Category Archives: 21st century

Looking back and pushing forwards: 75 years of Oxfam

As an Archives Assistant spending the next twelve months helping to catalogue the Oxfam Archive, I probably shouldn’t admit how woefully ignorant I was of Oxfam before I started. I knew their shops sold cheap books and nice Christmas cards. I knew you could buy someone a goat or a toilet for Christmas, and that this goat or toilet would go to someone who lived somewhere without a sewage system or a supermarket selling pasteurized milk. But beyond this, I’d never really stopped to think who ‘Oxfam’ were and what they meant. It came as a surprise that ‘Oxfam’ wasn’t just a made-up word but came from Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, and that a charity which was born in one small city has spread its offices and infrastructure across the globe. I’ve learnt a lot in the two months since I started. But Oxfam’s 75th birthday party, held in Oxford’s town hall on Friday 6th October, taught me a lot more. 

some of the archive material used for the ‘show and tell’ sessions

 

At the Bodleian we were involved with preparations for the 75th anniversary in a low-key way, answering enquiries from Oxfam staff regarding photographs which would be used in exhibitions and slideshow presentations. Between the 4th and the 6th October there were also opportunities for Oxfam staff and volunteers to view some of the highlights of the Oxfam archive in the Bodleian, and this proved a learning experience for me as well. Through objects such as a scrapbook documenting fundraising and a damp-gnawed but still-legible gift-shop cashbook from 1948-9, I realised the importance of innovatory and motivated figures like Robert Castle and Joe Mitty, who respectively established the first permanent Oxfam shop and helped make the charity-shop phenomenon what it is today. A particularly memorable entry in the cashbook was simply ‘Dog’, which sold for 5 shillings – we presume the dog was ornamental, especially as an ‘Elephant’ was also sold at around the same time!

Oxfam’s first permanent shop on Broad Street, Oxford

 

The anniversary celebrations themselves took place on Friday 6th October in Oxford’s Town Hall. We were treated to cake and tea in the Assembly Room, and then moved into the ornate Main Hall where the Oxfam choir sung us into our seats. The full hall made me realise not only the importance of Oxfam as a UK employer, but also as a social institution which generations of people have grown up with. Many of the volunteers were elderly, but a gurgling baby at the back of the hall indicated that the Oxfamily spans all ages.

 

My job is to catalogue Oxfam’s project files, bundles of correspondence, receipts and reports which document how development work plays out on the ground. This is what Stan Thekaekara, founder-director of trade model ‘Just Change’ and one of the evening’s speakers, would call the ‘worm’s eye view’. I was much less aware of the ‘bird’s-eye view’, the need for an overarching vision and policy and the tension that can result between the bird and the worm, between the decision-makers at home and the boots on the ground. This was something discussed by the panel hosted by Duncan Green, strategic advisor at Oxfam GB. The panellists debated the need to reorient the global economic system away from exponential growth and a capitalistic zero sum game, but also the importance of listening to the communities worst-affected by this system and providing them with the knowledge that could help improve their lives.

the programme for the evening’s events

 

 

In a discussion on the future of Oxfam, Mark Goldring (Oxfam GB’s Chief Executive) suggested this focus on communities was already being embodied by Oxfam International, the worldwide confederation of Oxfam affiliates. Oxfam International Executive Director Winne Byanyima was optimistic as she announced that Oxfam International’s headquarters would shortly be moving to Nairobi, and the celebratory talks concluded with reiterations of Oxfam’s commitment to end poverty.

While the optimism and passion of the speakers was inspiring, I couldn’t help but notice the tragic irony of the fact that, twenty-five years ago, Oxfam’s 50th anniversary celebrations were overshadowed by the influx of Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh, and that 2017 has witnessed renewed attacks and allegations of genocide by the Myanmar authorities. Despite Oxfam’s energy and determination, I can’t help but think that, while human hatred continues to fuel governments, human suffering will not be easy to uproot.

Professor George Gow Brownlee’s lab notebooks now available

George Gow Brownlee (photograph from the Royal Society)

George Gow Brownlee (photograph from the Royal Society)

The archive of Professor George Gow Brownlee, FMedSci, FRS, is now available online. Professor Brownlee was born in 1942 and took his degree and then a PhD at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, studying under double Nobel Laureate Fred Sanger at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (in 2014 he published a biography of Sanger). He worked for the Medical Research Council in Cambridge from 1966 until 1980 and then came to Oxford as a Fellow of Lincoln College and the first E.P. Abraham Professor of Chemical Pathology at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, a chair he held until retirement in 2008.

