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Category: at risk records

At Risk Records are archival records that are in danger of being lost forever, usually due to physical damage or (in the case of electronic records) loss of the ability to access the originals.

Digital Preservation via Emulation – Dioscuri and the Prevention of Digital Black Holes

dioscuri.JPGAvailable Online posted about the open source emulator project Dioscuri back in late September. In the course of researching Thoughts on Digital Preservation, Validation and Community I learned a bit about the Microsoft Virtual PC software. Virtual PC permits users to run multiple operating systems on the same physical computer and can therefore facilitate access to old software that won’t run on your current operating system. That emulator approach pales in comparison with what the folks over at Dioscuri are planning and building.

On the Digital Preservation page of the Dioscuri website I found this paragraph on their goals:

To prevent a digital black hole, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (KB), National Library of the Netherlands, and the Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands started a joint project to research and develop a solution. Both institutions have a large amount of traditional documents and are very familiar with preservation over the long term. However, the amount of digital material (publications, archival records, etc.) is increasing with a rapid pace. To manage them is already a challenge. But as cultural heritage organisations, more has to be done to keep those documents safe for hundreds of years at least.

They are nothing if not ambitious… they go on to state:

Although many people recognise the importance of having a digital preservation strategy based on emulation, it has never been taken into practice. Of course, many emulators already exist and showed the usefulness and advantages it offer. But none of them have been designed to be digital preservation proof. For this reason the National Library and Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands started a joint project on emulation.

The aim of the emulation project is to develop a new preservation strategy based on emulation.

Dioscuri is part of Planets (Preservation and Long-term Access via NETworked Services) – run by the Planets consortium and coordinated by the British Library. The Dioscuri team has created an open source emulator that can be ported to any hardware that can run a Java Virtual Machine (JVM). Individual hardware components are implemented via separate modules. These modules should make it possible to mimic many different hardware configurations without creating separate programs for every possible combination.

You can get a taste of the big thinking that is going into this work by reviewing the program overview and slide presentations from the first Emulation Expert Meeting (EEM) on digital preservation that took place on October 20th, 2006.

In the presentation given by Geoffrey Brown from Indiana University titled Virtualizing the CIC Floppy Disk Project: An Experiment in Preservation Using Emulation I found the following simple answer to the question ‘Why not just migrate?’:

  • Loss of information — e.g. word edits

  • Loss of fidelity — e.g. WordPerfect to Word isn’t very good

  • Loss of authenticity — users of migrated document need access to original to verify authenticity

  • Not always possible — closed proprietary formats

  • Not always feasible — costs may be too high

  • Emulation may necessary to enable migration

After reading through Emulation at the German National Library, presented by Tobias Steinke, I found my way to the kopal website. With their great tagline ‘Data into the future’, they state their goal is “…to develop a technological and organizational solution to ensure the long-term availability of electronic publications.” The real gem for me on that site is what they call the kopal demonstrator. This is a well thought out Flash application that explains the kopal project’s ‘procedures for archiving and accessing materials’ within the OAIS Reference Model framework. But it is more than that – if you are looking for a great way to get your (or someone else’s) head around digital archiving, software and related processes – definitely take a look. They even include a full Glossary.

I liked what I saw in Defining a preservation policy for a multimedia and software heritage collection, a pragmatic attempt from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, a presentation by Grégory Miura, but felt like I was missing some of the guts by just looking at the slides. I was pleased to discover what appears to be a related paper on the same topic presented at IFLA 2006 in Seoul titled: Pushing the boundaries of traditional heritage policy: Maintaining long-term access to multimedia content by introducing emulation and contextualization instead of accepting inevitable loss . Hurrah for NOT ‘accepting inevitable loss’.

Vincent Joguin’s presentation, Emulating emulators for long-term digital objects preservation: the need for a universal machine, discussed a virtual machine project named Olonys. If I understood the slides correctly, the idea behind Olonys is to create a “portable and efficient virtual processor”. This would provide an environment in which to run programs such as emulators, but isolate the programs running within it from the disparities between the original hardware and the actual current hardware. Another benefit to this approach is that only the virtual processor need be ported to new platforms rather than each individual program or emulator.

Hilde van Wijngaarden presented an Introduction to Planets at EEM. I also found another introductory level presentation that was given by Jeffrey van der Hoeven at wePreserve in September of 2007 titled Dioscuri: emulation for digital preservation.

The wePreserve site is a gold mine for presentations on these topics. They bill themselves as “the window on the synergistic activities of DigitalPreservationEurope (DPE), Cultural, Artistic and Scientific knowledge for Preservation, Access and Retrieval (CASPAR), and Preservation and Long-term Access through NETworked Services (PLANETS).” If you have time and curiosity on the subject of digital preservation, take a glance down their home page and click through to view some of the presentations.

