|December 16, 2016||Posted by Stevan under Consultancy, Everyday Notes, Operations||
The Assynt Community Digital Archive was set up in 2011 as a long term community initiative. Readers of this site will know that among the founding principles of the Archive was an adherence to metadata standards and the choice of Free and Open Source software on which to run the Archive. Among the reasons for this, which have been proven over the years, is that Free Software finds no advantage in attempting to lock users in, the Free Software movement requiring technical excellence as the reason for staying with, or moving to or from, a software package.
The original choice of DSpace was an appropriate one for Assynt’s archive, as at that stage it was not clear how the archive would develop, or how the community would make use of it. DSpace would provide an industrial-strength, proven platform to hold securely any digital item thrown at it.
Another contender was the Omeka system, also discussed extensively on this site. At the time the Assynt Archive was set up, Omeka was still in its infancy, having been developed from around 2008. Like DSpace, it adheres to standards, most notably using Dublin Core metadata, as well as providing standard interfaces to export and import data. Unlike DSpace, which seeks only to be a repository of information, Omeka also allows extensions for creating digital exhibits, and provides mechanisms to view some details of the digital record easier. There are pros and cons regarding this philosophical difference in approach, which need not be discussed here.
One advantage Omeka has, in practical terms when it comes to managing a digital archive in the longer term, is simplicity of technical implementation. Omeka is based on PHP and MySQL (or MariaDB) while DSpace is based on Java and Postgresql, requiring a runtime Java environment and a more complicated build and upgrade routine. While it would be wonderful if Omeka abstracted the database requirement, allowing Postgresql to be used as an alternative to MySQL, there is no doubt that it is easier to run an Omeka instance than a DSpace instance.
Meanwhile, in Assynt, we are gearing up for some additional demands of the digital Archive, as the Coigach and Assynt Living Landscape Partnership (CALLP) has been successful in gaining lottery funding for a series of large projects over the next five years. It s likely that these projects’ data legacies will be met by the Assynt Community Digital Archive, and there was a desire to ensure that a suitable degree of flexibility, to support better the projects’ potential requirements, was available to them. It looked likely that Omeka, now a much more established system, would be a better option.
A series of meetings and demonstrations of the systems with the volunteer archivists gave the go-ahead to transfer one DSpace community to Omeka, to see whether it suited general requirements. That was successful, and all the DSpace communities and collections were transferred, using import plugins on the Omeka side, and standard export interfaces on the Dspace side.
Among the advantages are a slightly more acceptable, to casual browsers, user interface – Omeka looks more modern and less academic in its standard guise – and the fact that many data types, especially images, are displayed in line with the record. From a systems architecture point of view, it was decided to provide each existing (and future) DSpace community with its own Omeka instance, so that each community or project can make its own decisions about how look-and-feel, or even about where it wants to host its data. This approach does make for more repetitive future systems administration, but also spreads any future risk.
As before, all the new systems were built using virtual machines, making the systems less hardware-dependent. Hardware, in some circumstances for community archiving, is now much less of an issue compared with a few years ago, and Omeka’s lighter requirements contribute to this.
It looks as though cross-training to Omeka would be easy, and training new volunteers would be no more challenging than with DSpace.
The change to Omeka from DSpace for the Assynt Archive by no means implies than Omeka is “better” than DSpace, or that Dspace is not fit for this purpose. It simply means that, given this choice of option, for Assynt’s current requirements, Omeka looks to fit the bill a little better.
If you want further information about this, please contact me.
|March 1, 2016||Posted by Stevan under Consultancy, Education||
As in many rural communities, place names in Assynt mean a lot more than merely words on maps. They indicate what is and was important to everyday life, and very often give a glimpse of how much more the land was used in times gone by. Alastair Moffat notes in one of his books that the landscape, in the form of place names, doesn’t forget, and when we start tapping into this source of history, we can see what he means. For example, we have many names of Norse origin in Assynt, although no clear physical evidence of Norse settlement has yet been found, and, intriguingly, we have names that are an amalgam of Norse and Gaelic.
Over the years, a number of events and meetings of interest groups have been arranged about place names. We have a retired Ordnance Survey surveyor in the area, who led one event. And individuals with an interest in place names have compiled lists, especially of place names that appear on no map, but were once commonly used in the area. Almost every nook and cranny in the landscape has, it seems, been named. But we have already forgotten most of these names, and therefore their significance.