Professor Brownlee’s research interests were in molecular biology and he and his group made significant discoveries in sequencing RNA and DNA during the early days of that field of research. In 1977, his group discovered the existence of pseudogenes – abnormal, mutated genes – which are now known to be ubiquitous in the genome of all organisms. After 1980, Brownlee became more involved in applied medical problems, and managed to isolate the clotting factor IX gene (also known as Christmas factor), which is present in people with haemophilia B. This led to improved treatment for people with the disease. He went on to work on gene regulation in influenza. In 1999 he and Ervin Fodor, whose contributions feature heavily in this archive, were able to isolate recombinant influenza virus, which led to improved vaccines for children.

These lab notebooks, which span most of Professor Brownlee’s career, form a rich scientific record that interestingly covers failed experiments as well as the experiments that led to major discoveries. And as a bonus, the catalogue is based on Professor Brownlee’s own descriptions of the notebooks, so it offers a level of detail that couldn’t be replicated by anybody else. The archive is likely to be of interest to scientists in the field as well as medical historians.

PASIG 2017: Smartphones within the changing landscape of digital preservation

I recently volunteered at the PASIG 2017 Conference in Oxford, it was a great experience to learn more about the archives sector. Many of the talks at the conference focused on the current trends and influences affecting the trajectory of the industry.

A presentation that covered some of these trends in detail was a talk by Somaya Langley from Cambridge University Library (Polonsky Digital Preservation Project), her talk was featured in the ‘Future of DP theory and practice’ session. ‘Realistic digital preservation in the near future: How do we get from A to Z when B already seems too far away?’. Somaya’s presentation considered how we preserve the digital content we receive from donors on smartphones, with her focus being on iOS.

Langley, Somaya (2017): Realistic digital preservation in the near future: How to get from A to Z when B seems too far away?. figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.5418685.v1 Retrieved: 08:22, Sep 22, 2017 (GMT)

Somaya’s presentation discussed how in the field of digital preservation ingest suites have  long been used to dealing with CDs, DVDs, Floppys and HDDs. However, are not sufficiently prepared for ingesting smartphones or tablets, and the various issues that are associated with these devices. We must realise that smartphones potentially hold a wealth of information for archives:

‘With the design of the Apple Operation System (iOS) and the large amount of storage space available, records of emails, text messages, browsing history, chat, map searching, and more are all being kept’.

(Forensic Analysis on iOS Devices,  Tim Proffitt, 2012. https://uk.sans.org/reading-room/whitepapers/forensics/forensic-analysis-ios-devices-34092 )

Why iOS? What about Android?

The UK market for the iPhone (unlike the rest of Europe) shows a much closer split: iOS November 2016 Sales 48.3% versus Android 49.6% market share in the UK. This  is contrasted against the global market share that Apple have of 12.1% in Q3 of 2016.

Whatever side of the fence you stand on it is clear that smartphones in digital curation, be they Android or iOS, will both play an important role in our collections. The skills required to extract content differs across platforms, we as digital archivists will have to learn both methods of extraction and leave our consumer preferences at the door.

So how do we get the data off the iPhone?

iOS has long been known as a ‘locked-down’ operating system, and Apple have always had an anti-tinkering stance with many of their products. Therefore it should come as no surprise that locating files on an iPhone is not very straightforward.

As Somaya pointed out in her talk, after spending six hours in the Apple Shop ‘Genius Bar’ she was no closer to understanding from Apple employees what the best course of action would be to locate backups of notes from a ‘bricked’ iPhone. Therefore she used her own method of retrieving the notes, using iExplorer to search through the backups from the iPhone.

She noted however that due to limitations of iOS it was very challenging to locate these files, in some cases it even required command line to access the location for storage backups as they were hidden by default in OSX (MacOS the main operating system used by Apple Computers).

