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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.

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.

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.

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.

Bulgarian Fetwork - WIld Flower Europe Patchwork meadow project
Bulgarian Feltwork - Wild Flower Europe Patchwork meadow project

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.

St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Sofia
St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Sofia

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.

Rotunda Church of St George
Rotunda Church of St George

And our guide, Rossen, explained aspects of the recent past as well as some of the changes occurring right now in this lovely city.

Doing the tourist thing
Doing the tourist thing

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.

Serdica Arena Hotel built around Roman ruins
Serdica Arena Hotel built around Roman ruins

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.

WFE Workshop participants
WFE Workshop participants

 


 

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.