At a recent place names of Assynt event arranged by Assynt Leisure and Learning, we noted that it would be good to bring our knowledge together in a common place. It was possible to prototype such a system quite quickly using the Omeka archiving software, together with appropriate geo-location plugins.
The site is a work-in-progress, and it will be interesting to see how it is likely to be used, who is likely to contribute information, and why. You can have a browse yourself at http://www.tinslave.co.uk/AAA
|November 2, 2015||Posted by Stevan under Consultancy, Interesting||
It was a very welcome invitation from Lucy Conway of the Island of Eigg History Society, Commun Eachdraidh Eige, to visit to assist the group there to develop plans for a community digital archive. Late October weather and ferry crossings do not always make ideal partners, and in this case, the Loch Nevis, the usual ferry was out of operation. The easiest way from Assynt to Eigg is via Skye, meaning two ferry trips, from Armadale to Mallaig and then on the Small Isles ferry. In one of those delightful connections that bind small communities, the landlady of the B&B at which I stayed on Skye was the mother-in-law of the skipper of the MV Orion, the dolphin spotting boat brought on as a passenger ferry while the Loch Nevis was being repaired.
Not far from Armadale, just as inter-passenger chatting started up, we ran into a huge school of common dolphin, perhaps well over a hundred in the main group, though just a few at a time came to investigate us.
From Mallaig, looking back to Knoydart in the morning light was dreamy.
Once on Eigg, we held long discussion with Camille Dressler and Alex Boden, as well as with Trisha McVarish of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust. Later, Alex du Toit from the Highland Archive in Fort William joined us. Bizarrely, Alex, like me, was born in Cape Town, and for two old Capetonians to meet and chat on the island of Eigg 6000+ miles from where we started was surreal.
And on the score of thinking about South Africa, I stayed at Lag Eorna, which, photographed from a particular angle, could easily be mistaken for a farmhouse in the Western Cape mountains.
An eventful night passed, as around 4.00am, the large Coastguard helicopter landed roughly at the spot form which the above picture was taken, to get someone to hospital following a medical emergency. (All turned out fine.) The helicopter landed in driving wind and rain, apart from the pitch blackness of the night. It was a reminder of how fortunate we are with our emergency and medical service in the Highlands and Islands. A subsequent tweet about this drew the response from the coastguard that they come out to attend emergencies at any time of the day or night, and in any weather at all. Such routine courage from people with lives of service.
The discussions with the History Society and Trust developed the ideas they were formulating. Here is hoping for a long and fruitful connection with Eigg and it islanders.
What? The dolphin picture is the most interesting part of this post? Righto, here’s another one.
There was a film-maker on board the ferry, going to Eigg for an assignment, to whom I got chatting. When the dolphins appeared, everyone was furiously photographing the delightful event… – except our film-maker, who was filming people’s reaction to the dolphins. It was an interesting lesson in perspective, and I think perhaps he understood that the significance of these encounters is their almost mystical effect on us, rather than the sight of the animals themselves.
|March 8, 2015||Posted by Stevan under Consultancy||
The True North conference took place at Timespan in Helmsdale on Friday 6th and Saturday 7th March 2015. The conference title was a good way of reflecting the eclectic nature of the presentations, from technologists through to sound artists, geo-political visionaries to genealogists and many points in between. I had a five minute slot into which I managed to cram one or two practical issues which are the real experience of running digital archives, especially at a small scale and I hope I managed to convey something of interest based on actual practice.
The event was attended by artists, poets, writers, musicians academics, archaeologists, historians, technologists, architects, sociologists and generalists like me.
Friday morning was bright and clear, and the wonderful Emigrants memorial was asking to be photographed.
And the views from Timespan situated as it is just downstream of the Telford bridge crossing the Helmsdale river are irresistible
The usual conference-style presentations were interspersed with round-table discussion by sets of presenters, providing plenty of thinking time. One of the sessions was presented by one of my Cultural Studies lecturers, Matt Sillars of UHI. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Matt’s presentation style, of laying out a straight forward fact, then layering several conclusions on that foundation in quick succession,in such a way that the audience feels as though they themselves had reached those conclusions. There were also elective sessions which included some walks, which even in Saturday’s drizzle was refreshing.