Many tools do exist for the purpose of extracting information from iPhones, the four main methods outlined in the The SANS Institute White Paper on Forensic Analysis on iOS Devices by Tim Proffitt:

  1. Acquisition via iTunes Backups (requires original PC last used to sync the iPhone)
  2. Acquiring Backup Data with iPhone Analyzer (free java-based computer program, issues exist when dealing with encrypted backups)
  3. Acquisition via Logical Methods: (uses a synchronisation method built into iOS to recover data, e.g: programs like iPhone Explorer)
  4. Acquisition via Physical Methods (obtaining a bit-by-bit copy, e.g: Lantern 2 forensics suite)

Encryption is a challenge for retrieving data off the iPhone, especially since iTunes includes an encryption of backups feature when syncing. Proffitt suggests using a password cracker or jail-breaking as solutions to this issue, however, these solutions might not be fully compatible with our archive situations.

Another issue with smartphone digital preservation is platform and version locking. Just because the above methods work for data extraction at the moment it is very possible that future versions of iOS could make then defunct, requiring software developers to consistently update their programs or look for new approaches.

Langley, Somaya (2017): Realistic digital preservation in the near future: How to get from A to Z when B seems too far away?. figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.5418685.v1 Retrieved: 08:22, Sep 22, 2017 (GMT)

Final thoughts

One final consideration that can be raised from Somaya’s talk is that of privacy. As with the arrival of computers into our archives, phones will pose similar moral questions for archivists:

Do we ascribe different values to information stored on smartphones?
Do we consider the material stored on phones more personal than data stored on our computers?

As mentioned previously, our phones store everything from emails, geo-tagged photos, phone call information, and now with the growing popularity of smart wearable-technology, health data (including user heart-rate, daily activity, weight etc.) We as digital archivists will be dealing with very sensitive personal information and need to be prepared to understand the responsibility to safeguard it appropriately.

There is no doubt that soon enough we in the archive field will be receiving more and more smartphones and tablets into our archives from donors. Hopefully talks like Somaya’s will start the ball rolling towards the creation of better standards and approaches to smartphone digital curation.

PASIG 2017: “Sharing my loss to protect your data” University of the Balearic Islands

 

Last week I was lucky enough to be able to attend the PASIG 2017 (Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group) conference, held at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where over the course of three days the  digital preservation community connected to share, experiences, tools, successes and mishaps.

The story of one such mishap came from Eduardo del Valle, Head of the Digitization and Open Access Unit at the University of the Balearic Islands (UIB), in his presentation titled Sharing my loss to protect your data: A story of unexpected data loss and how to do real preservation”. In 2013 the digitisation and digital preservation workflow pictured below was set up by the IT team at UIB.

2013 Digitisation and Digital Preservation Workflow (Eduardo del Valle, 2017)

Del Valle was told this was a reliable system, with fast retrieval. However, he found this was not the case, with slow retrieval and the only means of organisation consisting of an excel spreadsheet used to contain the storage locations of the data.

In order to assess their situation they used the NDSA Levels of Digital Preservation, a tiered set of recommendations on how organisations should build their digital preservation activities, developed by the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) in 2012. The guidelines are organised into five functional areas that lie at the centre of digital preservation:

  1. Storage and geographic location
  2. File fixity and data integrity
  3. Information security
  4. Metadata
  5. File formats

These five areas then have four columns (Levels 1-4) which set tiered recommendations of action, from Level 1 being the least an organisation should do, to Level 4 being the most an organisation can do. You can read the original paper on the NDSA Levels here.

The slide below shows the extent to which the University met the NDSA Levels. They found there was an urgent need for improvement.

NDSA Levels of Preservation UIB compliance (Eduardo del Valle, 2017)

“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” – Eduardo del Valle

In 2014 the IT team decided to implement a new back up system. While the installation and configuration of the new backup system (B) was completed, the old system (A) remained operative.

On the 14th and 15th November 2014, a backup was created for the digital material generated during the digitisation of 9 rare books from the 14th century in the Tape Backup System (A) and notably, two confirmation emails were received, verifying the success of the backup.  By October 2015, all digital data had been migrated from System (A) to the new System (B), spanning UIB projects from 2008-2014.

However, on 4th November 2014, a loss of data was detected…

The files corresponding to the 9 digitised rare books were lost. This loss was detected a year after the initial back up of the 9 books in System A, and therefore the contract for technical assistance had finished. This meant there was no possibility of obtaining financial compensation, if the loss was due to a hardware or software problem.  The loss of these files, unofficially dubbed “the X-files”, meant the loss of three months of work and it’s corresponding economic loss. Furthermore, the rare books were in poor condition, and to digitise them again could cause serious damage. Despite a number of theories, the University is yet to receive an explanation for the loss of data.

