Community Digital Archiving

Self-Sufficient Culture, Heritage and Free Software
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Assynt Digital Archive – System Change

  • December 16, 2016 12:27 pm

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.

Learnings from a community archiving project

  • February 14, 2014 2:03 pm

One of the odd things about a community archiving system is that it is used really in fits and starts.  Much of the time, it may simply sit there, with peaks of activity coming when volunteers have time to carry out archivists tasks, or training is carried out.  The Assynt Community Digital Archive has four workstations, and these, too, are not used on a daily basis, but when they are used, they are used fairly intensively.  So if something on the systems is not quite working correctly, it may be some time before anyone notices.

This has been the case just recently.  As reported earlier, the Assynt Field Club has an archiving project under way at the moment.  The appointed archivist, Avril Haines, is doing a great job curating the physical material, digitising, describing and uploading the information the Field Club are currently interested in.  But as she is using the systems little hassles creep in.  An example is the scanning application.  From time to time, the “Save” button needs to be clicked twice.  Now there is almost certainly a reason or explanation of this strange outcome, but usually technical problem solving relies on consistency and replicability, the need for the issue to arise every time and the ability to make the problem occur to be able to solve it.  This is much more difficult when the systems are only in use from time to time.

One should probably focus on the fact that in spite of the infrequent use, the systems are remarkably reliable, and the issues that have occurred are more like hassles than show-stoppers.  It would be a problem if users of the systems became concerned that, for example, a system would not start, or expected software was not available, and none of these occur.  Some little events are also due to unfamiliarity with software.  For example, recent versions of the Mozilla Firefox web browser come up with a message on startup that may sound alarming, alerting the user that the previous pages and tabs were shut down and asking if the pages and tabs should be restored. If you’re not used to Firefox that could be interpreted as an error (and even if you are used to Firefox, it can be very frustrating to have the same message every time you start the program.)

But the ad hoc nature of the way the systems are used is one of the oddities of running this type of environment.

Zim wiki – More personal information tools

  • August 15, 2013 8:59 am

A wiki is a brilliant idea, created by Ward Cunningham when he released his WikiWikiWeb, a system that allowed groups of people to create and edit documents and notes easily and with minimal training.  To create links, it uses the concept of Wikiwords, and exampe being this – WikiWord – with capitalisation in mid-word.  This tells the  system to create a new page.  Similarly, adding bold, italics, headers, tables and other attributes is easily done with simple mark-up.  The result was a web of information that is easy to use, and so powerful that one of the Internet’s most popular sites is based on the same principles – Wikipedia. There are interesting cultural connotations to the term wiki, the name originating from an Hawaiian expression meaning “quick”. As Cunningham himself noted, “the beauty of Wiki is in the freedom, simplicity, and power it offers.” (Source:- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WikiWikiWeb and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki)

Quite soon people began to realise how useful wiki could be to personal information management.  Computers have traditionally been good at managing structured information, but coping with our brain dumps is a more difficult challenge.  There have been some wonderful attempts to develop software to manage this lack of structure, the best one, in my view, being the short-lived Lotus Agenda. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotus_Agenda)  Wikis work well, but can be accused of needing to learn quite a lot before the wiki becomes useful.

Zim wiki (http://zim-wiki.org)  resolves many of the issues with web-based wikis regarding having to learn the mark-up language, and is an easy-to-use personal information management tool.  It does not have artificial intelligence capabilities such as (and this worked with Lotus Agenda) typing “Meeting with Susan next Wednesday at 9” resulting in a diary entry for the correct day, an addition to a database entry on “Susan” and so on.  But it does allow you to add a structure to random ideas, add pictures or other media objects, and keep these notes in a simple way, without the use of complex databases.  Zim stores all its information in simple text files, leaving your data always accessible, being easy to back up, and not imposing any limitations.

This is part of the zim wiki I used during my degree:-

Example Zim wiki showing image incorporated in a note

Example Zim wiki showing image incorporated in a note

I have also used a useful journalling capability.  Clicking on a “Today” button in the built-in calendar results in a new page with today’s date, and an automatically structured calendar index entry.  The power in this lies in the ability to insert images resulting in a straight forward but very usable journalling system.

It’s even possible to have multiple Zim notebooks on the go at the same time.  I separate out my general notes from my journal entries, and during my degree, my UHI notes were in a separate notebook too.