The conference ended with a brilliant exposition of the issues associated with documenting cultural expression, by Ross Sinclair. Ross managed this by pretty much performing his presentation, making a far better impact than a more conventional presentation.
The event was great for making new acquaintances, some of which I hope will develop further and lead to collaboration.
In case this sounds far removed from Real Life (as Ross Sinclair would put it) there was a direct reminder at the B&B at which I stayed of the reality of history, in this case the Kildonan Gold Rush of the 19th century – the B&B owner pans for gold in the river and has been fairly successful, the gold in the picture on the hand that panned it.
Many thanks to all at Timespan for very good organisation, the volunteers for smilingly keeping everyone fed and watered and to all the unseen folk who made it all happen. As an old techie, I could not help noticing that the time stamp on one of Saturday morning’s presentations was just before 2.00am, meaning they had been working at ensuring all was ready into the small hours. This attentiveness was a hallmark of an excellent conference.
|February 18, 2015||Posted by Stevan under Consultancy, Technical Comment||
January 2015 saw a major update to the tiny little raspberry Pi single board computer, which I have previously written about here. The Pi now has four times the number of “cores” on the same chip, and four times the amount of memory of the original, and is roughly six times as powerful. Yet it is the same astonishing price, just £25.
This puts the Pi well into the frame for establishing a community digital archive running Free and Open Source archiving software, with some caveats. Certainly, for a community concerned about the practicalities of establishing a digital archive, the initial hardware cost can now be contained to the cost of a pub meal. What is more, the power required to run a Pi (or several of them) is extremely low, around 2.5w by my tests, which is roughly what an electronic item on standby consumes. This makes ongoing electricity costs a rounding error rather than a major cost factor. Finally, the small size of the Pi makes tucking a community archive into a corner of a community building simple.
The biggest two caveats regarding running a community digital archive on a Pi are data security and multimedia processing, and these two issues need to be understood and the issues worked around.
Regarding data security, the biggest issue is that the Pi uses a small SD or micro-SD card, cheap, solid state storage, but with the drawback of the cards having a limited life, occasionally being slow, and with limited capacity. These issues can be worked around by taking regular backups, holding multiple SD cards on site, in case of failure, and by using a USB-connected conventional disk for the data. One would never use something like a Pi where absolute and constant data reliability was required, but in an archiving context, processes can be developed to make this issue by no means a show stopper.
While the new Pi is much more powerful than its predecessor, it remains a relatively underpowered device by modern standards. When used purely in the archiving context, this is of no great concern, but if the “server” is also used to manipulate multimedia files, a process which is usually processor-intensive, one would not be playing to the strength of the Pi. Having said that, the Pi as a multimedia playback device is quite amazing in its capability, and there is a real case for using them in interpretation and display contexts.
It is also a brilliant platform for prototyping, and for developing transportable archiving. It is possible to imagine a requirement where on-site archiving capabilities were required. The Pi makes this very easy.
Does this removal of a barrier interest your archiving requirement?
|December 3, 2014||Posted by Stevan under Consultancy, Education||
The Wildflower Europe project has recently produced a e-publication (http://wildflowereurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Community-historic-archives.pdf ) based on the research and practical experiences in setting up a community history digital archive in a small rural community in Scotland, and on ethnobotanical pilot work in botanical rich areas of South East Europe. Wildflower Europe’s aims were to share experiences and to promote the feasibility of developing small scale archives at community level. In addition they were investigating the use of archiving as part of multi-disciplinary efforts to celebrate and protect increasingly rare wild plant landscapes as part of the Wildflower Europe Project (www.wildflowereurope.org).
Stevan Lockhart of Tinslave Consultancy was the lead author of the e-publication. For further information, please contact Stevan.
|July 7, 2014||Posted by Stevan under Consultancy, Principles, Technical Comment||
One of the constant themes you will find on this web site is the concept of taking a long view regarding running a digital archive. This truism is sometimes in conflict with the world in which it operates, the technological and digital world, which is driven by constant expectations of “upgrades”, “features”, “faster” and other implications of improvement. In the consumer digital world, we are used to the short life spans of technology, but in the world of systems providing particular services, such as a community archive, change for the sake of change is not always welcome.