The digitised 14th century rare book from UIB collection (Eduardo del Valle, 2017)

To combat issues like this, and to enforce best practice in their digital preservation efforts, the University acquired Libsafe, a digital preservation solution offered by Libnova. Libsafe is OAIS and ISO 14.721:2012 compliant, and encompasses advanced metadata management with a built-in ISAD(g) filter, with the possibility to import any custom metadata schema. Furthermore, Libsafe offers fast delivery, format control, storage of two copies in disparate locations, and a built-in catalogue. With the implementation of a standards compliant workflow, the UIB proceeded to meet all four levels of the 5 areas of the NDSA Levels of Digital Preservation.

The ISO 14.721:2012 Space Data and Information Transfer Systems – Open Archival Information System – Reference Model (OAIS)  provides a framework for implementing the archival concepts needed for long-term digital preservation and access, and for describing and comparing architectures and operations of existing and future archives, as well as describing roles, processes and methods for long-term preservation.

The use of these standards facilitates the easy access, discovery and sharing of digital material, as well as their long-term preservation. Del Valle’s story of data loss reminds us of the importance of implementing standards-based practices in our own institutions, to minimise risk and maximise interoperability and access, in order to undertake true digital preservation.

 

With thanks to Eduardo del Valle, University of the Balearic Islands.

PASIG2017: Preserving Memory

 

The Oxford University Natural History Museum (photo by Roxana Popistasu, twitter)

This year’s PASIG conference, (Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group) bought together an eclectic mix of individuals from around the world to discuss the very exciting and constantly evolving topic of digital preservation. Held at the Oxford University Natural History Museum, the conference aimed to connect practitioners from a variety of industries with a view to promoting conversation surrounding various digital preservation experiences, designs and best practices. The presentations given comprised a series of lightning talks, speeches and demos on a variety of themes including: the importance of standards, sustainability and copyright within digital preservation.

UNHCR: Archiving on the Edge

UNHCR Fieldworkers digitally preserving refugee records (photo by Natalie Harrower, twitter)

I was particularly moved by a talk given on the third day by Patricia Sleeman, an Archivist working for the UNHCR, a global organisation dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people.

Entitled “Keep your Eyes on the Information” Sleeman’s poignant and thought-provoking presentation discussed the challenges and difficulties faced when undertaking digital preservation in countries devastated by the violence and conflicts of war. Whilst recognising that digital preservation doesn’t immediately save lives in the way that food, water and aid can, Sleeman identified the place of digital preservation as having significant importance in the effort to retain, record and preserve the memory, identity and voice of a people which would otherwise be lost through the destruction and devastation of displacement, war and violence.

About the Archive

Sleeman and her team seek to capture a wide range of digital media including: you tube, websites and social media, each forming a precious snapshot of history, an antidote to the violent acts of mnemnocide- or the destruction of memory.

The digital preservation being undertaken is still in its early stages with focus being given to the creation of good quality captures and metadata. It is hoped in time however that detailed policies and formats will be developed to aid Sleeman in her digital preservation work.

One of the core challenges of this project has been handling highly sensitive material including refugee case files. The preservation of such delicate material has required Sleeman and her team to act slowly and with integrity, respecting the content of information at each stage.

For more information on the UNHCR  please click here.

 

PDF/A: Challenges Meeting the ISO 19005 Standard

Anna Oates (MSLIS Candidate, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and NDNP Coordinator Graduate Assistant, Preservation Services) explaining the differences between PDF and PDF/A

We were excited to attend the recent project presentation entitled: ‘A Case Study on Theses in Oxford’s Institutional Repository: Challenges Meeting the ISO 19005 Standard’ given by Anna Oates, a student involved in the Oxford-Illinois Digital Libraries Placement Programme.

The presentation focused initially on the PDF/A format: PDF/A differs from standard PDF in that it avoids common long term access issues associated with PDF. For example, a PDF created today may look and behave differently in 50 years time. This is because many visual aspects of the PDF are not saved into the file itself, (PDFs use font linking instead of font embedding) the standardised PDF/A format attempts to remedy this by embedding  metadata within the file and restricting certain aspects commonly found in PDF which could inhibit long term preservation.

