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Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The first UK AtoM user group meeting

Yesterday the newly formed UK AtoM user group met for the first time at St John's College Cambridge and I was really pleased that myself and a colleague were able to attend.
Bridge of Sighs in Autumn (photo by Sally-Anne Shearn)

This group has been established to provide the growing UK AtoM community with a much needed forum for exchanging ideas and sharing experiences of using AtoM.

The meeting was attended by about 15 people though we were informed that there are nearly 50 people on the email distribution list. Interest in AtoM is certainly increasing in the UK.

As this was our first meeting, those who had made progress with AtoM were encouraged to give a brief presentation covering the following points:
  1. Where are you with AtoM (investigating, testing, using)?
  2. What do you use it for? (cataloguing, accessions, physical storage locations)
  3. What do you like about it/ what works?
  4. What don’t you like about it/ what doesn’t work?
  5. How do you see AtoM fitting into your wider technical infrastructure? (do you have separate location or accession databases etc?)
  6. What unanswered questions do you have?
It was really interesting to find out how others are using AtoM in the UK. A couple of attendees had already upgraded to the new 2.4 release so that was encouraging to see.

I'm not going to summarise the whole meeting but I made a note of people's likes and dislikes (questions 3 and 4 above). There were some common themes that came up.

Note that most users are still using AtoM 2.2 or 2.3, those who have moved to 2.4 haven't had much chance to explore it yet. It may be that some of these comments are already out of date and fixed in the new release.


What works?


AtoM seems to have lots going for it!

The words 'intuitive', 'user friendly', 'simple', 'clear' and 'flexible' were mentioned several times. One attendee described some user testing she carried out during which she found her users just getting on and using it without any introduction or explanation! Clearly a good sign!

The fact that it was standards compliant was mentioned as well as the fact that consistency was enforced. When moving from unstructured finding aids to AtoM it really does help ensure that the right bits of information are included. The fact that AtoM highlights which mandatory fields are missing at the top of a page is really helpful when checking through your own or others records.

The ability to display digital images was highlighted by others as a key selling point, particularly the browse by digital objects feature.

The way that different bits of the AtoM database interlink was a plus point that was mentioned more than once - this allows you to build up complex interconnecting records using archival descriptions and authority records and these can also be linked to accession records and a physical location.

The locations section of AtoM was thought to be 'a good thing' - for recording information about where in the building each archive is stored. This works well once you get your head around how best to use it.

Integration with Archivematica was mentioned by one user as being a key selling point for them - several people in the room were either using, or thinking of using Archivematica for digital preservation.

The user community itself and the quick and helpful responses to queries posted on the user forum were mentioned by more than one attendee. Also praised was the fact that AtoM is in continuous active development and very much moving in the right direction.


What doesn't work?


Several attendees mentioned the digital object functionality in AtoM. As well as being a clear selling point, it was also highlighted as an area that could be improved. The one-to-one relationship between an archival description and a digital object wasn't thought to be ideal and there was some discussion about linking through to external repositories - it would be nice if items linked in this way could be displayed in the AtoM image carousel even where the url doesn't end in a filename.

The typeahead search suggestions when you enter search terms were not thought to be helpful all of the time. Sometimes the closest matches do not appear in the list of suggested results.

One user mentioned that they would like a publication status that is somewhere in between draft and published. This would be useful for those records that are complete and can be viewed internally by a selected group of users who are logged in but are not available to the wider public.

More than one person mentioned that they would like to see a conservation module in AtoM.

There was some discussion about the lack of an audit trail for descriptions within AtoM. It isn't possible to see who created a record, when it was created and information about updates. This would be really useful for data quality checking, particularly when training new members of staff and volunteers.

Some concerns about scalability were mentioned - particularly for one user with a very large number of records within AtoM - the process of re-indexing AtoM can take three days.

When creating creator or access points, the drop down menu doesn’t display all the options so this causes difficulties when trying to link to the right point or establishing whether the desired record is in the system or not. This can be particularly problematic for common surnames as several different records may exist.

There are some issues with the way authority records are created currently, with no automated way of creating a unique identifier and no ability to keep authority records in draft.

A comment about the lack of auto-save and the issue of the web form timing out and losing all of your work seemed to be a shared concern for many attendees.

Other things that were mentioned included an integration with Active Directory and local workarounds that had to be put in place to make finding aids bi-lingual.


Moving forward


The group agreed that it would be useful to keep a running list of these potential areas of development for AtoM and that perhaps in the future members may be able to collaborate to jointly sponsor work to improve AtoM. This would be a really positive outcome for this new network.

I was also able to present on a recent collaboration to enable OAI-PMH harvesting of EAD from AtoM and use it as an opportunity to try to drum up support for further development of this new feature. I had to try and remember what OAI-PMH stood for and think I got 83% of it right!

Thanks to St John's College Cambridge for hosting. I look forward to our next meeting which we hope to hold here in York in the Spring.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Moving a proof of concept into production? it's harder than you might think...

Myself and colleagues blogged a lot during the Filling the Digital Preservation Gap Project but I’m aware that I’ve gone a bit quiet on this topic since…

I was going to wait until we had a big success to announce, but follow on work has taken longer than expected. So in the meantime here is an update on where we are and what we are up to.

Background


Just to re-cap, by the end of phase 3 of Filling the Digital Preservation Gap we had created a working proof of concept at the University of York that demonstrated that it is possible create an automated preservation workflow for research data using PURE, Archivematica, Fedora and Samvera (then called Hydra!).

This is described in our phase 3 project report (and a detailed description of the workflow we were trying to implement was included as an appendix in the phase 2 report).

After the project was over, it was agreed that we should go ahead and move this into production.

