Archive for the ‘Access’ Category

  • Archivist or Programmer?

    Date: 2012.03.24 | Category: Access, Archives, Cataloguing, Digital Humanities, Digital Preservation, Programming | Response: 0

    Is there such a thing as a ‘typical Archivist’?

    This question was posed by a friend on the Archives NRA Mailing List recently and prompted a series and fairly animated responses, mostly along the lines of ‘there’s no such thing as a typical archivist’. It was suggested that such a phrase may even be detrimental to the image of Archivists and suggest that the profession is more uniform than the reality. I’d certainly agree that it would prove problematic to define the ‘typical Archivist’ beyond saying that we list, make available to the public and preserve material of historical significance or otherwise deemed worthy of long term preservation.

    I suspect however, that the way in which the Archivist goes about this role has changed significantly, not least in the methods used to make material available. The development of the computer (originally used to manage payroll in Lyon’s Tea Shops) and software specifically for the cataloguing of archive material, has fundamentally changed the way people create, disseminate and access information. Without an ability to embrace the face paced development of technology, there was a significant danger of repositories being left behind in terms of how they promote or provide access to their collections. Initatives for putting catalogue records online such as The National Archives’ Access to Archives and AiM25 made significant early inroads into tackling the problem.

    An awareness of these types of initiatives and an understanding of how they work are becoming increasingly vital in the work of a ‘typical’ Archivist. But just how far does a 21st Century information professional have to take this understanding? Historians have made some attempt to tackle this issue following the emergence of the field of digital humanities and practices such as the use of XML markup to display material online. There is even an online book available – ‘The Programming Historian’ – that provides an introduction to programming and the variety of uses that a little but of Javascript can be put to. To me, this is a massive step in the right direction, and one that I think at least some Archivists should be embracing. There has been some discussion on Twitter recently about what sort of demand there might be amongst Archivists for learning programming skills, and it would seem that there are plenty of us out there willing to have a go.

    As someone who is confident is using computers and who has a programmer for a boyfriend, I am confident that there are more effective ways of doing things with a computer than those that are currently practiced by most Archivists. A few pointers on how to use macros in Excel and how to program a query in Access could make the world of difference to your average Archivist. Why spend half a day manually searching through various spreadsheets for data when you can run a report from a query in 30 seconds? I appreciate that this may be specific to my work environment, and/or that there are other contributing factors that restrict the use of technology within an organisation, but you get the idea!

    The original blog post requesting input from any technically minded Archivists who want to learn to program, posted by Alexandra Eveleigh, is here. Have a read and please do comment on why you would want to learn and what you think it could help with in your day to day work.

    I’m certain that there are a whole host of different things that programming (and other general IT knowledge) can do to enhance to work of Archivists, and I hope that something comes from the invite to learn together with a group of like minded professionals.

    So, does an Archivist ned to retrain as a programmer? I don’t think so, although a little bit of knowledge could go a long way to improving the final output of Archivists in terms of web presence, online resources and use of material. Initatives such as Code Academy will go some way to bridging the gap that exists at the moment, provided people have the time to devote to it. Where this is not possible, meeting with a group of like minded people in a relaxed setting or working through basic tutorials delivered online might well be the solution we are looking for.

    To return to my initial point, I am not sure there is such a thing as ‘a typical Archivist’ but I do think that programming/computer science based skills need to become increasingly ‘typical’ in newly qualified Archivists if we are going to keep pace with emerging and changing technologies.

    I for one hope to be blogging a bit more on this sort of thing and perhaps providing information on a few things that I’ve found useful, but in the meantime I’m getting my head down on Code Academy and reading ‘The Programming Historian’.

  • 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.



Recent Posts