On the site of The International Journal of Digital Curation there is a nice ten page paper that explains the most recent results of the Dioscuri project. Emulation for Digital Preservation in Practice: The Results was published in December 2007. I like being able to see slides from presentations (as linked to above), but without the notes or audio to go with them I am often left staring at really nice diagrams wondering what the author’s main point was. The paper is thorough and provides lots of great links to other reading, background and related projects.

There is a lot to dig into here. It is enough to make me wish I had a month (maybe a year?) to spend just following up on this topic alone. I found my struggle to interpret many of the Power Point slide decks that have no notes or audio very ironic. Here I was hunting for information about the preservation of born digital records and I kept finding that the records of the research provided didn’t give me the full picture. With no context beyond the text and images on the slides themselves, I was left to my own interpretation of their intended message. While I know that these presentations are not meant to be the official records of this research, I think that the effort obviously put into collecting and posting them makes it clear that others are as anxious as I to see this information.

The best digital preservation model in the world will only preserve what we choose to save. I know the famous claim on the web is that ‘content is king’ – but I would hazard to suggest that in the cultural heritage community ‘context is king’.

What does this have to do with Dioscuri and emulators? Just that as we solve the technical problems related to preservation and access, I believe that we will circle back around to realize that digital records need the same careful attention to appraisal, selection and preservation of context as ‘traditional’ records. I would like to believe that the huge hurdles we now face on the technical and process side of things will fade over time due to the immense efforts of dedicated and brilliant individuals. The next big hurdle is the same old hurdle – making sure the records we fight to preserve have enough context that they will mean anything to those in the future. We could end up with just as severe a ‘digital black hole’ due to poorly selected or poorly documented records as we could due to records that are trapped in a format we can no longer access. We need both sides of the coin to succeed in digital preservation.

Did I mention the part about ‘Hurray for open source emulator projects with ambitious goals for digital preservation’? Right. I just wanted to be clear about that.

Image Credit: The image included at the top of this post was taken from a screen shot of Dioscuri itself, the original version of which may be seen here.

Will Crashed Hard Drives Ever Equal Unlabeled Cardboard Boxes?

Photo of Crashed Hard Drive - wonderferret on FlickrHow many of us have an old hard drive hanging around? I am talking about the one you were told was unfixable. The one that has 3 bad sectors. The one they replaced and handed to you in one of those distinctive anti-static bags. You know the ones I mean – the steely grey translucent plastic ones that look like they should contain space food.

I have more than one ‘dead’ hard drive. I can’t quite bring myself to throw them out – but I have no immediate plans to try and reclaim their files.

I know that there are services and techniques for pulling data off otherwise inaccessible hard drives. You hear about it in court cases and see it on TV shows. A quick Google search on hard drive rescue turns up businesses like Disk Data Recovery

Do archivists already make it a policy to hunt not just for computers, but for discarded and broken hard drives lurking in filing cabinets and desk drawers? Compare this to a carton of documents that needed special treatment to permit access to the records they contained and yet are appraised as valuable. If the treatment required were within budgetary and time constraints – it would be performed. Mold, bugs, rusty staples, photos that are stuck together… archivists generally know where to get the answers they need to tackle these sorts of problems. I suspect that a hard drive advertised or discovered to be broken would be treated more like an empty box than a moldy box.

For now I would stack this challenge near the bottom of the list below archiving digital records that we can access easily but that run on old hardware or software, but I can imagine a time when standard hard drive rescue techniques will need to be a tool for the average archivist.

Preserving Virtual Worlds – TinyMUD to SecondLife

A recent press release from the Library of Congress, Digital Preservation Program Makes Awards to Preserve American Creative Works, describes the newly funded project aimed at the preservation of ‘virtual worlds’:

The Preserving Virtual Worlds project will explore methods for preserving digital games and interactive fiction. Major activities will include developing basic standards for metadata and content representation and conducting a series of archiving case studies for early video games, electronic literature and Second Life, an interactive multiplayer game. Second Life content participants include Life to the Second Power, Democracy Island and the International Spaceflight Museum. Partners: University of Maryland, Stanford University, Rochester Institute of Technology and Linden Lab.

This has gotten a fair amount of coverage from the gaming and humanities sides of the world, but I learned about it via Professor Matthew Kirschenbaum‘s blog post Just Funded: Preserving Virtual Worlds.

The How They Got Game 2 post Library of Congress announces grants for preservation of digital games gives a more in depth summary of the Preserving Virtual Worlds project goals:

The main goal of the project is to help develop generalizable mechanisms and methods for preserving digital games and interactive fiction, and to begin to test these mechanism through the archiving of selected test cases. Key deliverables include the development of metadata schema and wrapper recommendations, and the long-term curation of archived cases.

I take this all a bit more personally than most might. I was a frequent denizen of an online virtual world known as TinyMUD (now usually referred to as TinyMUD Classic). TinyMUD was a text based, online, multi-player game that existed for seven months beginning in August of 1989. In practice it was sort of a cross between a chat room and a text based adventure. The players could build new parts of the MUD as they went – in many ways it was an early example of crowdsourcing. There was a passionate core of players who were constantly building new areas for others to explore and experience – not unlike what is currently the case in SecondLife. These types of text based games still exist – see MudMagic for listings.

