City of Vancouver’s history safe thanks to digital archiving

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Every day, Vancouver’s city archivist and director of records and archives runs a rescue operation on our past. Les Mobbs might send out film reels from the ’30s for repair, or he could receive a donation of early-20th-century photographic negatives that need to be catalogued, scanned, and put into cold storage.

Lately, Mobbs has been putting equal consideration into how to preserve our future. More and more of the city’s legal and cultural record is being created in a digital format; in other words, it’s “born digital”, he told the Georgia Straight.

“With the digital, there’s this sense that you cannot read it except through a machine,” Mobbs said by phone, “and it’s going to be a challenge to maintain the look of the document, its context—how it fits with other documents—and the content itself.”

This year, Mobbs expects the City of Vancouver Archives’ born-digital holdings to leap in volume from 40 megabytes to 40 terabytes. Most of this new material will consist of Vanoc’s documentation of the Olympics, a donation of 20 years’ worth of digital-animation tapes and DVDs from Vancouver’s Studio B Productions, and a transfer of electronic records from the city itself.

The pitfall in digital archiving is that we’re poor caretakers of electronic file formats. In 50 or 100 years, we’ll know we’ve won the preservation game if we can open and read a computer document created today. But even in 2010, we’re missing out on 20-year-old WordStar files stuck on five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks. Ironically, it may be safer to keep a paper copy of a document than to store the original computer file.

“We’ve been dealing with paper for 2,000 years,” Mobbs said. “We have a lot of experience with what paper is, what it looks like, and how it’s preserved.”

While acid decay, mould, brittleness, and water damage are formidable but vanquishable foes, machine decay, format obsolescence, and file integrity degradation are virtually unconquerable. The short lifetime of many licensed software formats and the quick deaths of so much hardware (remember LaserDisc?) have posed a particular challenge for archivists like Mobbs.

“How do we preserve material that is, for all intents and purposes, essentially transitory?” he asked.

The answer lies at the fingertips of volunteer coders who have begun assembling for after-hours “hackathons” at the Vancouver archives.

Sue Bigelow, the archives’ digital conservator, lured two dozen open-source and open-data enthusiasts to a meet-up in January with the promise of free coffee, free Wi-Fi, and free information. For Bigelow, hosting “an informal social and coding session is a natural fit for the direction the archives is taking.”

“We let people access data in the reading room all the time—it’s just analogue for now,” she said at the archives. “The hackers who come to the hackathons are going to be a big user group for us in the future, so it’s good for us to get to know them and get to know how they want this data.”

In January, the city’s information-technology department announced that more information had been released through its open-data catalogue. New links were added to more than 100 sets of maps and measurements covering everything from drinking-water quality to school catchment area boundaries to the location of each streetlight and fire hydrant.

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