At the beginning of May, I attended a day-long workshop titled ‘Introduction to Digital Preservation: Key Concepts and Tools’. The event was at the University of Waterloo in Canada and was put on by the Archives Association of Ontario as part of their annual conference.
I was keen to attend the course because one of my duties in my current role is to implement a digitization program. Working for the Anglican Church in Ontario, I am currently looking to digitize our parish registers, many of which date back to the 1820’s and are in very poor condition. We use them on a daily basis for people researching their family history, or to provide people with copies of their marriage or baptism record. It is imperative that we have digital copies of the registers, not only for the necessity of having back ups of our records, but also to reduce handling of the registers, not just by ourselves but also researchers. Additionally, having digital copies would streamline our customer service duties in providing copies as we are currently scanning on demand.
I attended the course so as to figure out what I needed to do first and to get more information and understanding on the whole process from scanning the material to managing the digital data once obtained. I had scanned parish registers in a previous position in local government, but the digitization program was already established there when I started. In my current role, there are just the two of us, with no in-house IT department and absolutely nothing established in terms of working digitally.
The workshop was facilitated by Grant Hurley from the University of Toronto. There were about 30 other participants on the course, all from different workplace environments including university archives, historical organizations, municipal archives (similar to county record offices), religious organizations, and museums. All of us had varying levels of experience in terms of knowledge and skills, and I was somewhat relieved to hear that there were people in very similar situations to ourselves in terms of where we’re at in getting our project off the ground, as well as an understanding of digitization.
The first period of the day was going over the OAIS Reference model, an entity that made my head spin when encountering it for the first time on my archives MA a few years back, and again on a workshop for one of the well-known archival preservation systems sometime later. However, Grant took the time to really go into OAIS and explain all the different terms, its mandatory requirements, and also how it can also apply to paper archives besides digital.
Following on from this we covered workflows for capturing new digital materials into the archive including the importance of establishing fixity as soon as possible after receipt using checksums. My understanding of this (and I stand to be corrected!), was that you need to identify/establish the original and (hopefully) uncorrupted digital ‘genetic code’ or ‘blueprint’ of the data object which will be used to serve as the permanent master file (ideally stored on a different server, or geographic location than the working access copies). Over time checksums can be run against the access copies of the digital files to see if there has been any damage or loss to them. This is my understanding but more research needs to be done on my part!
After a lunch spent sitting in the sun after exploring the university’s food court, we returned back to the classroom to continue but were rudely interrupted by an unexpected fire alarm requiring evacuation, not just once but twice, but at least we were able to have a bit more time in the sun and networking!
The afternoon session, when it finally resumed, was now about how to actually manage the digital objects now that they have been captured. After learning about characterization (what properties does a file have?), validation (determining that a file is well formed according to its specifications), and normalization (converting file formats to designated preservation formats), Grant introduced us to Archivematica, an open source preservation tool that draws heavily from the OAIS model. He gave us a demonstration of the ingestion and management of the file using the above processes. Admittedly, I was a little perplexed by all the different steps he was undertaking, but this is only due to my own lack of familiarity and experience of this level of digital preservation.
Several times throughout the day we also had little breakout sessions where we would look at our own workplaces and identify responsibilities when it comes to a digital preservation strategy as well as an understanding of our collections most at risk of loss through obsolescence, loss or decay.
At the end of the day, I left feeling that I’d learnt a lot, especially that digitization is not the same as digital preservation! I also made some useful contacts on the course who have since shared with me useful webinars and other people for me to contact, so this is also a big plus for attending the workshop. Before the course had begun, I had anticipated that we would learn more about the actual scanning and that I’d figure out the steps of my project from beginning to end; however, I realize now that it was simply too big a topic for just one day. We are just at the very early planning stages of the project yet, and so I must make sure I’m not trying to plan too much too soon, and that I must remember to breathe!
Sue Halwa, Archives Assistant, Anglican Church, Ontario, Canada