Progress has been slower than expected. I hadn’t quite appreciated just how different a proof of concept is to a production-ready environment!

Here are some of the obstacles we have encountered (and in some cases overcome):

Error reporting


One of the key things that we have had to build in to the existing code in order to get it ready for production is error handling.

This was not a priority for the proof of concept. A proof of concept is really designed to demonstrate that something is possible, not to be used in earnest.

If errors happen and things stop working (which they sometimes do) you can just kill it and rebuild.

In a production environment we want to be alerted when something goes wrong so we can work out how to fix it. Alerts and errors are crucial to a system like this.

We are sorting this out by enabling Archivematica's own error handling and error catching within Automation Tools.


What happens when something goes wrong?


...and of course once things have gone wrong in Archivematica and you've fixed the underlying technical issue, you then need to deal with any remaining problems with your information packages in Archivematica.

For example, if the problems have resulted in failed transfers in Archivematica then you need to work out what you are going to do with those failed transfers. Although it is (very) tempting to just clear out Archivematica and start again, colleagues have advised me that it is far more useful to actually try and solve the problems and establish how we might handle a multitude of problematic scenarios if we were in a production environment!

So we now have scenarios in which an automated transfer has failed so in order to get things moving again we need to carry out a manual transfer of the dataset into Archivematica. Will the other parts of our workflow still work if we intervene in this way?

One issue we have encountered along the way is that though our automated transfer uses a specific 'datasets' processing configuration that we have set up within Archivematica, when we push things through manually it uses the 'default' processing configuration which is not what we want.

We are now looking at how we can encourage Archivematica to use the specified processing configuration. As described in the Archivematica documentation, you can do this by including an XML file describing your processing configuration within your transfer.

It is useful to learn lessons like this outside of a production environment!


File size/upload


Although our project recognised that there would be limit to the size of dataset that we could accept and process with our application, we didn't really bottom out what size dataset we intended to support.

It has now been agreed that we should reasonably expect the data deposit form to accept datasets of up to 20 GB in size. Anything larger than this would need to be handed in a different way.

Testing the proof of concept in earnest showed that it was not able to handle datasets of over 1 GB in size. Its primary purpose was to demonstrate the necessary integrations and workflow not to handle larger files.

Additional (and ongoing) work was required to enable the web deposit form to work with larger datasets.


Space


In testing the application we of course ended up trying to push some quite substantial datasets through it.

This was fine until everything abrubtly seemed to stop working!

The problem was actually a fairly simple one but because of our own inexperience with Archivematica it took a while to troubleshoot and get things moving in the right direction again.

It turned out that we hadn’t allocated enough space in one of the bits of filestore that Archivematica uses for failed transfers (/var/archivematica/sharedDirectory/failed). This had filled up and was stopping Archivematica from doing anything else.

Once we knew the cause of the problem the available space was increased but then everything ground to a halt again because we had quickly used that up again ….increasing the space had got things moving but of course while we were trying to demonstrate the fact that it wasn't working, we had deposited several further datasets which were waiting in the transfer directory and quickly blocked things up again.

On a related issue, one of the test datasets I had been using to see how well Research Data York could handle larger datasets consisted of c.5 GB consisting of about 2000 JPEG images. Of course one of the default normalisation tasks in Archivematica is to convert all of these JPEGs to TIFF.

Once this collection of JPEGs were converted to TIFF the size of the dataset increased to around 80 GB. Until I witnessed this it hadn't really occurred to me that this could cause problems.

The solution - allocate Archivematica much more space than you think it will need!

We also now have the filestore set up so that it will inform us when the space in these directories gets to 75% full. Hopefully this will allow us to stop the filestore filling up in the future.


Workflow


The proof of concept did not undergo rigorous testing - it was designed for demonstration purposes only.

During the project we thought long and hard about the deposit, request and preservation workflows that we wanted to support, but we were always aware that once we had it in an environment that we could all play with and test, additional requirements would emerge.

As it happens, we have discovered that the workflow implemented is very true to that described in the appendix of our phase 2 report and does meet our needs. However, there are lots of bits of fine tuning required to enhance the functionality and make the interface more user friendly.

The challenge here is to try to carry out the minimum of work required to turn it into an adequate solution to take into production. There are so many enhancements we could make – I have a wish list as long as my arm – but until we better understand whether a local solution or a shared solution (provided by the Jisc Research Data Shared Service) will be adopted in the future it is not worth trying to make this application perfect.

Making it fit for production is the priority. Bells and whistles can be added later as necessary!





My thanks to all those who have worked on creating, developing, troubleshooting and testing this application and workflow. It couldn't have happened without you!

Monday, 18 September 2017

Harvesting EAD from AtoM: we need your help!

Back in February I published a blog post about a project to develop AtoM to allow EAD (Encoded Archival Description) to be harvested via OAI-PMH (Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting): “Harvesting EAD from AtoM: a collaborative approach

Now that AtoM version 2.4 is released (hooray!), containing the functionality we have sponsored, I thought it was high time I updated you on what has been achieved by this project, where more work is needed and how the wider AtoM community can help.


What was our aim?


Our development work had a few key aims:

  • To enable finding aids from AtoM to be exposed as EAD 2002 XML for others to harvest. The partners who sponsored this project were particularly keen to enable the Archives Hub to harvest their EAD.
  • To change the way that EAD was generated by AtoM in order to make it more scalable. Moving EAD generation from the web browser to the job scheduler was considered to be the best approach here.
  • To make changes to the existing DC (Dublin Core) metadata generation feature so that it also works through the job scheduler - making this existing feature more scalable and able to handle larger quantities of data

A screen shot of the job scheduler in AtoM - showing the EAD and
DC creation jobs that have been completed

What have we achieved?

