‘Getting Started with Digital Preservation’ Workshop

On the 17th of May I attended the Digital Preservation Coalition’s (DPC) ‘Getting Started with Digital Preservation’ workshop in London.

The one-day event was a great opportunity to gain clear insights into starting in the digital preservation sector, and provided a useful platform for networking with other archivists. The event consisted of lectures from DPC members on various topics related to starting digital preservation. It also included group exercises that were aimed at putting these ideas into practice.

The day started with a brief overview of digital preservation. The DPC team started by making us focus on identifying the main aspects of traditional archival preservation for physical documents. For example, a document’s physical, robust and tangible nature. Its ability to be independently understandable without relying on technology. The existence of well-established approaches to its preservation. And the existence of a well-established understanding of value-assessment relating to these documents.

This was used as a springboard to introduce us to many issues that we would face transitioning to digital. Issues like the ephemeral and intangible nature of digital (1s & 0s can’t be held in your hands). The need for technology and software for documents to be understood (e.g. a PDF file requires software to open it). Issues of obsolescence (e.g. new hardware and software making older files redundant) and lack of any value-assessment experience in the field (how do we assess the value of a set of data?).

These areas helped us to understand that digital preservation presented its own set of unique challenges that have to be understood within their own context. The question of ‘Why Digitise?’ was then asked to the attendees at the workshop. The responses focused on: legal, research, cultural heritage, funding opportunities, efficiency, contingency and access reasons for digitising. This shows us that digital preservation cannot be seen as a simple solution to a single problem but a complex solution to many.

Bit-Level Preservation was covered in detail at the workshop, this section focused on the potential dangers that could affect data and how to prevent these from occurring. The three main areas were: media obsolescence: where media type is no longer used or the hardware no longer exists to support it, media failure / decay: when the media itself runs to the end of its life cycle or breaks, and natural / human-made disaster: fire, earthquakes etc. Mitigating these dangers is achieved by backing up the data more than 2-3 times (the actual number of copies needed is a subject of debate). Then storing these copies in different geographical locations, and performing periodical migration of media to new storage devices.

The workshop also looked at integrity checks and the role they play in bit-level preservation. Integrity checking is the process of creating a ‘checksum’ or ‘hash value’ (a unique number created when running an integrity checking program like Fixity, ACE and COPTR on a file). This number is unique to that data, like a fingerprint, and can be used to check if the data has changed or become corrupted in any way due to bit-rot or other data corruption.

Fixity: https://www.avpreserve.com/tools/fixity/
ACE: https://wiki.umiacs.umd.edu/adapt/index.php/Ace
COPTR: http://coptr.digipres.org/Category.Fixity

Later in the workshop characterisation tools were demonstrated. The tool showcased was DROID (Digital, Record Object Identification). DROID is an open-source tool that analyses file types / formats on a system, it then relays this information to PRONOM, a database of file formats. The presentations stressed that the databases the tools used were important, and needed gradual updating to be accurate. Other examples of characterisation tools mentioned: C3PO, JHOVE, TIKKA, FITS.

PRONOM: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/PRONOM/Default.aspx
DROID: https://sourceforge.net/projects/droid/

The presentation on departmental readiness provided useful insights into preparing for digital preservation projects. It focused on the way that maturity models could be used to benchmark your department’s readiness for digital preservation The two main models discussed were: Digital Preservation Capability Maturity Model and the NDSA Levels of Digital Preservation. These models aimed to identify gaps in the institution’s readiness for digital preservation, whilst also focusing on aspects of best practice that they could aim to achieve.

DPCMM: http://www.securelyrooted.com/dpcmm
NDSA: http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/documents/NDSA_Levels_Archiving_2013.pdf

A risk assessment exercise also formed part of the workshop. Those attending were asked to consider how various risks would affect the digital archival process. The risks would then be ranked on their likelihood of occurring, and the potential damage that they might cause. We would then propose potential solutions to help mitigate these risks, and prevent further ‘explosive’ risks from occurring. This was followed by assessing whether the scores for both criteria had improved.

The last presentation was on digital asset registers. It focused on the importance of creating and managing a detailed spreadsheet to hold an institutions digital assets, with the aim of having one organised and accessible source of information on a digital collection. The presentation focused on how this register could be shared with all members of staff to promote a better understanding of a digital collection. It mentioned that this would remove the issue of having one staff member who was a sole specialist on a collection, and promote further transparency throughout the digital preservation process. Another idea mentioned was that the register could be used for promoting further funding into digital collections, by providing a visual representation of the digital preservation process.

