Another year flies by very quickly. Happy 2018!

Always a useful time to sit back and think about what was achieved last year.

So I started off the year with an ambitious list of things that I wanted to achieve (note to self - *never* do that again!)

As usual I had a mixture of successes and setbacks. All of this helps contribute to both my own understanding about how to work effectively in digital preservation and hopefully the shared understanding of the wider community.

Though I might not have ticked off everything on the list, looking back at the year there was certainly some useful things to come out of it. 


Archives Accreditation work

Of key importance for me in 2017 was contributing to our application for Archives Accreditation.

This was a substantial undertaking for the Borthwick Institute but also a very helpful exercise for me. From the perspective of digital archiving it was a valuable opportunity to review existing documentation and policies and fill in any gaps. 

We now have a revised and renewed suite of policies on the Borthwick website. Of particular interest is the Archives Care and Conservation Policy (otherwise known as our preservation policy). At a high level this talks about the preservation of both physical and digital archives at the Borthwick. It was great to be able to input into this and ensure that the policy was equally applicable to digital archives alongside more traditional archival formats.

Currently I am the only person at the Borthwick Institute working directly with born digital archives.

This of course means I am a single point of failure.

It is important therefore that what I do is as clearly documented as possible. The Archives Accreditation application process was a helpful driver to bring procedural documentation for the digital archive up to scratch.

As part of this accreditation work I also spent a useful few hours assessing our current digital archiving practices against the NDSA levels of preservation.

I was encouraged to see that we don’t look too bad against this model, achieving quite high levels in some areas. Obviously there is still much room for improvement and hopefully this will be achieved when a digital preservation system is implemented in the future.


Researching the old and researching the new

Over the last year, I’ve been able to engage in a couple of interesting pieces of research - from two different ends of the spectrum. Both give important insights into the work of a digital archivist and help explain why what we do is both necessary and important.

New formats

Firstly I did a fair bit of work on Google Drive and how we might preserve files created natively through this service. I looked at Google Documents and Google Sheets, in each case taking some sample ‘files’ and exporting them out to all of the download formats that Google Drive supports. I examined each of the exported files to assess whether they adequately preserved the original Google Drive version. In many cases they didn’t…

I think this sort of work really helps to demonstrate some of the future (or even current) problems that we face, but is also useful in raising awareness. My initial blog post on Google Documents had more page views than any of my other posts last year so that is encouraging. Hopefully increased awareness of this issue will lead to better solutions. 

It is important for us as a community to think about how we might handle new and emerging formats that are going to come our way in the future.

Old formats

I also spent some time looking at some some word processing files we have in the archive that date to the mid 1980’s. I was very pleased to get WordStar running on an old PC I have in my office and see these files in their creating application.

This was a bit like stepping back in time - remembering how to work using just keyboard shortcuts and no mouse!

I was able to track down some software manuals online which not only helped me to work out how to use the software but also helped me to understand some of the idiosyncrasies of the files themselves. The guidance in one of the WordStar manuals on how to use the 3 character file extension is quite an eye opener!


Research data challenges

Much of the year was spent working on research data preservation.

Firstly, trying to get our Research Data York proof of concept into production hit a few problems (some of which are described here - this has been a huge learning curve for me)

And secondly, engaging with the Jisc Research Data Shared Service. As a pilot institution in this project, York have been involved in the process throughout the year - feeding in our requirements, undergoing training and carrying out user testing.

Though we have no production system (yet) to show for it, this work with research data (in particular all the testing) has had several benefits. My understanding of Archivematica and preservation workflows has come on in leaps and bounds. This has also led to an increased awareness of the resources that are required to do this - both technical and curatorial.

There is no magic bullet. There is no quick win. There is no cheap or easy solution.


Psychiatric hospital archive digitisation project

2017 saw us reach the end of a major digitisation project.

With funding from The Wellcome Collection we have digitised The Retreat archive. The Retreat was founded by the Society of Friends and opened in 1796 and is one of the most important institutions in the care and treatment of mental health patients.

I am really pleased to have been involved in this project over the last 3 years. We have produced over 650,000 digital images, have expanded our digitisation expertise and refined our workflows. This fascinating mental health archive is now freely available online, hosted by the Wellcome Collection.

I’ve just completed the task of adding links to the digital surrogates into our AtoM catalogue so would encourage you to browse the catalogue and follow the links to find some digital content that interests you.

...of course I now have approximately 35 TB more digital surrogates from this project to manage and preserve going forward!


And lots of firsts…

Other highlights of the year include:


So when you look at it like that, 2017 actually wasn’t such a bad year.

Looking forward to seeing what 2018 brings...

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