Aspects excluded from PDF/A include :

  • Audio and video content
  • JavaScript executable files
  • All forms of PDF encryption

PDF/A is better suited therefore for the long term preservation of digital material as it maintains the integrity of the information included in the source files, be this textual or visual. Oates described PDF/A as having multiple ‘flavours’, PDF/A-1 published in 2005 including conformance level A (Accessible – maintains the structure of the file) and B (Basic – maintains the visual aspects only). Versions 2 and 3 published later in 2011 and 2012, were developed to encompass conformance level U (Unicode – enabling the embedding of Unicode information) alongside other features such as JPEG 2000 compression and the embedding of arbitrary file formats within PDF/A documents.

Oates specified that different types of documents benefited from different ‘flavours’ of PDF/A, for example, digitised documents were better suited to conformance level B whereas born digital documents were better suited to level A.

Whilst specifying the benefits of PDF/A, Oates also highlighted the myriad of issues associated with the format.  Firstly, while experimenting with creating and conforming PDF/A documents, she noted the conformed documents had slight differences, such as changes to the colour pixels of embedded image files (PDF/A format showed less difference in the colour of pixels with programs like PDF Studio), this showcased a clear alteration of the authenticity of the original source file.

Oates compared source images to PDF/A converted images and found obvious visual differences.

Secondly,  Oates noted that when converting files from PDF to PDF/A-1b, smart software would change the decode filter of the image (e.g. changing from JPXDecode used for JPEG2000 to DCTDecode accepted by ISO 19005) in order to ensure it would conform to ISO 19005. However, she noted that despite the positives of avoiding non-conformance the software had increased the file size of the PDF by 65%. The file size increase poses obvious issues in regards to storage and cost considerations for organisations using PDF/A.

Oates’ workflow for creation and conformance checking of PDF/A files using different PDF/A software

Format uptake was also discussed by Oates. She found that PDF/A had not been widely utilised by Universities for long term preservation of dissertations and thesis in the UK. However, Oates provided examples of users of PDF/A for Electronic Theses and Dissertations Repositories that included: Concordia University, Johns Hopkins University, McGill University, Rutgers University, University of Alberta, University of Oulu and Virginia Tech.  Alongside this it was mentioned that uptake amongst Research and Cultural Heritage Institutions included: the Archaeology Data Service (ADS), British Library, California Digital Library, Data Archiving and Networked Services (DANS), the Library of Congress and the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

“Adobe Preflight has failed to recognize most of the glyph errors. As such, veraPDF will remain our final tool for validation.” (Anna Oates)

Oates therefore concluded that PDF/A was not the best solution to PDF preservation, she mentioned that the new ISO standard would cause new issues and considerations for PDF/A users. (Iram do you have anything in your notes re: this?)

Following the presentation the audience debated whether PDF/A should still be used. Some considered whether other solutions existed to PDF preservation; an example of a proposed solution was to keep both PDF/A and the original PDFs. However, many still felt that PDF/A provided the best solution available despite its various drawbacks.

Hopefully Oates’  findings will highlight the various areas needed for improvement in both PDF/A  conversion/ validation software and conformance aspects of the ISO 19005 Standard used by PDF/A to ensure it is up to the task of digital preservation.

To learn  more about PDF/A have a look at Adobe’s own e-book PDF/A In a Nutshell.

Alice, Ben and Iram (Trainee Digital Archivists)

Email Preservation: How Hard Can it Be? DPC Briefing Day

Miten and I outside the National Archives

Miten and I outside the National Archives, looking forward to a day of learning and networking

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC) Briefing Day titled Email Preservation: How Hard Can it Be? 

In 2016 the DPC, in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, announced the formation of the Task Force on Technical Approaches to Email Archives to address the challenges presented by email as a critical historical source. The Task Force delineated three core aims:

  1. Articulating the technical framework of email
  2. Suggesting how tools fit within this framework
  3. Beginning to identify missing elements.

The aim of the briefing day was two-fold; to introduce and review the work of the task force thus far in identifying emerging technical frameworks for email management, preservation and access; and to discuss more broadly the technical underpinnings of email preservation and the associated challenges, utilising a series of case studies to illustrate good practice frameworks.

