Transforming Archives: digital preservation and computer science

Our Transforming Archives traineeships are designed to recruit trainees with existing skills who can put their experiences into practice in an archive service.

Three of our current trainees are putting their IT and computer science background to use exploring the challenges of digital preservation. Nine months in, Dave and Roz share their experiences – if you’re inspired by them, you can apply for two new posts available at Hull History Centre.

Hull History Centre: David’s traineeship

Several months ago I started working at the Hull History Centre as a Transforming Archives Trainee, specialising in digital preservation. However, the traineeship is a lot more than just this; in my case, it also covers engagement and outreach as well as digitisation.

Image of David sat at a computer terminal

David at the forensic station

I come from a Computer Science background. I’ve worked both as a web developer and copywriter, as well as an assistant IT tutor. My first thought upon noticing the job advertisement was that I knew absolutely nothing about archives; in fact, I had never even seen one before. This sparked my curiosity, especially when I saw that they were looking for people with an IT related background. I hadn’t considered a career path like this before, and with this offering an alternate way into the sector it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up.

Digital preservation is an interesting challenge, and, like archives, it was not something that I had particularly encountered before. When you say archiving to most people in IT, it means moving files to a folder or webpage labelled ‘archives’, arranging by date and then forgetting about them. Actually preserving that digital information for extended periods of time is a foreign concept.

There are many difficulties associated with this, from the actual physical decay of data with bit rot, to obsolescence of both software and hardware. This isn’t even considering the problems that can arise when there is a loss of context or accompanying information. Working with digital preservation means attempting to tackle all of these problems, and there are a variety of solutions to each. If you’re like me, by the end you will be sick of  terms such as ‘OAIS’, ‘fixity’ and ‘metadata’ – but, even worse, you’ll actually start to understand them!

While at the History Centre I have worked on a number of projects, from the digitisation of Francis Johnsons Architectural plans to participating in the monthly outreach events ‘History Makers’. I have looked extensively into DROID (a file profiling tool by The National Archives) and its applications in integrating it into the standard workflow for dealing with born-digital and hybrid collections. I have also been assisting in preparing for the implementation of Archivematica (an open source digital preservation system) in the coming months.

I have really enjoyed my time as a Transforming Archives trainee, so much so that I find myself definitely wanting to remain within the sector! If I am lucky enough to be able to do so, I really hope that I will be able to continue focusing on the digital side of the heritage sector. I can’t stress how rewarding digital preservation is to work on. I think that there can be an impression that archives and heritage deal mostly with the past when it is quite the opposite; everything you do is about keeping things for the future. Nothing exemplifies this more than digital preservation.

Gloucestershire Archives: Roz’s traineeship

I spotted a job advertisement for the Transforming Archives trainee programme 12 months ago. At the time I was looking for a means of kick-starting a career. What most appealed about this particular training scheme was its emphasis to identify people who can bring talent, energy and skills to the archival world rather than focusing on traditional qualifications. Gloucestershire Archives were offering a traineeship specialising in Digital Preservation and Outreach and Engagement, and as a STEM graduate I thought ‘why not apply?’

Eight months after starting the programme the advertisements for cohort 3 of the traineeship have been published and now seems an appropriate time to reflect upon what has been accomplished so far.

My traineeship has coincided with significant changes to Gloucestershire Archives; the archive is to be redeveloped to become The Heritage Hub and consequently will provide better access to documents that are ‘born digital’, that is, those for which there is no paper equivalent (such as websites). To this end approximately 270 GB of digital content has been preserved and is now located in the digital store. Furthermore, an upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 has resulted in an overhaul of the in-house preservation software, SCAT 1, so that it runs natively on a Windows environment. This software is currently being redeveloped and tested in tandem. I have been instrumental in designing and conducting the test plans, and it is immensely gratifying to be able to bring existing skills to the mix.

It is my hope that the new software will fulfill two functions:

  • a tool in the archivist’s arsenal to preserve digital content
  • a means for others to understand the theory that underpins digital preservation

This second function will be assessed with the help of staff and volunteers at Gloucestershire Archives and will thus form part of my ‘Outreach and Engagement’ training.

What I most value about my secondment to Gloucestershire Archives is their mantra ‘to learn by doing’. In fact, I suspect this is how many of the trainees of cohort 2 of the programme are approaching their traineeships and, potentially, you will too.

I found myself diving head first into the deep end, knowing very little about archival theory in general and digital preservation in particular. This is no bad thing. The 12 months of the traineeship are truly exceptional. I anticipate that at no other time (in my career) will it be possible to experience the sheer variety of opportunities available to me: two training base camps (London and Edinburgh), a supplementary £1000 training stipend (to spend on training of your choice), completion of a distance learning course plus the skills and knowledge acquired on the job.

Most memorable though are the people you will meet along the way: your fellow trainees, your mentors and the specialists in your field, all of whom will inform, shape and create a unique and engaging experience.

Find out how to apply to join the Transforming Archives programme

Notes:

  1. 1. Read further information regarding SCAT and previous trainee Tom Charnock’s blog post: ‘Trainee Tuesday: Tales from the Dark Archive ^

2 comments

  1. Jane Williams says:

    Hello

    The traineeship sounds like an amazing experience. Do you know how many trainees go on to find employment in the sector following training?
    Thanks

  2. Emma Stagg says:

    Hi Jane,

    That’s a good question and the answer can change as former trainees move onto further study or move between short term roles (which is fairly common in the sector). As far I’m aware, 11 out of 12 of our Cohort 1 trainees have secured paid employment within the archives sector or are completing relevant further training at the moment, having completed their traineeships in October 2015. The final trainee is employed within the wider heritage sector.

    Our Cohort 2 trainees complete their traineeships in October 2016 and are starting to look at their next steps and future employment opportunities. You can also follow our twitter account @TransformingArc to find out more about the different career routes are trainees are following.

    Emma (Transforming Archives Project Manager)

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