The good

We believe that the EAD harvesting feature as released in AtoM version 2.4 will enable a harvester such as the Archives Hub to harvest our catalogue metadata from AtoM as EAD. As we add new top level archival descriptions to our catalogue, subsequent harvests should pick up and display these additional records. 

This is a considerable achievement and something that has been on our wishlist for some time. This will allow our finding aids to be more widely signposted. Having our data aggregated and exposed by others is key to ensuring that potential users of our archives can find the information that they need.

Changes have also been made to the way metadata (both EAD and Dublin Core) are generated in AtoM. This means that the solution going forward is more scalable for those AtoM instances that have very large numbers of records or large descriptive hierarchies.

The new functionality in AtoM around OAI-PMH harvesting of EAD and settings for moving XML creation to the job scheduler is described in the AtoM documentation.

The not-so-good

Unfortunately the EAD harvesting functionality within AtoM 2.4 will not do everything we would like it to do. 

It does not at this point include the ability for the harvester to know when metadata records have been updated or deleted. It also does not pick up new child records that are added into an existing descriptive hierarchy. 

We want to be able to edit our records once within AtoM and have any changes reflected in the harvested versions of the data. 

We don’t want our data to become out of sync. 

So clearly this isn't ideal.

The task of enabling full harvesting functionality for EAD was found to be considerably more complex than first anticipated. This has no doubt been confounded by the hierarchical nature of the EAD which differs from the simplicity of the traditional Dublin Core approach.

The problems encountered are certainly not insurmountable, but lack of additional resources and timelines for the release of AtoM 2.4 stopped us from being able to finish off this work in full.

A note on scalability


Although the development work deliberately set out to consider issues of scalability, it turns out that scalability is actually on a sliding scale!

The National Library of Wales had the forethought to include one of their largest archival descriptions as sample data for inclusion in the version of AtoM 2.4 that Artefactual deployed for testing. Their finding aid for St David’s Diocesan Records is a very large descriptive hierarchy consisting of 33,961 individual entries. This pushed the capabilities of EAD creation (even when done via the job scheduler) and also led to discussions with The Archives Hub about exactly how they would process and display such a large description at their end even if EAD generation within AtoM were successful.

Some more thought and more manual workarounds will need to be put in place to manage the harvesting and subsequent display of large descriptions such as these.

So what next?


We are keen to get AtoM 2.4 installed at the Borthwick Institute for Archives over the next couple of months. We are currently on version 2.2 and would like to start benefiting from all the new features that have been introduced available... and of course to test in earnest the EAD harvesting feature that we have jointly sponsored.

We already know that this feature will not fully meet our needs in its current form, but would like to set up an initial harvest with the Archives Hub and further test some of our assumptions about how this will work.

We may need to put some workarounds in place to ensure that we have a way of reflecting updates and deletions in the harvested data – either with manual deletes or updates or a full delete and re-harvest periodically.

Harvesting in AtoM 2.4 - some things that need to change


So we have a list of priority things that need to be improved in order to get EAD harvesting working more smoothly in the future:


In line with the OAI-PMH specification

  • AtoM needs to expose updates to the metadata to the harvester
  • AtoM needs to expose new records (at any level of description) to the harvester
  • AtoM needs to expose information about deletions to the harvester
  • AtoM also needs to expose information about deletions to DC metadata to the harvester (it has come to my attention during the course of this project that this isn’t happening at the moment) 

Some other areas of potential work


I also wanted to bring together and highlight some other areas of potential work for the future. These are all things that were discussed during the course of the project but were not within the scope of our original development goals.

  • Harvesting of EAC (Encoded Archival Context) - this is the metadata standard for authority records. Is this something people would like to see enabled in the future? Of course this is only useful if you have someone who actually wants to harvest this information!
  • On the subject of authority records, it would be useful to change the current AtoM EAD template to use @authfilenumber and @source - so that an EAD record can link back to the relevant authority record in the local AtoM site. The ability to create rich authority records is such a key strength of AtoM, allowing an institution to weave rich interconnecting stories about their holdings. If harvesting doesn’t preserve this inter-connectivity then I think we are missing a trick!
  • EAD3 - this development work has deliberately not touched on the new EAD standard. Firstly, this would have been a much bigger job and secondly, we are looking to have our EAD harvested by The Archives Hub and they are not currently working with EAD3. This may be a priority area of work for the future.
  • Subject source - the subject source (for example "Library of Congress Subject Headings") doesn't appear in AtoM generated EAD at the moment even though it can be entered into AtoM - this would be a really useful addition to the EAD.
  • Visible elements - AtoM allows you to decide which elements you wish to display/hide in your local AtoM interface. With the exception of information relating to physical storage, the XML generation tasks currently do not take account of visible elements and will carry out an export of all fields. Further investigation of this should be carried out in the future. If an institution is using the visible elements feature to hide certain bits of information that should not be more widely distributed, they would be concerned if this information was being harvested and displayed elsewhere. As certain elements will be required in order to create valid EAD, this may get complicated!
  • ‘Manual’ EAD generation - the project team discussed the possibility of adding a button to the AtoM user interface so that staff users can manually kick-off EAD regeneration for a single descriptive hierarchy. Artefactual suggested this as a method of managing the process of EAD generation for large descriptive hierarchies. You would not want the EAD to regenerate with each minor tweak if a large archival description was undergoing several updates, however, you need to be able to trigger this task when you are ready to do so. It should be possible to switch off the automatic EAD re-generation (which normally triggers when a record is edited and saved) but have a button on the interface that staff can click when they want to initiate the process - for example when all edits are complete. 
  • As part of their work on this project, Artefactual created a simple script to help with the process of generating EAD for large descriptive hierarchies - it basically provides a way of finding out which XML files relate to a specific archival description so that EAD can be manually enhanced and updated if it is too large for AtoM to generate via the job scheduler. It would be useful to turn this script into a command-line task that is maintained as part of the AtoM codebase.