The day started with an introductory talk from Kate Murray (Library of Congress) and Chris Prom (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), who explained the goals of the task force in the context of emails as cultural documents, which are worthy of preservation. They noted that email is a habitat where we live a large portion of our lives, encompassing both work and personal. Furthermore, when looking at the terminology, they acknowledged email is an object, several objects and a verb – and it’s multi-faceted nature all adds to the complexity of preserving email. Ultimately, it was said email is a transactional process whereby a sender transmits a message to a recipient, and from a technical perspective, a protocol that defines a series of commands and responses that operate in a manner like a computer programming language and which permits email processes to occur.

From this standpoint, several challenges of email preservation were highlighted:

  • Capture: building trust with donors, aggregating data, creating workflows and using tools
  • Ensuring authenticity: ensuring no part of the email (envelope, header, and message data etc.) have been tampered with
  • Working at scale: email
  • Addressing security concerns: malicious content leading to vulnerability, confidentiality issues
  • Messages and formats
  • Preserving attachments and linked/networked documents: can these be saved and do we have the resources?
  • Tool interoperability

 

The first case study of the day was presented by Jonathan Pledge from the British Library on “Collecting Email Archives”, who explained born-digital research began at the British Library in 2000, and many of their born-digital archives contain email.  The presentation was particularly interesting as it included their workflow for forensic capture, processing and delivery of email for preservation, providing a current and real life insight into how email archives are being handled. The British Library use Aid4Mail Forensic for their processing and delivery, however, are looking into ePADD as a more holistic approach. ePADD is a software package developed by Standford University which supports archival processes around the appraisal, ingest, processing, discovery and delivery of email archives. Some of the challenges they experienced surrounded the issue of email as often containing personal information. A possible solution would be the redaction of offending material, however they noted this could lead to the loss of meaning, as well as being an extremely time-consuming process.

Next we heard from Anthea Seles (The National Archives) and Greg Falconer (UK Government Cabinet Office) who spoke about email and the record of government. Their presentation focused on the question of where the challenge truly lies for email – suggesting that, opposed to issues of preservation, the challenge lies in capture and presentation. They noted that when coming from a government or institutional perspective, the amount of email created increases hugely, leaving large collections of unstructured records. In terms of capture, this leads to the challenge of identifying  what is of value and what is sensitive. Following this, the major challenge is how to best present emails to users – discoverability and accessibility. This includes issues of remapping existing relationships between unstructured records, and again, the issue of how to deal with linked and networked content.

The third and final case study was given by Michael Hope, from Preservica; an “Active Preservation” technology, providing a suite of (Open Archival Information System) compliant workflows for ingest, data management, storage, access, administration and preservation for digital archives.

Following the case studies, there was a second talk from Kate Murray and Chris Prom on emerging Email Task Force themes and their Technology Roadmap. In June 2017 the task force released a Consultation Report Draft of their findings so far, to enable review, discussion and feedback, and the remainder of their presentation focused on the contents and gaps of the draft report. They talked about three possible preservation approaches:

  • Format Migration: copying data from one type of format to another to ensure continued access
  • Emulation: recreating user experience for both message and attachments in the original context
  • Bit Level Preservation: preservation of the file, as it was submitted (may be appropriate for closed collections)

They noted that there are many tools within the cultural heritage domain designed for interoperability, scalability, preservation and access in mind, yet these are still developing and improving. Finally, we discussed what the possible gaps of the draft report, and issues such as  the authenticity of email collections were raised, as well as a general interest in the differing workflows between institutions. Ultimately, I had a great time at The National Archives for the Email Preservation: How Hard Can it Be? Briefing Day – I learnt a lot about the various challenges of email preservation, and am looking forward to seeing further developments and solutions in the near future.

Email Preservation: How Hard Can it Be? DPC Briefing Day

On Thursday 6th July 2017 I attended the Digital Preservation Coalition briefing day in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation on email preservation titled ‘Email preservation: how hard can it be?’. It was hosted at The National archives (TNA), this was my first visit to TNA and it was fantastic. I didn’t know a great deal about email preservation prior to this and so I was really looking forward to learning about this topic.

The National Archives, Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net)., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9786613

The aim of the day was to engage in discussion about some of the current tools, technologies and thoughts on email preservation. It was orientated around the ‘Task Force on Technical Approaches to Email Preservation’ report that is currently in its draft phase. We also got to hear about interesting case studies from the British library, TNA and Preservica, each presenting their own unique experiences in relation to this topic. It was a great opportunity to learn about this area and hear from the co-chairs (Kate Murray and Christopher Prom) and the audience about their thoughts on the current situation and possible future directions.