Zim has a plugin architecture which extend its native capability while staying within the principles which make the program so useful.  Mathematicians will enjoy the ability to insert equations, whole musicians can insert music notation using the Lilypond program. Spell checking is done with a plugin, as is version control, if you want it.

When it comes to making use of the notes, the first question is about searching.  Zim is good at this. But it is also possible to export a set of notes as HTML (web) files, which can be uploaded to a web server for wider access. The Zim home page notes that it itself is written using Zim, a delightful bit of recursion. But Zim also has an additional trick up its sleeve. Let’s say you’re at a conference, and you either want a wider group to access some notes. Zim has a built-in web server, which you can start (it doesn’t run automatically – that would not be secure) and allow others to access your Zim notes.

Zim has been under development under the management of its creator, Jaap G Karssenberg, for some years, and is currently at version 0.60. Do not be concerned that it is not yet at version 1.0, as it has been fully usable for quite a few years. Zim is published under the General Public Licence, GPL2, so the source will always be available.   For those using Linux, if you use Debian or Ubuntu, Zim can be installed from the software repositories directly (apt-get install zim). Other Linux users may download the source, which is written in  easily installable python, and run the setup.py script. Windows users can download an installable executable from the link on the downloads page on the zim-wiki.org site.

And one great thing in favour of an information tool like Zim is that it stays within your own control.  You can be sure that no-one will index, search, hand over to a third party, or otherwise abuse your information, which is the default assumption if you place your information with a “cloud” internet-based service.  Keep your information under your own control in these days when trust in third parties must, by their own admission, be so low.

 

Citation management and Archiving – Zotero

  • July 30, 2013 8:58 am

On a number of occasions during my recently completed degree, lecturers noted good adherence to citation conventions in my work.  This I found a little embarrassing, as it was really all down to the tools I used for citation management.  I’ve bumped into various proprietary citation managers over the years, and many of them seemed to me too much a mechanism to lock you in to the use of the tool rather than making use easier and more flexible.  Readers of this site will understand that community archiving is very much about making sure that the data under management can always be liberated from the storage silos in which the are kept well into the future, so digital archiving resists the idea of locking one into the use of particular software, especially through the uses of restricted file formats or other restrictions.  This is where Free and Open Source software becomes a natural fit with archiving, as there is no benefit to Free Software producers to try to lock the user in with restrictions.

So to find a citation management tool under a Free Software licence was wonderful, and Zotero  integrated really well with the other software crucial to my degree, Firefox as a browser and LibreOffice for word processing and office productivity.  With Zotero, I could search for the book I wished to cite, finding that many book sellers online provide the underlying citation information on their web sites, such that it was a single click to add the details of the book straight into the Zotero database.  An add-in for LibeOffice Writer (I understand one exists for MS Word too) then allowed me to click to add that citation in the format required by my University, and subsequently to set out, again automatically, the table of references.  It’s also possible to create database entries directly from web pages, important when so much information is web-based these days, and also to create ad hoc entries.

But Zotero then starts becoming something more.  It is possible to include pdf files or add other attachments as part of the database, for example, at which point Zotero starts becoming a sort of personal archive in itself.  It is also possible to export the citation library in various formats, and to generate reports of the contents.  So a Zotero library may ultimately be uploaded into another archive elsewhere, where it’s goodness can live on. An example report of all the references I used in my degree can be found here.  Amazing to think that it runs to 184 pages.

Coming back to the value of Free Software in this role, during my degree, the University changed the citation tool it made available to students and staff.  The migration from the old to the new was clearly a painful one, though that pain bypassed me while I happily continued to use Zotero, but my experience of Free Software suggests that if another Free tool superseded Zotero, there is every likelihood of migration tools being provided, as the formats under which the data is held are not restricted.  In other words, your data remains safe.

 

New Archive collection and archivist coming soon

  • May 3, 2013 1:53 pm

Excellent news just in regarding the Assynt Community Digital Archive.  One of the trainees on the recent archivist training course run under the auspices of Assynt Learning has sought and obtained permission to digitise and archive the documents and photographs relating to the conversion of a local building into a village hall.  There’s a lot of history associated with our village halls, and plenty of documentation, for example, on how they have dealt with existential threats etc. which will be of use to others in future.  Great stuff, and we look forward to the new collection.