We need your help!


Although we believe we have something we can work with here and now, we are not under any illusions that this feature does all that it needs to in order to meet our requirements in the longer term. 

I would love to find out what other AtoM users (and harvesters) think of the feature. Is it useful to you? Are there other things we should put on the wishlist? 

There is a lot of additional work described in this post which the original group of project partners are unlikely to be able to fund on their own. If EAD harvesting is a priority to you and your organisation and you think you can contribute to further work in this area either on your own or as part of a collaborative project please do get in touch.


Thanks


I’d like to finish with a huge thanks to those organisations who have helped make this project happen, either through sponsorship, development or testing and feedback.


Friday, 18 August 2017

Benchmarking with the NDSA Levels of Preservation

Anyone who has heard me talk about digital preservation will know that I am a big fan of the NDSA Levels of Preservation.

This is also pretty obvious if you visit me in my office – a print out of the NDSA Levels is pinned to the notice board above my PC monitor!

When talking to students and peers about how to get started in digital preservation in a logical, pragmatic and iterative way, I always recommend using the NDSA Levels to get started. Start at level 1 and move forward to the more advanced levels as and when you are able. This is a much more accessible and simple way to start addressing digital preservation than digesting some of the bigger and more complex certification standards and benchmarking tools.

Over the last few months I have been doing a lot of documentation work. Both ensuring that our digital archiving procedures are written down somewhere and documenting where we are going in the future.

As part of this documentation it seemed like a good idea to use the NDSA Levels:

  • to demonstrate where we are
  • to show where improvements need to be made
  • to demonstrate progress in the future


Previously I have used the NDSA Levels in quite a superficial way – as a guide and a talking point, it has been quite a different exercise actually mapping where we stand.

It was not always straightforward to establish where we are and to unpick and interpret exactly what each level meant in practice. I guess this is one of the problems of using a relatively simple set of metrics to describe what is really quite a complex set of processes.

Without publishing the whole document that I've written on this, here is a summary of where I think we are currently. I'm also including some questions I've been grappling with as part of the process.

Storage and geographic location

Currently at LEVEL 2: 'know your data' with some elements of LEVEL 3 and 4 in place

See the full NDSA levels here


Four years ago we carried out a ‘rescue mission’ to get all digital data in the archives off portable media and on to the digital archive filestore. This now happens as a matter of course when born digital media is received by the archives.

The data isn’t in what I would call a proper digital archive but it is on a fairly well locked down area of University of York filestore.

There are three copies of the data available at any one time (not including the copy that is on original media within the strongrooms). The University stores two copies of the data on spinning disk. One at a data centre on one campus and the other at a data centre on another campus with another copy backed up to tape which is kept for 90 days.

I think I can argue that storage of the data on two different campuses is two different geographic locations but these locations are both in York and only about 1 mile apart. I'm not sure whether they could be described as having different disaster threats so I'm going to hold back from putting us at Level 3 though IT do seem to have systems in place to ensure that filestore is migrated on a regular schedule.

Questions:

  • On a practical level, what really constitutes a different geographic location with a different disaster threat? How far away is good enough?


File fixity and data integrity

Currently at LEVEL 4: 'repair your data'

See the full NDSA levels here


Having been in this job for five years now I can say with confidence that I have never once received file fixity information alongside data that has been submitted to us. Obviously if I did receive it I would check it on ingest, but I can not envisage this scenario occurring in the near future! I do however create fixity information for all content as part of the ingest process.

I use a tool called Foldermatch to ensure that the digital data I have copied into the archive is identical to the original. Foldermatch allows you to compare the contents of two folders and one of the comparison methods (the one I use at ingest) uses checksums to do this.

Last year I purchased a write blocker for use when working with digital content delivered to us on portable hard drives and memory sticks. A check for viruses is carried out on all content that is ingested into the digital archive so this fulfills the requirements of level 2 and some of level 3.

Despite putting us at Level 4, I am still very keen to improve our processes and procedures around fixity. Fixity checks are carried out at intervals (several times a month) and these checks are logged but at the moment this is all initiated manually. As the digital archive gets bigger, we will need to re-think our approaches to this important area and find solutions that are scalable.

Questions:


  • Does it really matter if fixity isn't checked at 'fixed intervals'? That to me suggests a certain rigidity. Do the intervals really need to be fixed or does it not matter as long as it happens within an agreed time frame?
  • At level 2 we are meant to ‘check fixity on all ingests’ - I am unclear as to what is expected here. What would I check if fixity information hasn’t been supplied (as is always the case currently)? Perhaps it means check fixity of the copy of the data that has been made against the fixity information on the original media? I do do that.


Information Security

Currently at LEVEL 2: 'know your data' with some elements of LEVEL 3 in place

See the full NDSA levels here


Access to the digital archive filestore is limited to the digital archivist and IT staff who administer the filestore. If staff or others need to see copies of data within the digital archive filestore, copies are made elsewhere after appropriate checks are made regarding access permissions. The master copy is always kept on the digital archive filestore to ensure that the authentic original version of the data is maintained. Access restrictions are documented.

We are also moving towards the higher levels here. A recent issue reported on a mysterious change of last modified dates for .eml files has led to discussions with colleagues in IT, and I have been informed that an operating system upgrade for the server should include the ability to provide logs of who has done what to files in the archive.

It is worth pointing out that as I don't currently have systems in place for recording PREMIS (preservation) metadata. I am currently taking a hands off approach to preservation planning within the digital archive. Preservation actions such as file migration are few and far between and are recorded in a temporary way until a more robust system is established.


