imagery was not in plain sight. But with digital versions proliferating on the web, the film was suddenly much more available in all kinds of different ways. It regularly showed up as images or clips in news stories and in essays; it was dissected in academic papers (such as A 3-D Lighting and Shadow Analysis of the JFK Zapruder Film (Frame 317) (PDF). It became a staple of sites dedicated to video content, and anyone with a internet connection can view titles such as The Undamaged Zapruder Film, Zapruder Film Slow Motion (HIGHER QUALITY) or The Inky Face Trajectory In The Zapruder Film.
All this has altered my visual model of the assassination. I’ve moved from a purely rational, analog-based acceptance from what I originally saw on TV to a digitally-driven sense that the event lives in some strange, uncomfortable zone that resists clear-cut recognition or acknowledgement. While I have never seen compelling evidence of a conspiracy, I can easily see why people are drawn to the idea. Those 26.6 Zapruder seconds have a strange hallucinatory impact that seemingly builds each time you watch. It’s natural to try and explain what looks a delusion, especially one that streams over and over again to your own computer screen.
One of the best things about the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative is that we are a community-oriented group. We work together to bring about solutions to real-world problems. Our efforts are focused on defining common guidelines, methods and practices for federal agencies digitizing historical content, and the impact of our projects and products often extends beyond the government sector into the wider audio and moving image preservation communities.
This fall, two of our FADGI Audio-Visual Working Group members hit the conference circuit to discuss some of our current efforts, and we couldn’t be more pleased by the positive responses.
In late October, FADGI’s work in audio preservation was highlighted at the Audio Engineering Society’s 135th International Convention in New York City. One of our expert consultants, Chris Lacinak of AudioVisual Preservation Solutions, included FADGI projects in his tutorial about audio performance systems testing. Part of the workshop covered the problem of Interstitial Errors (PDF), a term Chris coined to describe momentary artifacts caused by failure in a digital audio workstation’s writing of data to a storage medium which result in both lost content and a disruption in file integrity.
The workshop also illuminated the topic of analog-to-digital converter performance testing, highlighting the FADGI 2012 guideline on ADC metrics and testing, a document that built upon two foundational publications – the 2009 Guidelines on the Production and Preservation of Digital Audio Objects (TC04) from the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives and the Audio Engineering Society’s AES-17: AES standard method for digital audio engineering — Measurement of digital audio equipment.
The FADGI 2012 guideline (PDF) will also serve as the starting point for a formal standards project by the AES Working Group on Digital Audio Measurement Techniques (SC-02-01), a project that will address both the development of test methods and performance criteria for the ADCs used in audio preservation systems. The prospect of an official standards project focused on the topic of Interstitial Errors is currently under discussion within this same working group.
In early November, FADGI work was again on display at the Association of Moving Image Archivists Annual Conference in Richmond, Virginia. Courtney Egan from the National Archives and Records Administration’s Audio-Video Preservation Lab participated in a poster session about the eagerly anticipated and very-soon-to-be-released-for-public-comment matrix which compares target wrappers and encodings against a set list of criteria that come into play when reformatting analog videotapes.
As mentioned in a previous blog post, the evaluation attributes in the matrix include format sustainability, system implementation, cost and settings and capabilities. Some features specific to video are also evaluated, such as the ability to store multiple or discontinuous time codes and the ability to support different color spaces and bit depths. The Working Group hopes that the matrix will be a helpful tool for those faced with the challenging choice of what target format they should use when migrating their legacy videotapes.
So what does all this mean for the future of the FADGI Audio-Visual Working Group? Both presentations were extremely well received. Chris’ tutorial made front page news in the AES Show Daily newspaper and Courtney’s poster session was mobbed. We’re proud, of course, that our efforts are helpful for our federal agency constituents. But we are thrilled that our work is appreciated and embraced by the audio and moving image preservation communities at large. Our collaborative approach to solving shared problems through community-based solutions is working – for everyone – and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
The following is a guest post by Lyssette Vazquez-Rodriguez, Program Support Assistant & Valeria Pina, Communication Assistant, both with the Office of Strategic Initiatives at the Library of Congress
Residents in the inaugural class of the National Digital Stewardship Residency program have been busy at their host institutions since mid-September. The residents agree that during their first weeks of work they did what they know best: research.