We heard from Jonathan Pledge from British library (BL). He told us about the forensic capture expertise gained by the BL and using EnCase to capture email data from hard drives, CD’s and USB’s. We also got an insight into how they are deciding which email archive tool to use. Aid4mail fits better with their work flow however ePADD with its holistic approach was something they were considering. During their ingest they separate the emails from the attachments. They found that after the time consuming process of removing emails that would violate the data protection laws, there was very little usable content left, as often, entire threads would have to be redacted due to one message. This is not the most effective use of an archivist time and is something they are working to address.

We also heard from Anthea Seles who works with government collections at TNA. We learnt that from their research, they discovered that approximately 1TB of data in an organisations own electronic document and records management system is linked to 10TB of related data in shared drives. Her focus was on discovery and data analytics. For example, a way to increase efficiency and focus the attention of the curator on was to batch email. If an email was sent from TNA to a vast number of people, then there is a high chance that the content does not contain sensitive information. However, if it was sent to a high profile individual, then there is a higher chance that it will contain sensitive information, so the curator can focus their attention on those messages.

Hearing from Preservica was interesting as it gave an insight into the commercial side of email archiving. In their view, preservation was not an issue. For them, their attention was focused on addressing issues such as identifying duplicates/unwanted emails efficiently. Developing tools for performing whole collection email analysis and, interestingly, how to solve the problem of acquiring emails via a continuous transfer.

Emails are not going to be the main form of communication forever (the rise in the popularity of instant messaging is clear to see) however we learnt that we are still expecting growth in its use for the near future.

One of the main issues that was bought up was the potential size of future email archives and the issue that come with effective and efficient appraisal. What is large in academic terms, e.g. 100 000 emails, is not in government. The figure of over 200 million emails at the George W. Bush presidential library is a phenomenal amount and the Obama administrations is estimated at 300 million. This requires smart solutions and we learnt how the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning could help.

Continuous active learning was highlighted to improve searches. An example of searching for Miami dolphins was given. The Miami Dolphins are an American football team however someone might so be looking for information about dolphins in Miami. Initially the computer would present different search results and the user would choose which the more relevant result is, over time it will learn what it is the user is looking for in cases where searches can be ambiguous.

Another issue that was highlighted was, how do you make sure that you have searched the correct person? How do you avoid false positives? At TNA the ‘Traces Through Time’ project aimed to do that, initially with World War One records. This technology, using big data analytics can be used with email archives. There is also work on mining the email signature as a way to better determine ownership of the message.

User experience was also discussed. Emulation is an area of particular interest. The positive of this is that it recreates how the original user would have experienced the emails. However this technology is still being developed. Bit level preservation is a solution to make sure we capture and preserve the data now. This prevents loss of the archive and allows the information and value to be extracted in the future once the tools have been developed.

It was interesting to hear how policy could affect how easy it would be to acquire email archives. The new General Data Protection Regulation that will come into effect in May 2018 will mean anyone in breach of this will suffer worse penalties, up to 4% of annual worldwide turnover. This means that companies may air on the side of caution with regards to keeping personal data such as emails.

Whilst the email protocols are well standardised, allowing emails to be sent from one client to another (e.g. AOL account from early 1990’s to Gmail of now) the acquisition of them are not. When archivists get hold of email archives, they are left with the remnants of whatever the email client/user has done to it. This means metadata may have been added or removed and formats can vary. This adds a further level of complexity to the whole process

The day was thoroughly enjoyable. It was a fantastic way to learn about archiving emails. As emails are now one of the main methods of communication, for government, large organisations and personal use, it is important that we develop the tools, techniques and policies for email preservation. To answer the question ‘how hard can it be?’ I’d say very. Emails are not simple objects of text, they are highly complex entities comprising of attachments, links and embedded content. The solution will be complex but there is a great community of researchers, individuals, libraries and commercial entities working on solving this problem. I look forward to hearing the update in January 2018 when the task force is due to meet again.

#WAWeek2017 – Researchers, practitioners and their use of the archived web

This year, the world of web archiving  saw a premiere: not only were the biennial RESAW conference and the IIPC conference, established in 2016, held jointly for the first time, but they also formed part of a whole week of workshops, talks and public events around web archives – Web Archiving Week 2017 (or #WAWeek2017 for the social medially inclined).