Metadata

Currently at LEVEL 3: 'monitor your data'

See the full NDSA levels here


We do OK with metadata currently, (considering a full preservation system is not yet in place). Using DROID at ingest is helpful at fulfilling some of the requirements of levels 1 to 3 (essentially, having a record of what was received and where it is).

Our implementation of AtoM as our archival management system has helped fulfil some of the other metadata requirements. It gives us a place to store administrative metadata (who gave us it and when) as well as providing a platform to surface descriptive metadata about the digital archives that we hold.

Whether we actually have descriptive metadata or not for digital archives will remain an issue. Much metadata for the digital archive can be generated automatically but descriptive metadata isn't quite as straightforward. In some cases a basic listing is created for files within the digital archive (using Dublin Core as a framework) but this will not happen in all cases. Descriptive metadata typically will not be created until an archive is catalogued which may come at a later date.

Our plans to implement Archivematica next year will help us get to Level 4 as this will create full preservation metadata for us as PREMIS.

Questions:


  • What is the difference between the 'transformative metadata' as mentioned at Level 2 and Preservation metadata as mentioned at Level 4? Is this to do with the standards used? For example, at Level 2 you need to be storing metadata about transformations and events that have occured, but at Level 4 this must be in PREMIS?


File formats

Currently at LEVEL 2: 'know your data' with some elements of LEVEL 3 in place

See the full NDSA levels here


It took me a while to convince myself that we fulfilled Level 1 here! This is a pretty hard one to crack, especially if you have lots of different archives coming in from different sources, and sometimes with little notice. I think it is useful that the requirement at this level is prefaced with "When you can..."!

Thinking about it, we do do some work in this area - for example:

To get us to Level 2, as part of the ingest process we run DROID to get a list of file formats included within a digital archive. Summary stats are kept within a spreadsheet that covers all content within the digital archive so we can quickly see the range of formats that we hold and find out which archives they are in.

This should allow us to move towards Level 3 but we are not there yet. Some pretty informal and fairly ad hoc thinking goes into  file format obsolescence but I won't go as far as saying that we 'monitor' it. I have an awareness of some specific areas of concern in terms of obsolete files (for example I've still got those WordStar 4.0 files and I really do want to do something with them!) but there are no doubt other formats that need attention that haven't hit my radar yet.

As mentioned earlier, we are not really doing migration right now - not until I have a better system for creating the PREMIS metadata, so Level 4 is still out of reach.

Questions:


  • I do think there is more we could at Level 1, but there has also been concern raised by colleagues that in being too dictatorial you are altering the authenticity of the original archive and perhaps losing information about how a person or an organisation worked. I'd be interested to hear how others walk this tricky line.
  • Is it a valid answer to simple note at Level 1 that input into the creation of digital files is never given because it has been decided not to be appropriate in the content in which you are working?
  • I'd love to hear examples of how others monitor and report on file obsolescence - particularly if this is done in a systematic way


Conclusions

This has been a useful exercise and it is good to see where we need to progress. Going from using the Levels in the abstract and actually trying to apply them as a tool has been a bit challenging in some areas. I think additional information and examples would be useful to help clear up some of the questions that I have raised.

I've also found that even where we meet a level there is often other ways we could do things better. File fixity and data integrity looks like a strong area for us but I am all too aware that I would like to find a more sustainable and scalable way to do this. This is something we'll be working on as we get Archivematica in place. Reaching Level 4 shouldn't lead to complacency!

An interesting blog post last year by Shira Peltzman from the UCLA Library talked about Expanding the NDSA Levels of Preservation to include an additional row focused on Access. This seems sensible given that the ability to provide access is the reason why we preserve archives. I would be keen to see this developed further so long as the bar wasn't set too high. At the Borthwick my initial consideration has been preservation - getting the stuff and keeping it safe - but access is something that will be addressed over the next couple of years as we move forward with our plans for Archivematica and AtoM.

Has anyone else assessed themselves against the NDSA Levels?  I would be keen to see how others have interpreted the requirements.






Monday, 31 July 2017

The mysterious case of the changed last modified dates

Today's blog post is effectively a mystery story.

Like any good story it has a beginning (the problem is discovered, the digital archive is temporarily thrown into chaos), a middle (attempts are made to solve the mystery and make things better, several different avenues are explored) and an end (the digital preservation community come to my aid).

This story has a happy ending (hooray) but also includes some food for thought (all the best stories do) and as always I'd be very pleased to hear what you think.

The beginning

I have probably mentioned before that I don't have a full digital archive in place just yet. While I work towards a bigger and better solution, I have a set of temporary procedures in place to ingest digital archives on to what is effectively a piece of locked down university filestore. The procedures and workflows are both 'better than nothing' and 'good enough' as a temporary measure and actually appear to take us pretty much up to Level 2 of the NDSA Levels of Preservation (and beyond in some places).

One of the ways I ensure that all is well in the little bit of filestore that I call 'The Digital Archive' is to run frequent integrity checks over the data, using a free checksum utility. Checksums (effectively unique digital fingerprints) for each file in the digital archive are created when content is ingested and these are checked periodically to ensure that nothing has changed. IT keep back-ups of the filestore for a period of three months, so as long as this integrity checking happens within this three month period (in reality I actually do this 3 or 4 times a month) then problems can be rectified and digital preservation nirvana can be seamlessly restored.

Checksum checking is normally quite dull. Thankfully it is an automated process that runs in the background and I can just get on with my work and cheer when I get a notification that tells me all is well. Generally all is well, it is very rare that any errors are highlighted - when that happens I blog about it!

I have perhaps naively believed for some time that I'm doing everything I need to do to keep those files safe and unchanged because if the checksum is the same then all is well, however this month I encountered a problem...