Jaime McCurry, resident at the Folger Shakespeare Library, explained, “Right now my work is very research-oriented. Over the course of the residency, I am preparing an annotated bibliography on various resources related to Web Archiving. I’m looking to provide an overview of the current landscape and also to find interesting sources pertaining to Web Archiving in the humanities, specifically. I’ve also performed Quality Assurance tasks on the Folger’s current Web Archive collections and I am in the process of discussing new collections to be added with our Collection Development team.”
Erica Titkemeyer, resident at Smithsonian Institution Archives, who is working with time-based media and art, explains that, “a typical day at my office tends to be low-key, since I work alone researching at my own workstation. As of now I have carried out a significant amount of research related to the current state of time-based media art (works of art which depend on technology and have duration as a dimension) to conservators within museum settings.”
In addition to research, some of the residents have had the opportunity to attend conferences and network with scholars from the field of digital preservation. Molly Schwartz, who is a resident at the Association of Research Libraries, attended a lecture of Dr. Jonathan Lazar, Professor of Computer and Information Sciences at Towson University.
Margo Padilla, a resident at the University of Maryland, said, “I recently conducted several interviews with electronic literature scholars on their expectations for access to born-digital literary collections. These interviews will help inform the development of the access models I will produce by the end of the residency.”
This is only just the beginning of the residency; the residents are very thrilled with what they have been doing so far and they are eager to continue learning and helping their host institutions complete their objectives.
“What happens at BPE stays at BPE.”
So goes the oft-repeated mantra at the annual Best Practices Exchange conference, held this year under mostly-sunny skies in beautiful downtown Salt Lake City, UT.
The phrase holds a special meaning for BPE attendees. Unlike the reticent returnees from America’s sin capitol who have presumably have something to hide, BPE attendees have something to share, but want to share it in a non-judgmental environment where their experiences, positive or negative, help to move the digital stewardship community forward.
This year provided ample opportunities for sharing and discussion, with a solid program put together by the hosts from the State of Utah Division of Archives and Records Service and their compatriots from around the state. This even included hilarious archives-based fortune cookies at the evening reception.
BPE accepts all comers, but attendance is largely centered on the state and local government library, archives and record managers communities. As such it tends to focus on practical solutions to real-world problems. This practical ethos was exemplified by the opening keynote from former Senator Robert F. Bennett, who encouraged the attendees to work closely with their legislators and funders to find digital stewardship solutions. Bennett provided three key thoughts on how to be an effective advocate:
- Never ask anybody to do something that’s not in his or her best interest;
- Always be nice;
- Don’t put yourself in competition with other people’s budgets.
Practical advice was found everywhere. Jenny Mundy from Multnomah County, OR described a coordinated succession planning effort that helped them address critical needs in the hiring process. A session on “Making America’s Laws Available Now and in the Future” brought participants from the Utah State Library and the Utah Division of Administrative Rules together with Digital Preservation Pioneer Margaret Maes from the Legal Information Preservation Alliance for a spirited discussion on current approaches to preserving digital legal information.
Linda Reib from the Arizona State Library talked about the challenges they faced while working to seek sustainable funding for their state archives electronic records repository (an ongoing effort related to work they did on the NDIIPP-supported PeDALS project), while showing off their visual aids to help people understand format obsolescence. The State Archives of North Carolina discussed their work on preserving the social media accounts of elected officials and state organizations.
We hosted a session on Wednesday afternoon on the 2014 National Agenda for Digital Stewardship and brainstormed ways to leverage the energy of BPE to support the work of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance.
Thursday opened with a plenary session from Meg Phillips, the Electronic Records Lifecycle Coordinator at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (and a member of the NDSA Coordinating Committee). Phillips focused on NARA’s new “Make Access Happen” initiative, inviting the participants to share their ideas and approaches for new ways of looking at electronic records management.
Afternoon events looked at the challenges facing digital filmmakers, an active community in Utah due to the presence of the Sundance Institute in Park City and its associated film festival. Milt Sheftner, a consultant to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, offered his insight on the digital preservation challenges facing the film industry and showcased a pair of NDIIPP-funded reports, the Digital Dilemma and the Digital Dilemma 2, that raise important concerns about the challenges of preserving digital motion pictures by both major studios and independent filmmakers.