After previous conferences Reykjavik (2016) and Arhus (RESAW 2015), the big 2017 event was held in London, 14-16 June 2017, organised jointly by the School of Advanced Studies of the University of London, the IIPC and the British Library.
The programme was packed full of an eclectic variety of presentations and discussions, with topics ranging from the theory and practice of curating web archive collections or capturing whole national web domains, via technical topics such as preservation strategies, software architecture and data management, to the development of methodologies and tools for using web archives based research and case studies of their application.

Even in digital times, who doesn’t like a conference pack? Of course, the full programme is also available online. (…but which version will be easier to archive?)

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Web Archiving Week 2017 – “Pages for kids, by kids”

Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend a day of the Web Archiving Week 2017 conferences in Senate House, London along with another graduate trainee digital archivist.

A beautiful staircase in Senate House

Every session I attended throughout the day was fascinating, but Ian Milligan’s ‘Pages by kids, for kids’: unlocking childhood and youth history through the GeoCities web archive stood out for me as truly capturing part of what makes a web archive so important to society today.

Pages by kids, for kids

GeoCities, for those unfamiliar with the name, was a website founded in 1994 from which anyone could build their own free website which would become part of a ‘neighbourhood’. Each neighbourhood was themed for a particular topic, allowing topic clusters to form from created websites. GeoCities was shut down in Europe and the US in 2009, but evidence of it still exists in the Internet Archive.

Milligan’s talk focused particularly on the Enchanted Forest neighbourhood between 1996 and 1999. The Enchanted Forest was dedicated to child-friendliness and was the only age based neighbourhood, and as such had extra rules and community moderation to ensure nothing age inappropriate was present.

“The web was not just made by dot.com companies”

The above image shows what I think was one of the key points from the talk, a quote from the New York Times, March 17th 1997
“The web was not just made by dot.com companies, but that eleven-year-old boys and grandmothers are also busy putting up Web sites. Of course, the quality of these sites varies greatly, but low-cost and even free home page services are a growing part of the on-line world.”

The internet is a democracy, and to show a true record of how and why it has been used it necessarily involves people – not just businesses. By having GeoCities websites within the Internet Archive, it’s possible to access direct evidence of how people were using the internet in the late part of the 20th century, but, as Ian Milligan’s talk explained, it also allows access to direct evidence of childhood and youth culture forming on the internet.

Milligan pointed out that access to evidence of childhood and youth culture is rare, normally historical evidence comes in the form of adults remembering their time as children or from researchers studying children, but something produced by a child for other children would rarely make it into a traditional archive. Within the trove of archived GeoCities websites, however, children producing web content for children is clearly visible. From this, it is possible to examine what constituted popular activities for children on GeoCities in the late 20th century.

Milligan noted one major activity within the Enchanted Forest centred around an awards culture, wherein a popular site would award users based on several web page qualities such as no personal identifiable information, working links and loading times of less than one minute. Some users would create their own awards to present to people, for example an award for finding all the Winnie the Pooh words in a word search. His findings showed that 15% of Enchanted Forest websites had a dedicated awards page.

A darker side of a child-centric portion of the web was also revealed in the Geokidz club. On the surface, the Geokidz Club appeared to be an unofficial online clubhouse where children could share poetry and book reviews, they could chat and take HTML lessons – but these activities came at the price of a survey which contained questions about the lifestyles of the child’s parents (the type of information would appeal to advertisers). This formed part of one of the first internet privacy court cases due to the data being obtained from children and sold on without proper informed consent.

It was among my favourite talks of the day, and showed how much richer our understanding of the recent past can be using web archives, as well as the benefit to researchers of the history of youth and childhood.
It felt particularly relevant to me, as someone who spent her teen years on the internet watching, and being involved in, youth culture happening online in the 2000s to know that online youth culture, which can feel very ephemeral, can be saved for future research in web archives.

A wall hanging in Senate House (made of sisal)

In truth, any talk I attended would have made an interesting topic for this blog – the entire day was filled with informative speakers, interesting presentations and monumental, hair-like wall hangings. But I felt Ian Milligan’s talk gave such a positive example of how the internet, and particularly web archives, can give a voice to those whose experiences might be lost otherwise.