I've been doing some tidying of the digital archive structure and alongside this have been gathering a bit of data about the archives, specifically looking at things like file formats, number of unidentified files and last modified dates.

Whilst doing this I noticed that one of the archives that I had received in 2013 contained 26 files with a last modified date of 18th January 2017 at 09:53. How could this be so if I have been looking after these files carefully and the checksums are the same as they were when the files were deposited?

The 26 files were all EML files - email messages exported from Microsoft Outlook. These were the only EML files within the whole digital archive. The files weren't all in the same directory and other files sitting in those directories retained their original last modified dates.

The middle

So this was all a bit strange...and worrying too. Am I doing my job properly? Is this something I should be bringing to the supportive environment of the DPC's Fail Club?

The last modified dates of files are important to us as digital archivists. This is part of the metadata that comes with a file. It tells us something about the file. If we lose this date are we losing a little piece of the authentic digital object that we are trying to preserve?

Instead of beating myself up about it I wanted to do three things:

  1. Solve the mystery (find out what happened and why)
  2. See if I could fix it
  3. Stop it happening again
So how could it have happened? Has someone tampered with these 26 files? Perhaps unlikely considering they all have the exact same date/time stamp which to me suggests a more automated process. Also, the digital archive isn't widely accessible. Quite deliberately it is only really me (and the filestore administrators) who have access.

I asked IT whether they could explain it. Had some process been carried out across all filestores that involved EML files specifically? They couldn't think of a reason why this may have occurred. They also confirmed my suspicions that we have no backups of the files with the original last modified dates.

I spoke to a digital forensics expert from the Computer Science department and he said he could analyse the files for me and see if he could work out what had acted on them and also suggest a methodology of restoring the dates.

I have a record of the last modified dates of these 26 files when they arrived - the checksum tool that I use writes the last modified date to the hash file it creates. I wondered whether manually changing the last modified dates back to what they were originally was the right thing to do or whether I should just accept and record the change.

...but I decided to sit on it until I understood the problem better.

The end

I threw the question out to the digital preservation community on Twitter and as usual I was not disappointed!




In fact, along with a whole load of discussion and debate, Andy Jackson was able to track down what appears to be the cause of the problem.


He very helpfully pointed me to a thread on StackExchange which described the issue I was seeing.

It was a great comfort to discover that the cause of this problem was apparently a bug and not something more sinister. It appears I am not alone!

...but what now?

So I now I think I know what caused the problem but questions remain around how to catch issues like this more quickly (not six months after it has happened) and what to do with the files themselves.

IT have mentioned to me that an OS upgrade may provide us with better auditing support on the filestore. Being able to view reports on changes made to digital objects within the digital archive would be potentially very useful (though perhaps even that wouldn't have picked up this Windows bug?). I'm also exploring whether I can make particular directories read only and whether that would stop issues such as this occurring in the future.

If anyone knows of any other tools that can help, please let me know.

The other decision to make is what to do with the files themselves. Should I try and fix them? More interesting debate on Twitter on this topic and even on the value of these dates in the first place. If we can fudge them then so can others - they may have already been fudged before they got to the digital archive - in which case, how much value do they really have?


So should we try and fix last modified dates or should we focus our attention on capturing and storing them within the metadata. The later may be a more sustainable solution in the longer term, given their slightly slippery nature!

I know there are lots of people interested in this topic - just see this recent blog post by Sarah Mason and in particular the comments - When was that?: Maintaining or changing ‘created’ and ‘last modified’ dates. It is great that we are talking about real nuts and bolts of digital preservation and that there are so many people willing to share their thoughts with the community.

...and perhaps if you have EML files in your digital archive you should check them too!


Friday, 7 July 2017

Preserving Google docs - decisions and a way forward

Back in April I blogged about some work I had been doing around finding a suitable export (and ultimately preservation) format for Google documents.

This post has generated a lot of interest and I've had some great comments both on the post itself and via Twitter.

I was also able to take advantage of a slot I had been given at last week's Jisc Research Data Network event to introduce the issue to the audience (who had really come to hear me talk about something else but I don't think they minded).

There were lots of questions and discussion at the end of this session, mostly focused on the Google Drive issue rather than the rest of the talk. I was really pleased to see that the topic had made people think. In a lightening talk later that day, William Kilbride, Executive Director of The Digital Preservation Coalition mused on the subject of "What is data?". Google Drive was one of the examples he used, asking where does the data end and the software application start?

I just wanted to write a quick update on a couple of things - decisions that have been made as a result of this work and attempts to move the issue forward.

Decisions decisions

I took a summary of the Google docs data export work to my colleagues in a Research Data Management meeting last month in order to discuss a practical way forward for the institutional research data we are planning on capturing and preserving.

One element of the Proof of Concept that we had established at the end of phase 3 of Filling the Digital Preservation Gap was a deposit form to allow researchers to deposit data to the Research Data York service.

As well as the ability to enable researchers to browse and select a file or a folder on their computer or network, this deposit form also included a button to allow deposit to be carried out via Google Drive.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Google Drive is widely used at our institution. It is clear that many researchers are using Google Drive to collect, create and analyse their research data so it made sense to provide an easy way for them to deposit direct from Google Drive. I just needed to check out the export options and decide which one we should support as part of this automated export.

However, given the inconclusive findings of my research into export options it didn't seem that there was one clear option that adequately preserved the data.

As a group we decided the best way out of this imperfect situation was to ask researchers to export their own data from Google Drive in whatever format they consider best captures the significant properties of the item. By exporting themselves in a manual fashion prior to upload, this does give them the opportunity to review and check their files and make their own decision on issues such as whether comments are included in the version of their data that they upload to Research Data York.