I thoroughly enjoyed the DPC workshop and look forward to attending similar workshops.


War, Health and Humanitarianism

How can we define humanitarianism?

What motivates humanitarian actors like Oxfam and the Red Cross?

How have relief and development organizations competed and collaborated to mitigate suffering from conflicts?

Is political neutrality feasible or necessary?

These and other questions will be addressed in the symposium, ‘War, Health and Humanitarianism’ on 16 June in the Weston Library Lecture Theatre, which brings together historians studying conflicts from the medieval period to the present day. Speakers will include Dr. Rosemary Wall, Bodleian Library Sassoon Visiting Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Global History at the University of Hull, whose current research focuses on conflict in Cyprus, Vietnam and Nigeria in the 20th century and British and French humanitarian responses.

For further information and to register see:


Unloading dried milk

Unloading dried milk for the starving people of Biafra at Fernando Po during the Nigerian Civil War, July 1968
MS. Oxfam COM/5/1/51
Credit: Duncan Kirkpatrick / Oxfam

Digital Preservation Workshop

It was a real privilege to attend the Digital Preservation Coalition’s workshop, ‘Getting Started with Digital Preservation’ in London on 17th May 2017. As a newcomer to this topic I was eager to learn more, and the workshop definitely didn’t disappoint, providing me with a fantastic insight into the tools recommended for digital preservation, the challenges it presents, and the solutions that can be used to overcome these.

The workshop began with an introduction to digital preservation, defined neatly by Sharon McMeekin (Head of Training and Skills) as the active management of digital content over a period of time to ensure continued access. We learnt about the sorts of features systems should incorporate to allow for continued access to digital content. These included:

• Resilience, standards, and open to testing
• Error checking, compatibility to multi-media, and back-up
• Authenticity checking

As the morning progressed it was interesting to learn more about some of the difficulties that digital preservation presents including:

• Media obsolesce
• Media failure or decay (otherwise known as ‘bit-rot’).
• Natural disaster
• Man-made error
• Malicious damage
• Viruses
• Network failure
• Disassociation

Methods of dealing with these challenges included: storing more than one copy in different geographic locations, refreshing storage media, and integrity checking, also known as ‘fixity checking’ which is the process of checking if a digital file has remained unchanged.

As part of this final solution we also learnt about ‘checksums’ which are like ‘digital fingerprints’ also used to check if the contents of a file have altered.

The DPC also recommended generating a risk register as a further preventative measure to protect digital material against potential hazards. We even had a go at creating our own digital register based on a fictional scenario. This involved recording the:

•  Type of risk
• Consequence of risk
• Likelihood  of occurrence
• Impact on institution
• Frequency
• Owner
• Response/solution
• New Likelihood of occurrence

As well as safeguarding digital material, we learnt that a risk register has the added benefit of introducing clearer planning within an institution, serving as an advocacy tool, highlighting clearer responsibilities, and benefitting the Digital Asset Register.  DPC recommended that institutions use DRAMBORA, a digital repository audit method based on risk assessment which encourages organisations to generate an awareness of their objectives and activities before identifying and managing the risks to their digital collections.

Finally, Digital Asset Registers were recommended as useful tools for digital preservation coordination since they gather all of the digital information into one place and log preservation risks to collections. They also provide intuitions with a finding aid in the absence of other discovery methods and support best practice and advocacy.

The characterisation tool DROID was also mentioned as a useful software application for identifying file formats. Developed by the National Archives, this tool records the number, size, and format of each file in addition to creating a checksum for each.

The workshop was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about digital preservation and meet with other professionals from the same field. I am now really looking forward to undertaking some of my own digital preservation and archiving projects at the Bodleian.

Additions to the Wardrop Collection

On May 17th descendants of the British diplomat Sir Oliver Wardrop visited the Bodleian to donate further items to the Wardrop collection on Georgia. The newly donated material contains correspondence by Sir Oliver written during his period as British High Commissioner for Transcaucasia, 1919-20, and letters written by his sister Marjory on her first visit to Georgia in 1894.

During their visit, family members were shown manuscripts already in the Library’s  Wardrop collection by Dr. Nikoloz Aleksidze, who is currently writing a book about the collection.