But we must live in the real world, and the reality is that, after a while, the developers no longer wish to support older systems. This is fully understandable; if you have spent time improving your software and solving bugs, you don’t want to have to deal with those bugs in older versions when you have already fixed them in newer versions. The Free Software world does give you the option of providing your own support, so you are not bound by the services your supplier wishes to offer. But sooner or later, part of the longevity equation means keeping reasonably up to date.
In the case of the Assynt Community Digital Archive, we received an email at the beginning of 2014 pointing out that the version of DSpace that we were running was considered to be at the end of its life, and it was recommended that we upgrade. We chose not to do that at the time for a variety of reasons, but summer is a good time to work on the systems, as in communities like ours, a lot of voluntary effort happens in the slower-paced winter months.
One of the beauties of the way in which the Assynt Archive is implemented is that it uses the concept of virtualisation. This type of technology, and the reasons for t suiting a community project so well, are explained elsewhere on this website. Virtualisation allows one to run an entire system independently of the physical hardware that underlies it. In the case of doing an upgrade, this means that it was possible to take a copy of the entire virtual machine, and work on that, such that the live Archive was not in any way at risk as part of the process. It also means that, as you go through a complex update procedure, you can take “snapshots” along the way, so that any oopsies do not mean hours of wasted effort.
An update to something like DSpace is not always easy for lay people to understand, Updating systems software such as DSpace is not like updating productivity software on a laptop or desktop, where it;s a case of inserting a CD or downloading a zip file, and clicking “Setup.exe” or an “Installer” icon. DSpace needs a runtime framework and a build framework which consists of the Java runtime system and various other components. In addition, it needs am industrial-strength database. So it is the type of process that only suitably skilled people should undertake.
Another early design decision was to do the least amount of customisation possible, ideally restricting the customisation to a logo and naming. This pays dividends when it comes to upgrading. It means simply following the processes outlined for the upgrade: download and unpack the new version, build it using the supplied tools, make the required changes to the database, deploy the new system and start it all up. The bits of customisation., if they are restricted to the minimum, need not affect that ideal process too much.
In our case, though, we needed to go through upgrades from version 1.7.2 to version 4.1. As this is not advisable in one step, it meant carrying out the upgrade process from version 1.7.2 to version 1.8, then 1.8 to 3.0. then 3.0 to 4.1. At each step, it is necessary to carry out a battery of tests to ensure that each step is working. The skills involved are a mixture of Linux/Unix skills, some Java development skills, PostgreSQL database skills and some experience as to how these types of things work. Verison 4.1 also required updates to the deployment system, tomcat, as well as the build mechanism, maven, and ideally to the database, PostgreSQL. This meant that one step was also to upgrade the operating system running the virtual machine from Debian 6 “squeeze”, to Debian 7, “wheezy”. Fortunately, this is a well documented and bullet-proof procedure. But with all that work, we are now…. I nearly said “future-proof,” but maybe immediate-furture-proof would be more accurate – until the end of 2016 or maybe 2017 anyway, when we expect the next steps to be very similar to these.
The virtual machine can then be transferred back to the live Archive, and it will magically be running the new version.
|April 2, 2014||Posted by Stevan under Consultancy, Operations, Principles||
If you have read something of the history of the Assynt Community Digital Archive on this site or elsewhere, you will know that the Archive was set up as part of the project that brought the old Fishermen’s Mission building into community ownership as a bunkhouse and café in 2009, opening in 2011. The Assynt Community Association, a long-standing umbrella body for various Assynt initiatives, took the lead in this, and the building is owned by that charity. The Archive was given its own Archive Room upstairs in the Mission building, appropriately wired and equipped for its purpose. A trading company was formed to run the café and bunkhouse, but late in 2013, the trading company ceased to trade. It has now been wound up.
Now one of the issues that concerned us when the Archive was set up was to ensure that there was a complete legal separation between the trading entity and the long-term initiative which is the Archive, which was seen to be a possible issue as they both occupied the same building. Further, the temptation must exist to see the Archive as a short term exploitable asset rather than the long term proposition with societal rather than purely economic value. So effort went into ensuring a separation both legally and practically between the two. This separation was sometime over-effective, with a perception developing that the trading company staff were not allowed to direct visitors to the Archive, though improved communication helped that issue.