So for the time being we are disabling the Google Drive upload button from our data deposit interface....which is a shame because a certain amount of effort went into getting that working in the first place.

This is the right decision for the time being though. Two things need to happen before we can make this available again:


  1. Understanding the use case - We need to gain a greater understanding of how researchers use Google Drive and what they consider to be 'significant' about their native Google Drive files.
  2. Improving the technology - We need to make some requests to Google to make the export options better.


Understanding the use case

We've known for a while that some researchers use Google Drive to store their research data. The graphic below was taken from a survey we carried out with researchers in 2013 to find out about current practice across the institution. 

Of the 188 researchers who answered the question "Where is your digital research data stored (excluding back up copies)?" 22 mentioned Google Drive. This is only around 12% of respondents but I would speculate that over the last four years, use of Google Drive will have increased considerably as Google applications have become more embedded within the working practices of staff and students at the University.

Where is your digital research data stored (excluding back up copies)?

To understand the Google Drive use case today I really need to talk to researchers.

We've run a couple of Research Data Management teaching sessions over the last term. These sessions are typically attended by PhD students but occasionally a member of research staff also comes along. When we talk about data storage I've been asking the researchers to give a show of hands as to who is using Google Drive to store at least some of their research data.

About half of the researchers in the room raise their hand.

So this is a real issue. 

Of course what I'd like to do is find out exactly how they are using it. Whether they are creating native Google Drive files or just using Google Drive as a storage location or filing system for data that they create in another application.

I did manage to get a bit more detail from one researcher who said that they used Google Drive as a way of collaborating on their research with colleagues working at another institution but that once a document has been completed they will export the data out of Google Drive for storage elsewhere. 

This fits well with the solution described above.

I also arranged a meeting with a Researcher in our BioArCh department. Professor Matthew Collins is known to be an enthusiastic user of Google Drive.

Talking to Matthew gave me a really interesting perspective on Google Drive. For him it has become an essential research tool. He and his colleagues use many of the features of the Google Suite of tools for their day to day work and as a means to collaborate and share ideas and resources, both internally and with researchers in other institutions. He showed me PaperPile, an extension to Google Drive that I had not been aware of. He uses this to manage his references and share them with colleagues. This clearly adds huge value to the Google Drive suite for researchers.

He talked me through a few scenarios of how they use Google - some, (such as the comments facility) I was very much aware of. Others, I've not used myself such as the use of the Google APIs to visualise for example activity on preparing a report in Google Drive - showing a time line and when different individuals edited the document. Now that looks like fun!

He also talked about the importance of the 'previous versions' information that is stored within a native Google Drive file. When working collaboratively it can be useful to be able to track back and see who edited what and when. 

He described a real scenario in which he had had to go back to a previous version of a Google Sheet to show exactly when a particular piece of data had been entered. I hadn't considered that the previous versions feature could be used to demonstrate that you made a particular discovery first. Potentially quite important in the competitive world of academic research.

For this reason Matthew considered the native Google Drive file itself to be "the ultimate archive" and "a virtual collaborative lab notebook". A flat, static export of the data would not be an adequate replacement.

He did however acknowledge that the data can only exist for as long as Google provides us with the facility and that there are situations where it is a good idea to take a static back up copy.

He mentioned that the precursor to Google Docs was a product called Writely (which he was also an early adopter of). Google bought Writely in 2006 after seeing the huge potential in this online word processing tool. Matthew commented that backwards compatibility became a problem when Google started making some fundamental changes to the way the application worked. This is perhaps the issue that is being described in this blog post: Google Docs and Backwards Compatibility.

So, I'm still convinced that even if we can't preserve a native Google Drive file perfectly in a static form, this shouldn't stop us having a go!

Improving the technology

Along side trying to understand how researchers use Google Drive and what they consider to be significant and worthy of preservation, I have also been making some requests and suggestions to Google around their export options. There are a few ideas I've noted that would make it easier for us to archive the data.

I contacted the Google Drive forum and was told that as a Google customer I was able to log in and add my suggestions to Google Cloud Connect so this I did...and what I asked for was as follows:

  • Please can we have a PDF/A export option?
  • Please could we choose whether or not to export comments or not ...and if we are exporting comments can we choose whether historic/resolved comments are also exported
  • Please can metadata be retained - specifically the created and last modified dates. (Author is a bit trickier - in Google Drive a document has an owner rather than an author. The owner probably is the author (or one of them) but not necessarily if ownership has been transferred).
  • I also mentioned a little bug relating to comment dates that I found when exporting a Google document containing comments out into docx format and then importing it back again.
Since I submitted these feature requests and comments in early May it has all gone very very quiet...

I have a feeling that ideas only get anywhere if they are popular ...and none of my ideas are popular ...because they do not lead to new and shiny functionality.

Only one of my suggestions (re comments) has received a vote by another member of the community.

So, what to do?

Luckily, since having spoken about my problem at the Jisc Research Data Network, two people have mentioned they have Google contacts who might be interested in hearing my ideas.

I'd like to follow up on this, but in the meantime it would be great if people could feedback to me. 

  • Are my suggestions sensible? 
  • Are there are any other features that would help the digital preservation community preserve Google Drive? I can't imagine I've captured everything...

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The UK Archivematica group goes to Scotland



Yesterday the UK Archivematica group met in Scotland for the first time. The meeting was hosted by the University of Edinburgh and as always it was great to be able to chat informally to other Archivematica users in the UK and find out what everyone is up to.


The first thing to note was that since this group of Archivematica ‘explorers’ first met in 2015 real and tangible progress seems to have been made. This was encouraging to see. This is particularly the case at the University of Edinburgh. Kirsty Lee talked us through their Archivematica implementation (now in production) and the steps they are taking to ingest digital content.