Descendants of Sir Oliver Wardrop with Dr. Nikoloz Aleksidze showing their additions to the Wardrop collection

John Cowdery Kendrew archive now online

John Kendrew

John Cowdery Kendrew

The year 2017 marks the centenary of the birth of Sir John Cowdery Kendrew, biochemist, crystallograper, and Nobel laureate. The Bodleian Library has recently published an online catalogue: “Correspondence and papers of Sir John Cowdery Kendrew“.

The Kendrew archive is quite substantial – 397 boxes. The papers cover all stages of Kendrew’s life from his early school years at the Dragon School in Oxford and Clifton College in Bristol to his undergraduate years at Trinity College, Cambridge; his wartime experience (mostly as Scientific Officer in Cairo and later in India and Ceylon); and all stages of his later professional career, including his five years as President of
St. John’s College, Oxford.

By far the largest part of the collection is devoted to his research at a variety of institutions. Some of the papers are highly technical, covering numerous aspects of biology, chemistry, and crystallography. Kendrew was one of the earliest users of the EDSAC I computer. His correspondence is also extensive.

–Lawrence Mielniczuk

Papers of Margaret Pickles now available

The catalogue of a small collection of the papers of a twentieth-century female doctor is now available online, released as part of the Wellcome-Trust funded 75 Years of Penicillin in People project.

Margaret Pickles, known as Peggy, came to the University of Oxford to study botany but switched to physiology, earning her bachelor’s degree at Somerville College in 1936. After winning a competitive examination she studied for the next three years at the University College Hospital Medical School in London. She qualified as a doctor in 1939 and worked at the Bearsted Maternity Hospital and the Royal East Sussex Hospital in Hastings, returning to Oxford in 1941 to work at the Radcliffe Infirmary as the Nuffield Graduate Assistant in Pathology. She completed her doctorate (D.M.) at Somerville in 1947, which was published as Haemolytic disease of the newborn in 1949 and continued to work as a clinical pathologist and immunologist.

In 1950, aged 36, she married Alastair Robb-Smith, a distinguished pathologist who had been appointed Nuffield Reader in Pathology and head of pathology at Oxford’s clinical school (now the Nuffield Department of Medicine) in 1937, at the age of 29.

Her interests extended beyond medicine. In 1960 she published The Birds of Blenheim Park with the Oxford Ornithological Society. She also continued her botanical studies, breeding daffodils at her married home, Thomas Chaucer’s House in Woodstock.

The collection comprises mainly her degree certificates and family photographs, and offers a glimpse into the life of a multi-talented female scientist working at a time when women were generally discouraged from professional work.

Oxfam’s founding minutes among the Bodleian’s treasures

Oxfam’s first minute book, recording the founding of the organization on 5 October 1942 in response to suffering behind the Allied blockade in Greece and other occupied countries, is now on display in the ‘Bodleian Treasures’ exhibition at the Weston Library and online.

The exhibition brings together some of the most iconic documents from the Bodleian’s collection of 12 million items, displayed in pairs. The Oxfam minute book is paired with a Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things by ‘a Gentleman of the University of Oxford’ identified as Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). This poem against war and tyranny was published by the 18 year old Shelley in 1811, shortly before his expulsion from Oxford for publishing a pamphlet on atheism.

As we near the 75th anniversary of that crucial meeting in the University Church later this year, we expect renewed interest in the origins of Oxfam. The first minute book will no doubt be revisited!

first minutes

Opening minutes of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, 5 Oct 1942 (MS. Oxfam GOV/1/1/1)


Gwyn Macfarlane’s research on Alexander Fleming is now available

(Robert) Gwyn Macfarlane [by Jmcperth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons]

(Robert) Gwyn Macfarlane [by Jmcperth (own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The catalogue of a small archive of the working papers of Gwyn Macfarlane (1907-1987), haematologist and biographer, is now available online, released as part of the Wellcome-Trust funded 75 Years of Penicillin in People project.

Macfarlane compiled these papers while researching his book Alexander Fleming, the Man and the Myth (1984). The book re-evaluated the work and reputation of the man whose paper on Penicillium mould inspired the development of the antibiotic drug penicillin by the Oxford University scientists Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley. The archive includes revealing correspondence with people who were connected with the development of antibiotics, including members of Fleming’s family, nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin (whose archive we hold), Norman Heatley (archive at the Wellcome Library) and Edward Penley Abraham (we also hold his archive!).