The morning of the third day brought presentations from a couple of big players in the genealogy space. Genealogical research is a $2.3 billion per year industry and some of the most significant operations are located in Utah. FamilySearch, founded in 1894 as the Genealogical Society of Utah, is chiefly supported by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and makes their material available free of charge. They have embraced digital stewardship to a significant degree, building and maintaining a state-of-the-art preservation repository for the more than 100 petabytes of data on tape in their Granite Mountain records vault. They’ve also been engaged in addressing file format challenges and we wrote about their work a couple of years ago here on the Signal.
NDIIPP has been involved in the Best Practices Exchange since the first event was held in Wilmington, NC in 2006 and it’s refreshing to see the progress that the BPE community has made since then to address digital stewardship issues. While “what happens at BPE stays at BPE,” it’s important to continue to showcase the work of the BPE community. And that’s no secret.
The following is a guest post from Nicole Saylor, the head of the American Folklife Center‘s archives at the Library of Congress. Prior to her arrival at the Library, she was a member of the survey team while working as the head of Digital Research & Publishing at the University of Iowa Libraries.
It’s easy to see that digital collections are proliferating on the web. Just look at the growing corpora from Hathi Trust, Digital Public Library of America, ArtStor and Europeana, among many others. Providing online access to scholarship and cultural artifacts gathered in coherent aggregations in a variety of formats is increasingly driving the missions of many cultural heritage institutions. Yet, what is less apparent, is to what degree these digital collections are meeting the needs of current scholars.
A recent study of humanities faculty at twelve research institutions, led by Harriett Green, English and Digital Humanities librarian at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, aimed to find out more about uses of digital collections among humanities scholars. A primary goal of the study was to help inform the areas of digital collection work in which libraries have expertise, such as metadata, information retrieval and other access issues.
The survey, conducted during the 2011-2012 academic year, included a web questionnaire and 17 in-person interviews. It was conducted on behalf of Project Bamboo, a now-completed national initiative to address the question, “How can we advance arts and humanities research through the development of shared technology services?” Green and Angela Courtney, Head of Arts and Humanities and Head of Reference at Indiana University-Bloomington Libraries, presented the survey findings at Digital Humanities 2013 this summer in Lincoln, Neb.
More than 60 percent of those surveyed said that digital collections comprise at least half of the sources they use in their research. The uses of digital collections ranged from the more traditional (researching historic newspapers, government reports, legal cases, etc.) to exploring high definition images of papyrus as the basis for textual reconstructions.
Findings centered largely on the need for sustained access and discovery of digital collections, and the desire for scholars to mix and reuse digital materials. One respondent replied, “The easier objects are to repurpose, remix and reuse the better.” Green categorizes the major themes of the findings into two categories: curation and interoperability.
To make digital collections more useful in research, respondents generally said they would like more completeness of content and a better way to search digital collections for the content they need. Another prominent request was for improved tools to annotate and edit digital collection objects broadly. One respondent said he/she wants “the ability to control your collection, set up your own library and so on and go deeper and deeper, adding tags, etc. Where it’s less of a skill and more of an expectation.”
“Most immediately, this study provided information to the Project Bamboo team on things to consider how to shape digital collections for scholarly needs,” said Green. “But on a larger scale, we hoped these findings will be useful to libraries who are interested in who is using their digital collections and how they’re being used.”
Green and Courtney are working on a full paper that compares their findings to the extensive qualitative data gathered by Project Bamboo research team member Quinn Dombrowski about scholarly practices during the Project Bamboo workshops held in 2008-2009. They hope the paper will be published within the next year.
“The goal of our investigations is to offer concrete analyses of how scholars are integrating digital content into their research workflow and how their research practices are evolving with the growth in digital content,” Green said. “Our Digital Humanities 2013 presentation received a very favorable response, and we hope our forthcoming publications will be useful to libraries and cultural institutions seeking to increase the impact of their digital collections.”
What if the Kennedy assassination had happened during the era of smartphones and laptops? And, assuming the perpetrator left a digital trail, would that evidence uncover any associated conspiracy?