One of the most interesting bits of her presentation was a discussion about appraisal of digital material and how to manage this at scale using the available tools. When using Archivematica (or other digital preservation systems) it is necessary to carry out appraisal at an early stage before an Archival Information Package (AIP) is created and stored. It is very difficult (perhaps impossible) to unpick specific files from an AIP at a later date.


Kirsty described how one of her test collections has been reduced from 5.9GB to 753MB using a combination of traditional and technical appraisal techniques. 

Appraisal is something that is mentioned frequently in digital preservation discussions. There was a group talking about just this a couple of weeks ago at the recent DPC unconference ‘Connecting the Bits’. 

As ever it was really valuable to hear how someone is moving forward with this in a practical way. 

It will be interesting to find out how these techniques can be applied at scale of some of the larger collections Kirsty intends to work with.


Kirsty recommended an article by Victoria Sloyan, Born-digital archives at the Wellcome Library: appraisal and sensitivity review of two hard drives which was helpful to her and her colleagues when formulating their approach to this thorny problem.


She also referenced the work that the Bentley Historical Library at University of Michigan have carried out with Archivematica and we watched a video showing how they have integrated Archivematica with DSpace. This approach has influenced Edinburgh’s internal discussions about workflow.


Kirsty concluded with something that rings very true for me (in fact I think I said it myself the two presentations I gave last week!). Striving for perfection isn’t helpful, the main thing is just to get started and learn as you go along.


Rachel McGregor from the University of Lancaster gave an entertaining presentation about the UK Archivematica Camp that was held in York in April, covering topics as wide ranging as the weather, the food and finally feeling the love for PREMIS!


I gave a talk on work at York to move Archivematica and our Research Data York application towards production. I had given similar talks last week at the Jisc Research Data Network event and a DPC briefing day but I took a slightly different focus this time. I wanted to drill in a bit more detail into our workflow, the processing configuration within Archivematica and some problems I was grappling with. 

It was really helpful to get some feedback and solutions from the group on an error message I’d encountered whilst preparing my slides the previous day and to have a broader discussion on the limitations of web forms for data upload. This is what is so good about presenting within a small group setting like this as it allows for informality and genuinely productive discussion. As a result of this I over ran and made people wait for their lunch (very bad form I know!)


After lunch John Kaye updated the group on the Jisc Research Data Shared Service. This is becoming a regular feature of our meetings! There are many members of the UK Archivematica group who are not involved in the Jisc Shared Service so it is really useful to be able to keep them in the loop. 

It is clear that there will be a substantial amount of development work within Archivematica as a result of its inclusion in the Shared Service and features will be made available to all users (not just those who engage directly with Jisc). One example of this is containerisation which will allow Archivematica to be more quickly and easily installed. This is going to make life easier for everyone!


Sean Rippington from the University of St Andrews gave an interesting perspective on some of the comparison work he has been doing of Preservica and Archivematica. 

Both of these digital preservation systems are on offer through the Jisc Shared Service and as a pilot institution St Andrews has decided to test them side by side. Although he hasn’t yet got his hands on both, he was still able to offer some really useful insights on the solutions based on observations he has made so far. 

First he listed a number of similarities - for example alignment with the OAIS Reference Model, the migration-based approach, the use of microservices and many of the tools and standards that they are built on.


He also listed a lot of differences - some are obvious, for example one system is commercial and the other open source. This leads to slightly different models for support and development. He mentioned some of the additional functionality that Preservica has, for example the ability to handle emails and web archives and the inclusion of an access front end. 

He also touched on reporting. Preservica does this out of the box whereas with Archivematica you will need to use a third party reporting system. He talked a bit about the communities that have adopted each solution and concluded that Preservica seems to have a broader user base (in terms of the types of institution that use it). The engaged, active and honest user community for Archivematica was highlighted as a specific selling point and the work of the Filling the Digital Preservation Gap project (thanks!).


Sean intends to do some more detailed comparison work once he has access to both systems and we hope he will report back to a future meeting.


Next up we had a collaborative session called ‘Room 101’ (even though our meeting had been moved to room 109). Considering we were encouraged to grumble about our pet hates this session came out with some useful nuggets:


  • Check your migrated files. Don’t assume everything is always OK.
  • Don’t assume that just because Archivematica is installed all your digital preservation problems are solved.
  • Just because a feature exists within Archivematica it doesn’t mean you have to use it - it may not suit your workflow
  • There is no single ‘right’ way to set up Archivematica and integrate with other systems - we need to talk more about workflows and share experiences!


After coffee break we were joined (remotely) by several representatives from the OSSArcFlow project from Educopia and the University of North Carolina. This project is very new but it was great that they were able to share with us some information about what they intend to achieve over the course of the two year project. 

They are looking specifically at preservation workflows using open source tools (specifically Archivematica, BitCurator and ArchivesSpace) and they are working with 12 partner institutions who will all be using at least two of these tools. The project will not only provide training and technical support, but will fully document the workflows put in place at each institution. This information will be shared with the wider community. 

This is going to be really helpful for those of us who are adopting open source preservation tools, helping to answer some of those niggling questions such as how to fill the gaps and what happens when there are overlaps in the functionality of two tools.


We registered our interest in continuing to be kept in the loop about this project and we hope to hear more at a future meeting.

The day finished with a brief update from Sara Allain from Artifactual Systems. She talked about some of the new things that are coming in version 1.6.1 and 1.7 of Archivematica.

Before leaving Edinburgh it was a pleasure to be able to join the University at an event celebrating their progress in digital preservation. Celebrations such as this are pretty few and far between - perhaps because digital preservation is a task that doesn’t have an obvious end point. It was really refreshing to see an institution publicly celebrating the considerable achievements made so far. Congratulations to the University of Edinburgh!