Apparently August 20, 2007 will be TinyMUD’s 18th Annual Brigadoon Day. It will be celebrated by putting TinyMUD classic online for access. The page includes careful notes about finding and using a MUD Client to access TinyMUD. The existence of an ongoing MUD community of users has kept software like this alive and available almost 20 years later.

With projects like Preserving Virtual Worlds getting grants and gaining momentum it seems more plausible with each passing day that 18 years from now, parts of 2007’s SecondLife will still be available for people to experience. I am thankful to know that a copy of the TinyMUD world I helped build is still out there. I am even more thankful to know that the technology still exists to permit users to access it even if it is only once a year.

Update: 20th Anniversary of TinyMud Brigadoon day is set for Thursday, August 20, 2009

International Environmental Data Rescue Organization: Rescuing At Risk Weather Records Around the World

iedro.jpgIn the middle of my crazy spring semester a few months back, I got a message about volunteer opportunities at the International Environmental Data Rescue Organization (IEDRO). I get emails from from every so often because I am always curious about virtual volunteer projects (ie, ways you can volunteer via your computer while in your pajamas). I filed the message away for when I actually had more time to take a closer look and it has finally made it to the top of my list.

A non-profit organization, IEDRO states their vision as being “.. to find, rescue, and digitize all historical environmental data and to make those data available to the world community.” They go on to explain on their website:

Old weather records are indeed worth the paper they are written on…actually tens of thousands times that value. These historic data are of critical importance to the countries within which they were taken, and to the world community as well. Yet, millions of these old records have already perished with the valuable information contained within, lost forever. These unique records, some dating back to the 1500s, now reside on paper at great risk from mold, mildew, fire, vermin, and old age (paper and ink deteriorate) or being tossed away because of lack of storage space. Once these data are lost, they are lost forever. There are no back up sources; nothing in reserve.

Why are these weather records valuable? IEDRO gives lots of great examples. Old weather records can:

  • inform the construction and engineering community about maximum winds recorded, temperature extremes, rainfall and floods
  • let farmers know the true frequency of drought, flood, extreme temperatures and in some areas, the amount of sunshine enabling them to better plan crop varieties and irrigation or drainage systems increasing their food production and helping to alleviate hunger.
  • assist in explaining historical events such as plague and famine, movement of cultures, insect movements (i.e. locusts in Africa), and are used in epidemiological studies.
  • provide our global climate computer models with baseline information enabling them to better predict seasonal extremes. This provides more accurate real-time forecasts and warnings and a better understanding of global change and validation of global warming.

The IEDRO site includes excellent scenarios in which accurate historical weather data can help save lives. You can read about the subsistence farmer who doesn’t understand the frequency of droughts well enough to make good choices about the kind of rice he plants, the way that weather impacts the vectorization models of diseases such as malaria and about the computer programs that need historical weather data to accurately predict floods. I also found this Global Hazards and Extremes page on the NCDC’s site – and I wonder what sorts of maps they could make about the weather one or two hundred years ago if all the historical climate data records were already available.

There was additional information available on IEDRO’s VolunteerMatch page. Another activity they list for their organization is: “Negotiating with foreign national meteorological services for IEDRO access to their original observations or microfilm/microfiche or magnetic copies of those observations and gaining their unrestricted permission to make copies of those data”.

IEDRO is making it their business to coordinate efforts in multiple countries to find and take digital photos of at risk weather records. They include information on their website about their data rescue process. I love their advice about being tenacious and creative when considering where these weather records might be found. Don’t only look at the national meteorological services! Consider airports, military sites, museums, private homes and church archives. The most unusual location logged so far was a monastery in Chile.

Once the records are located, each record is photographed with a digital camera. They have a special page showing examples of bad digital photos to help those taking the digital photos in the field, as well as a guidelines and procedures document available in PDF (and therefore easy to print and use as reference offline).

The digital images of the rescued records are then sent to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) in Asheville, North Carolina. The NCDC is part of the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS) which is in turn under the umbrella of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NCDC’s website claims they have the “World’s Largest Archive of Climate Data”. The NCDC has people contracted to transcribe the data and ensure the preservation of the digital image copies. Finally, the data will be made available to the world.

IEDRO already lists these ten countries as locations where activities are underway: Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Niger, Senegal, Zambia, Chile, Uruguay, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.

I am fascinated by this organization. On a personal level it brings together a lot of things I am interested in – archives, the environment, GIS data, temporal data and an interesting use of technology. This is such a great example of records that might seem unimportant – but turn out to be crucial to improving lives in the here and now. It shows the need for international cooperation, good technical training and being proactive. I know that a lot of archivists would consider this more of a scientific research mission (the goal here is to get that data for the purposes of research), but no matter what else these are – they are still archival records.