As we approach the 50th anniversary of that awful day in Dallas, recent public opinion polls indicate that over 60 percent of Americans believe more than one person was involved with the assassination. These beliefs float on a steady stream of books and other media that scrutinize the various pieces of evidence available: recorded gunshots, photographs, bullets (both “magic” and regular) and the most famous home movie ever, the Zapruder film.
All manner of experts and enthusiasts have reviewed the evidence but agreement about what it means remains elusive: while 95 percent of all books on the subject depict a conspiracy, the purported conspirators are wildly varied and include Nazis, extraterrestrials and Corsican hitmen, among others. As The Atlantic noted a while back, much of this output is “popularized by a national appetite for mystery and entertainment.” Other studies have looked at the same evidence and concluded with certainty that Oswald acted alone.
If Oswald had lived in an the digital age, he seems to me like the sort of person who would have activity participated in chat rooms, commented on blogs and broadcasted his opinions via all kinds of social media. He probably would have left behind a device, such as a laptop, that documented his web browsing habits and his email contacts. Forensic investigators would have had a trove of information about who he knew and when he knew them. That evidence would have been critical both for the initial needs of law enforcement and for later researchers.
Ah, endlessly fascinating. Would there be emails from disgruntled government operators? Texts from organized crime figures? Photographs of other gunmen? Perhaps a series of tweets with darkly cryptic warnings? From a rational perspective, one would think that such details would go a long way to prove or disprove a conspiracy.
One thing is for sure: there would be lots of digital information to capture, examine and preserve. The question, however, remains open as to the research impact of this kind of evidence. Data from an Oswald laptop could disprove theories or throw open the door to a flood of conspiratorial prospects. Or some jumbled mix of both–in spite of William S. Burrough’s proclamation that “the purpose of technology is not to confuse the brain, but to serve the body, to make life easier.”
Ultimately, as with any subject, it would come down to what researchers make of the preserved body of evidence.
At this point, most of the experience with digital forensics is with the law enforcement world, although there is growing interest on the part of memory organizations to obtain this capability; see, for example, Digital Forensics and Preservation (PDF) and the BitCurator project. This is a good thing. Even though there is no Oswald laptop, there can be no doubt that digital forensic evidence will grow increasingly important for historical research.
The following is a guest post from Jane Mandelbaum, co-chair of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Innovation Working group and IT Project Manager at the Library of Congress.
As part of our ongoing series of insights discussions with individuals doing innovative work related to digital preservation and stewardship I am excited to talk with Brian Schmidt. Brian works as an astronomer at the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Australian National University and his research is based on a lot of the “big data” that many individuals in the digital preservation and stewardship community have been keenly interested in. Schmidt shared both the 2006 Shaw Prize in Astronomy and the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for providing evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.
Jane: I read that you’ve predicted that IT specialists will be at the core of building new telescopes. For example, your SkyMapper project, which is currently scanning the southern sky has a peak data rate of one terabyte per day. The Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder, an array of 36 radio telescope dishes being built in Australia, will generate two terabytes per second. Can you talk about how you think astronomers and IT specialists will work together on these kinds of projects?
Brian: New telescopes like, Skymapper, are creating massive amounts of data, a terabyte of data each night. Processing a terabyte of data a night and making that data useful is as much an interesting computer science problem as it is an astronomy problem. In the past, astronomers did a lot of this kind of computer science work themselves. But the reality is, this has moved beyond what I can do sensibly myself. We need interdisciplinary groups of researchers to work together to meet these challenges. So astronomers need to be able to specify the scientific outcomes and algorithms. But implementation, and design of systems and databases and how that data is served, is computer science problem. So we work with them, to meet our needs. If you have a lot of data, and you’re not a computer scientist, you really want to use expertise that is out there.
Jane: Do you think that astronomers deal with data differently than other scientists?
Brian: Astronomers are very open with their data. This is one of the reasons that projects like the Sloan digital sky survey work in our field. Alongside that, our data is representations of the night sky. Everyone knows what stars look like, which means that people understand what we do in a way that they might not with other sciences. Aside from that, much of our data, for example images of galaxies, is beautiful in a way that something like DNA sequences isn’t. These features are all important for our ability to create complex citizen science projects.
