Archive for January, 2012

  • ICA AtoM Cataloguing Software

    Date: 2012.01.30 | Category: Access, Cataloguing, ICA-AtoM, Open Source | Response: 3

    ICA AtoM is an example of archival cataloguing software, used to provide readers with access to archival materials. Cataloguing software is widely used in the information and heritage sectors to provide access to collections, but ICA AtoM is something a little different, that is is open source, meaning, most importantly to organisations, it’s FREE.

    The term ‘free’ when discussing open source software, refers to both the concept of ‘free as in free beer’ and ‘free as in free to edit, update and improve’. Any repository looking for a fully functional, ISAD (G) compliant system need look no further, provided you have a little confidence and willingness to experiment.

    I think the key thing when learning anything new, is to just jump right in and give things a go. In the spirit of encouraging people to try things out, I’ve put together a video stepping through the installation and configuration of ICA AtoM for people to have a look at. Notice the total time of the video, 9 and a half minutes. This is REAL TIME  i.e. it takes less that 10 minutes to get ICA AtoM up and running on a PC. Granted, it’s a bit more complicated if you were installing it on a large scale, but the principle is the same.

    I should note that the process is a little slower than it would otherwise be as I was running it on a virtual machine. The video is best viewed in full screen.

    The basic steps for installation shown in this video are;

    1. Download and install WAMP (Windows Apache MySQL and PHP – the software that allows the computer to act as a webserver)
    2. Download the ICA-AtoM software from
    3. Install ICA-AtoM by unzipping the file and copying the contents to the ‘C:/wamp/www’ folder (or the ‘www’ folder wherever WAMP was installed)
    4. Type ‘localhost’ in the browser to navigate to where ICA AtoM is installed
    5. Follow the prompts (using WAMP to create a new database when you notice the error message)
    6. Configure a name and login details for your site and Voila.

    This video will step you through setting up the software on a standalone computer for tinkering purposes. The process will be different for a full blown installation on corporate servers (but not that different!).

    Go on, have a go!


    Louise Pichel

  • The problem of digital preservation

    Date: 2012.01.21 | Category: Access, Digital Preservation, Obsolescence | Response: 0

    Paper and ink, with the right care and attention, pretty much lasts forever. Or for 100 odd years at least. The average lifespan of a CD is 10 years. You can do a lot in 10 years…I sprouted a good few inches, passed a load of exams and got a job, but in the grand scheme of things, and certainly to an archivist, 10 years is a drop in the ocean.

    Digital information does not last as long as its paper equivalent, and this is why it is so important to be aware of the limitations from the moment digital material is created. While we are used to 100 year old (and more!) records surviving, we may well have become complacent when it comes to the letters (and indeed blog posts) that we are writing on our computer right now. This problem has been discussed at length by many individuals who are much more well versed than I, but I feel I can at least summarise the problem.

    Digital information requires a third party (be it hardware like a monitor, or software like Microsoft Office) to enable it to be viewed be a human being. Eyes alone no longer cut it unfortunately. The rate of development of software and hardware, means that, potentially within a few years of creation, files cannot be read by either the software or the computer that initially created them. The main options available to someone who encounters this problem are;

    • Preserve the hardware that was used to create the document to allow for it to be viewed over time
    • Run the out of date software on a modern computer using a method known as ‘emulation
    • Convert the file into a more modern file format for use with modern software (more commonly known as ‘migration‘.

    All of these present their own unique issues that would need separate blog posts to go into, but they go some way towards ensuring accessibility of digital material over time.

    I suppose the main defence against digital data loss is simply an awareness and understanding of the issues. Digital items, unlike their paper equivalents, cannot just be placed in a BS5454 compliant storage facility and left to their own devices. Digital preservation is very much an active concern; ignoring items can lead to their irretrievable loss within years (sometimes less) of their creation.