Macfarlane himself was a clinical pathologist at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford and also held a chair in clinical pathology at the University of Oxford, focusing particularly on the treatment of haemophilia. During the second world war, he worked alongside members of the penicillin team, who did war work with Oxford’s blood transfusion service, and later became friends with Howard Florey. He wrote two biographies during his retirement, this biography of Fleming and a biography of Florey, Howard Florey: the making of a great scientist (1979).

Macfarlane was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1956. His FRS biography is Robert Gwyn Macfarlane, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, G.V.R. Born and D.J. Weatheral, Volume 35, 1990. You can find more about Macfarlane’s scientific career at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required), or, of course, at Wikipedia.

Bodleian Treasures: Early Ethiopian Bible Illumination

On Saturday, the 8th of April a group of bibliophiles from the Anglo-Ethiopian Society visited the Weston Library. Their trip from London to Oxford was intended as a study day, attending lectures and a photo exhibition on the illuminated Gospels from the Abba Garima Monastery. During the academic programme, Dr Judith McKenzie spoke about the themes of Garima illumination, while Professor Francis Watson gave a lecture on canon tables. The first part of the day took place at the Ioannou centre and was organised by Judith McKenzie, Miranda Williams, and Foteini Spingou, with photographs by Michael Gervers.
In the afternoon, a small display of Bodleian Ethiopian treasures was ready for the group in the Blackwell Hall. The two fifteenth century biblical codices on display were given to the library by Dr Bent Juel-Jensen in 2006. These exceptional codices come with a wealth of painted miniatures, representing biblical figures from the patriarchs to evangelists. MS. Aeth. c. 14, comprising the Four Gospels in Ge’ez script is thought to come from the Gojjam province in north-western part of Ethiopia. There are four colour miniatures of the Evangelists, one before each Gospel. These were made by Nicolo Brancaleone, a Venetian artist active in Ethiopia.

The other mid-fifteenth century illuminated manuscript, MS. Aeth. d. 19 includes Psalms, hymns of the Old Testament, Song of Songs and Praises of Mary.

The display at the Bodleian was received with great interest and there definitely was a sense of enthusiasm for promoting the collection also in the future. Many thanks to the colleagues in the Oriental collections, as well as Exhibitions department for their support. It was a great pleasure to meet the many members of the Anglo-Ethiopian Society and we look forward to welcoming all back in the future!

Bug busting heroes

On the 14th of March, I went with a small group of grad students and research scientists from the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology to Windale Primary School in Oxford to teach three groups of 9 to 10 year olds as part of Windale’s Science Week. The event was part of the Wellcome Trust-funded ‘Pencillin in People’ project which is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the development of penicillin at the Dunn School with a programme that also includes archival cataloguing, exhibitions and oral history.

Alexander Fleming's petri dish of Staph and Penicillium mould

Alexander Fleming’s petri dish of Staph (the white dots) and Penicillium mould (the big blob). Can you spot what’s happened?

This was the second of two identical events, the first hosted in the Dunn School Library on the 22nd of February for children from Pegasus Primary School in Oxford. The theme of the day was ‘Penicillin – From Mould to Medicine’, and the children circulated between three workstations, spending 20 minutes apiece exploring bacteria in a “Meet the Bacteria” session and then being introduced to the “Bug Busting Heroes” Alexander Fleming, Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley and then, to finish, a session on “Making a Medicine” and the production of the penicillin drug.

They were asked to peer into a microscope to see a flea in the flesh; to see if they could spot what Alexander Fleming noticed in his famous petri dish of Staphyloccocus and magical mould; and to experience penicillin in action by bursting a “bacteria” balloon. They learned all sorts of new things (an embarrassing amount of it new to me too) including scientific terminology like bacterium and micro-organism and DNA; the variety of shapes bacteria take; and the amazing things these Oxford scientists achieved with salvaged equipment like bedpans and biscuit tins. They also learned what antibiotics do and what antibiotics don’t do, which is ever more important in a world of antibiotic-resistant bugs.

The plan for the day was to teach the children about this particular, awe-inspiring historical moment, a world-changing medical breakthrough that happened right here in their city – but we also wanted to inspire them with the wonder of discovery and, ultimately, to encourage them in the direction of science. Time will tell!