Jane: It is sometimes said that astronomers are the scientists who are closest to practitioners of digital preservation because they are interested in using and comparing historical data observations over time. Do astronomers think they are in the digital preservation business?
Brian: Historical data is of the utmost importance in astronomy. Astronomers are often looking for subtle changes that occur over hundreds of years. For example, if we discover a new asteroid that might come close to Earth you need to go back to the archives and see what data you have on it to figure out if it is a threat. The more years you have, the more accurate you can predict the orbit. Other sciences benefit from this kind of long view of historical data, however, we’re the discipline that has had our act together for the longest period of time.
Jane: What do you think the role of traditional libraries, museums and archives should be when dealing with astronomical data and artifacts?
Brian: I think we are still figuring out the role that libraries, archives and museums have to play in the contemporary work of astronomers. In 2003 a fire-storm largely destroyed the library at the largely destroying Mount Stromlo Observatory. As a result of the work of IT and Library staff all of the digital information of the observatory was backed up and restored from off site. However, all the paper was just gone. Losing a Library of resources is a major loss, however, at this point, astronomy is basically a completely digital field. We keep a small numbers of books around for reference, but when we want to read the literature we have the Harvard/Smithsonian Astrophysics Data System. Just about every interaction I and my colleagues have with papers and articles is through that portal. Just search and download the full text.
While we have digital access to research and reference material through services like the Astrophysics Data System, there are substantial information challenges we are facing that I think libraries, archives and museums could help with. We’re even more information driven than in the past. Our work could be substantially aided with libraries providing systems for working with and curating data. Libraries need to figure out how to help curate and make available data and data products. Ideally, we would have librarians taking on increasingly specialist niches, across many institutions. In our library, we are bringing in more staff who have expertise in data management – trained astronomers who decide they want to be exporting data to the masses. I think training people in library science curation is important too, and I imagine we will increasingly see individuals with these skill sets and background embedded in the teams that produce, maintain, and provide access to various data products.
Jane: “Big data” analysis is often cited as valuable for finding patterns and/or exceptions. How does this relate to the work of astronomers?
Brian: Astronomers are often interested in very rare objects. For example, Skymapper will is cataloging 10 billion stars. And we want to find earliest stars in Milky Way with specific color signature. We need that many stars to find enough of those stars to do our research, and as a result, we need to use data mining techniques to find those very few needles in that gigantic haystack. Techniques allow us to do this.
Jane: What do you think astronomers have to teach others about generating and using the increasing amounts of data you are seeing now in astronomy?
Brian: Astronomers have been very good at developing standards (database and serving standards). There is a persistent danger that every library uses its own standards. You don’t want to have to work across hundreds of standards to make sense of what each piece of data means. You want it to be universal and also flexible to add things. Astronomy has been doing this for a good while and it’s not easy. Getting standards for data in place that work requires a consensus dictatorship. It requires collaborations between librarians, and computer scientists to figure out how to create and maintain data hierarchies. Astronomers developed the FITS data standard in the 1980s and are still using it. In the last five to seven years it’s diverge a bit in the field, which suggests we likely need to revisit and revise. Every time an observatory observes something, there are stars in common between observations that can serve as a point of reference. Linking this data can be very complicated – cross-matching is a difficult problem for 10 billion objects. Obvious thing is to give every object index number, but have to allow uncertainty.
Jane: What do you think will be different about the type of data you will have available and use in 10 years or 20 years?
Brian: We are going to continue to have more and more data and information. Now have images of sky, but in future will have images at thousands of wavelengths (compared to 5 or 6 now). We are going to have data cubes that record coordinates and intensity at 16k frequencies from radio telescopes. We are talking about instruments that generate a petabyte of data a night. This quantity of data is a challenge for every part of a system. It’s difficult to store, retrieve, process, and analyze and exactly how we work with it is a work in progress. We very well may need to be processing this data in real-time, finding the signal we care about and disregarding the noise, because the initial raw data is just too much to deal with if we let it pile up.
Jane: Speaking of raw data, do astronomers share raw data, and if so, how? When they do share, what are their practices for assigning credit and value to that work? Do you think this will change in the future?