When the trading company ceased to trade, the bills that were paid to keep the heat and power and connections on also stopped, causing the Archive some short term problems. However, these were overcome over the winter, and now the Community Association is taking a different view on how to gain community value from the asset which is the building. One of the effects of this was the possibility that the Archive may be required to move. This is technically possible, and indeed, the initial design foresaw this eventuality, but of course, the question was where it could conceivably go. Other building in Assynt were not suitable. The upshot was that the Archive was asked to move from one location in the Mission building to another, which would easily have been possible.
But eventually the plans have worked out that there would no longer be a requirement to move, and a new trading company has been formed which will follow a slightly different business model. We wish Assynt Community (Trading) Ltd all the very best for a long and fulfilling existence and we look forward to working with the trading company in future, though, of course, remaining separate.
The point of this is that it is very important to get the legal framework right when setting up a community archive. It could easily have happened that the Archive may have had a legal connection to a trading company, exposing the archive to the vagaries of the market and the risks of commerce.
|November 26, 2013||Posted by Stevan under Consultancy||
The Wild Flower Europe project is an EU project recognising the part played by rural communities and the natural environment in European culture involving Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Slovenia and the United Kingdom. The programme works with partner organisations in those countries. Among other initiatives, the five countries involved in this project have developed programmes in which local people from all walks of life have contributed their time and skills in creating flower-themed fabric patches all of a similar size, that go together to create a patchwork artwork. Some of the patches are painted, some are needlework, or felted, and there may be other creative techniques used as well. An example is below, this from Bulgaria, the feltwork exhibiting the most subtle shading imaginable. Click the image for a larger version of the picture.
Next on the list for these countries, represented by a variety of organisations, including biodiversity, tourism and other groupings, is to set up community history archives. As the North Highland Initiative is one of the UK’s constituent organisations, and Assynt falls within their area, I was asked to lead a series of presentations and demonstrations to provide ideas and a way forward for the other groups in the project. A short report on the event is at the WFE web site, here.
I would very happy to assist any other groups looking to understand the possibilities presented by community digital history archives with similar workshops, so do contact me if you have this in mind.
While the schedule at the Atlantic Hotel in Sofia was tight, we did get a few hours on Sunday afternoon, when one of the local Bulgarian delegation, Rossen Vassilev, showed us some of the historic and architectural sites of the city. Sofia is a city with a long history, existing before any other European capital except Athens. It is located in such a position that it has been influenced by many of the significant European historical periods, such as the Ottoman Empire and of course, the Roman empire. It struck me that the Roman period appears to be viewed rather less through rose-coloured spectacles than we view the Roman period in Britain; they are under no illusions that it was an occupation. But we managed to see the astonishing St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, inside which was the first time I have seen Eastern Orthodox icons “in the flesh,” so to speak. The power of the art took me by surprise. The constant stream of people coming to the Cathedral to pray or light candles was a reminder that the Cathedral is not merely a tourist attraction but a key part of Sofians’ lives. Photography inside the cathedral is quite rightly discouraged, but the outside in the evening light was stunning.
The Rotunda church of St George was another surprise. This church has been here since the 4th century, and recent work on it has uncovered numerous layers to the frescoes. It was a pity our time was limited.
And our guide, Rossen, explained aspects of the recent past as well as some of the changes occurring right now in this lovely city.
A recent new hotel development uncovered part of a Roman era circular Colloseum-like structure. Obviously, the hotel plans had to be altered to accommodate the archaeology, but the Bulgarians took this as an opportunity rather than a setback, and created a feature of the archaeology, incorporating it into the hotel, named the Serdica Arena, Serdica being the Roman name for Sofia.
Meanwhile, back at the workshop, some excellent friendships were clear among folk from very varying cultures and backgrounds, but whose knowledge, dynamism and determination to contribute positively to their own communities was a common thread. I am proud to have been one of their number for a short time.
|October 14, 2013||Posted by Stevan under Consultancy||
Stevan Lockhart is due to deliver a series of presentations on practical aspects of developing and running community digital archives at the Wildflower Europe Community History Archive project workshop in Bulgaria in mid-November. The topics due to be covered include general coverage practical digital humanities, technical decision points, legal landscapes, community involvement and achieving long-term outcomes.