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.

      The city launched the catalogue itself under its new “Open3” initiative just before the first of the archives’ hackathons last September. Two volunteer coders, Kevin Jones and Luke Closs, took the garbage zone map and pickup schedule and created VanTrash. The site is now sending free weekly e-mail and calendar reminders to over a thousand Vancouverites, and with the recent data release, the creators are working to expand it to apartment recycling schedules.

      Artefactual Systems president Peter Van Garderen, who has a master’s degree in archival studies from UBC, came to the hackathon to discuss Archivematica, his company’s free and open-source digital archiving system. Artefactual is under contract with the City of Vancouver to implement a fully functional version of Archivematica. The contract is linked to Vancouver’s Digital Archives Project, an initiative that was launched with $100,000 in 2008, and that was allocated $582,000 last year from the city’s Olympic Legacy Reserve Fund.

      Archivematica uses existing free tools developed at leading academic institutions to automate and simplify the complicated task of processing, translating, and tracking thousands of new files daily.

      “All of these tools have been available for a while, but your typical archivist doesn’t have the know-how to use them,” Van Garderen said during one of his consulting sessions at the archives.

      The average nonprofit archive doesn’t have the money to make or buy proprietary software, which may itself become obsolete as time passes. Open-source software, with published standards and few restrictions, is widely regarded by academics in the archival field as the best bet for maintaining public control over data in the long run.

      When the Digital Archives Project bears fruit next year, Vancouver will be the first municipality in Canada with a fully operational digital archiving system. Then, the archives will be poised to safeguard the city’s historically significant bits and bytes—at least what hasn’t already been lost in what some call “the digital dark ages”.

      “There are hundreds of obscure formats already,” Van Garderen said. “There’s already 20 years of corporate and personal computing backlog out there.”

      According to Van Garderen, the frontier of format preservation and file security is tricky for a government body with legal obligations to navigate. It’s great, he said, that Vancouver is taking its archives further into the digital realm.

      “Losing your kids’ photos is one thing,” Van Garderen said, “but losing property records or having forged ones are definitely more serious issues.”