Brian: Astronomers tend to store data in multiple formats. There is the raw data, as it comes off the telescope and we tend to store a copy of that. However the average researcher doesn’t care about that. They want it transformed into final state – fully calibrated, and we know where every pixel points to in the sky. At this point, all the data we provide access to is processed data. You can make a query and we give back “here’s this star and it’s properties.” It’s just too hard to query into the actual images we’ve collected. That isn’t how our systems are set up.
Jane: You’ve talked about the value of citizen science projects such as Galaxy Zoo. How do you think these kinds of projects could make a case for preservation of data?
Brian: Citizen science, at its best, serves as outreach/education and the advancement of science simultaneously. We need to be careful that citizen science projects are doing scientifically useful work with the hours and efforts people are putting in. Ideally, we can leverage the work people put into these kinds of projects to calibrate algorithms to double the value of their efforts. The immense data challenges facing astronomy and other sciences and the potential for citizen science projects to bring the public in to help us make sense of this data I think we are entering into a brave new information world. At this point, we need library and information science to become a lot bolder to stay relevant. There are huge opportunities to do great things in this area. I think timidity is likely the biggest threat to the future potential role that libraries, archives and museums could play in the future of sciences like astronomy. There are huge opportunities here to do great things.
“Bamboo is porous,” said Grigar. “It can absorb the paint. So my mother compensated by using very thick paint and very thick brushes to get the paint to stay on the surface.” Grigar’ mother fiddled with various materials and techniques until she figured out what worked and what did not. Within the constraints of the bamboo surface she created a lovely work of art.
Grigar tells that story to illustrate how artists can still create even when using material that is unfamiliar to them. And she should know. Like her mother, Grigar is an artist. She is also director and associate professor of the Creative Media & Digital Culture Program at Washington State University Vancouver. The medium to which she devotes herself is electronic literature, or eLit, particularly works from the period between the mid-1980s to the late 1990s.
During that period, personal computers proliferated and experimental artists were drawn to the ones with graphic user interfaces (as opposed to text-based command line screens) and interactive multimedia. Artists were lured to computers despite of the unfamiliar material…or maybe because of it.
The new generation of personal computers in the 1980s, particularly Macintoshes, were a pleasure to use and play with, much like modern smart phones. Macs were not dry, business-only machines. There were no command lines to memorize, no “under the hood” technical details to fuss with. You simply turned Macs on and started playing. They invited play.
And artists did just that. They played. They explored. They tinkered. And from the palette of text, hyperlinks, audio and graphics arose – among other things electronic literature.
The term “electronic literature” applies to works that are created on a computer and meant to be read and experienced on a computer. Grigar, a scholar and devotee of eLit, helped build a lab in which to preserve and enjoy works of vintage electronic literature.She helped create the Electronic Literature Lab at Washington State University Vancouver, which houses a collection of over 300 works of eLit — one of the largest collections in the world — and twenty eight vintage Macintosh computers on which to run them. Each computer has its appropriate OS version and, for browser-based works, appropriate browser versions.
The ELL is never closed. Students with access rights can come and go at any time. Despite the age of the computers, they are all in good working condition. Grigar has someone who maintains the lab computers and keeps them tuned and running, and she uses a local computer-repair specialist for more serious technical issues.
In addition to preserving the software disks on which the works reside, the ELL backs up and preserves their software in a repository. In some cases, the ELL keeps a copy of the software on the computer on which the work is played rather than go through the whole re-installation process; on the older computers that could require loading several disks. For CD-based works, they make an ISO image backup copy.
The ELL has a searchable database to track all the works, the computers, operating systems and software requirements. If a user wants to view a work, he or she would search for it and, according to its requirements, locate which lab computer to use.
All of the electronic literature works at the ELL share one common element: they deviate from traditional literature. Unlike paper-bound literature with sequentially numbered pages and a beginning, middle and end, many works of eLit do not read linearly. There are underlying decision trees that enable users to decide where they want to go next; the experience is chunked into scene-like elements and it is up to the user which element to navigate to next. Navigation is often left to chance. In fact, the decision-making process that is standard for many games today have their roots in vintage eLit. (Think of first-person shooters and multi-player adventure games, the “where can I go and what are my options?” games.)