    There are a few simple things that can be done to help slow the state of obsolescence in digital material; these steps can just as easily be taken by Joe Bloggs on his home PC as by John Smith the archivist in a server room of a national organisation.

    1. Make copies…then make some more. Simple but true. Keep several copies of files on several different types of media, preferably in several different physical locations as well, that way, if one fails for whatever reason, you always have a backup. Burning something to disc and then forgetting about it does not constitute a robust preservation strategy.
    2. Check files regularly. Can you still access everything? Does it look the same as it did when you created it? Regular review of material (every 6 months or so) should allow for time to migrate to newer formats if problems arise. Of course, migration of material nearly always results in some form of data loss, but you should be able to preserve what are known as the significant properties of a file using this method (more detail on this is coming in another post).
    3. Label everything. And I don’t just mean with physical labels either, although they’re a good start. You need to find a simple solution to record metadata (data about data) about the items you are looking to preserve. This can be done via a physical label, handwritten paper document or a computer file (preferably a copy on each!) and should record as much detail as possible about the material in question e.g. number of files, types of files, programs required to view the files, sizes of files, a brief description etc. These records could be the only clue that any future user may have to unlocking the information of the media.
    4. Have a process in place. Take some time to think about digital items in your collection. How much material are you likely to be dealing with? How often does it need checking? Are you going to do anything to the files when they reach you to ensure they are recorded properly? Come up with a process for managing items that suits your needs, and make it part of a yearly/6 monthly routine.

    The above list is by no means exhaustive, and I stress, is purely a product of my reading and experience with computers, but these few simple things should go a long way to easing the pain of dealing with digital material.

    This issue has been discussed at length by others – perhaps even a little too much,  to the point where archivists are nervous of the issues and hesitant to learn skills that they may see as  ‘overly technical’. The purpose of this brief post then, is to alleviate some of those fears by suggesting that a few simple steps can make all the difference in dealing with digital materials. These basic steps can form a solid building block for the more complicated elements and help to build confidence in the digital preservation solutions arrived at.

  • The Archivist and the Geek

    Date: 2012.01.21 | Category: Archives, Digital Preservation | Response: 0

    I’m a geek. I have been since I was 7 playing Buggy Boy incessantly the family Atari ST 1040. Anything to do with computers, the internet and gadgetry in general and I’m all over it.

    I’m also an Archivist (not an activist or even an anarchist…an Archivist), meaning that I spend my working day cataloguing historical documents, repacking books covered in red rot in acid free paper, answering historical enquiries relating to collections, and anything else that I can find to do with myself.

    I’ve always been interested in history and the idea that documents from the distant past can be preserved for future generations and, after my work experience at 16 when I was taken to a strongroom and shown an anglo-saxon house deed (wow!), I began to realise this was something I could do for a living.

    You would be forgiven for thinking that these two elements of my personality must be entirely independent, after all, how many Latin reading computer programmers do you come across? (Perhaps a little extreme but you get my point!) However, I am increasingly discovering that a lot of what I do in my spare time on a computer has come in very useful in my job as an archivist, and have developed a specific interest in digital preservation (ensuring that digital documents/video/sound files remain accessible for future generations).

    The humble document, the basis of an archivist’s role, no longer means a piece of paper in a folder on a desktop. Indeed, even a ‘folder on a desktop’ has a different meaning in a digital context. The way we create material is changing, and the role of an archivist has to change with it. Job specifications increasingly require ‘good IT skills’, including the occasional ‘familiarity with XML/EAD/METS (plus any number of additional obscure acronyms) and I for one think it could and should be easier for archivists to access simple information of the management and preservation of digital records.

    The aim of this blog then, is to chart my interest in digital preservation, and provide some notes, personal thoughts and links to interesting or otherwise relevant information.

    Current ideas of future posts include open source software, computer science basics for archivists, simple, practical digital preservation solutions and the changing role of the archivist.

    Thanks for reading – new posts should be landing soon!



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