In vintage eLit, a work that was rich in content pushed the limits of the computers of the day: the richer the content, the slower the computer ran. One of the challenges the artist faced was to see how much she or he could pack into a piece.
“One of the coolest things about working with these early pieces from, say, StorySpace,” said Grigar, “is that when you put the 3 1/2 inch floppy in and as the work was loading, you got a little dialog box that said ‘This work has 2000 nodes and has 1600 links’ and you’re watching each link load, one at a time. Part of the excitement was seeing how many nodes and how many links there were and how big and intricate the work was.”
Grigar is dedicated to preserving the experience of each work as the author or artist originally intended it, under the same physical conditions as when you would have experienced it when it was first released. That includes experiencing the sluggishness and snags of the technology. Not only are the works historically and culturally significant, their limitations and affordances are too.
“All of the quirks, all of the glitches, all of the constraints are obvious to you,” said Grigar. “And it was kind of a badge of honor to artists that you did this much work. It’s like handing someone James Joyce’s Ullyses as opposed to handing them a forty page article. It’s like ‘This is my novel. See how big it is? See how many nodes there are? See how many hyperlinks I had to make?’
“When you put all this on an emulator, all of those differences collapse. The slowness and glitchiness was part of the beauty of the work…I’m not convinced that emulators can capture a lot of that experience and the wonder of how things actually moved.”
The computers in the ELL are arranged in chronological order to demonstrate the evolution of the art form. For example, beginning in 1983, you can see that artists created grayscale and ASCII characters. In time, computers acquired a palette of 256 colors, which spawned a different stage of creativity. Then came thousands of colors and another stage of creativity.
“The palette just kept getting bigger,” said Grigar. “And so they go crazy with that and have fun with that. CDs like the Voyager piece ‘Shining Flower‘ — it’s just exquisite. Its just amazing. You could tear up, it’s just that gorgeous.”
In the earliest works of eLit, artists coordinated words with audio and graphics. As the technology evolved and artists could include motion pictures, the storytelling blurred the lines between literature, animation and movies. Still, no matter how much artists stretched the genres, vintage eLit works were still limited by the computer keyboard and mouse.
Newer works of interactive media, or participatory media, reach for other methods of interactivity. For example, “The Breathing Wall,” by Kate Pullinger, responds to the user’s rate of breathing, not the clicking of a mouse. And new advances in augmented reality enable interactivity with software without directly touching — even if only with your breath — any hardware objects. In some game systems and art installations users can interact with software through gestures and eye movements. Artistic expressions of human/computer interaction will clearly continue to evolve along with technology.
For now, Grigar is focused on protecting vintage electronic literature. She does not assume that the machines and software of vintage eLit will always be available, so she and hypertext author Stuart Moulthrop created Pathfinders, which demonstrates the user experience through video recordings of the artist and users reading works of early eLit.
“We have the authors perform their work on the computers and we videotape it,” said Grigar. “And the video will be archived for posterity so that one day when there are no more Macintoshes from 1983, we will at least have the video. It is better than just an emulator, because you could see the work unfold and have the author talking.”In April, 2013, Grigar, along with colleague Kathi Inman Berens and eight of Grigar’ students presented, presented the Electronic Literature Showcase at the Library of Congress. She brought several Macintoshes with her (she has extra vintage Macs as well as extra copies of software) to demonstrate some notable works of eLit, including including a Mac Classic on which to show Shelley Jackson’s “Patchwork Girl” and Michael Joyce’s “Afternoon, A Story.” She also brought along a G3 iMac on which to run her original copy of “Myst.”
The ELL is one of several labs dedicated to the preservation of vintage multimedia. Others include the Media Archaeology Lab, The Trope Tank and especially the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.
Preservation and access are equally important in the curation of electronic literature. Grigar and her colleagues are committed to not only preserving vintage works of digital humanities — the sotware — but in maintaining access to them, keeping the machines running and encouraging people to experience each work in its native technological context.
Grigar said, “What drives my research is how artists use the medium and the platforms and all the things to their advantage and work through the constraints so that the constraints do not look like weaknesses but actually are part of the beautiful aspect of the work.”