Behind the Scenes in the Archives: Preserving and Sustaining Digital Content

Earlier this week my colleague Jenifer posted about emerging technologies in archives.  In keeping with the themes promoted for International Archives Week, this post will focus on our efforts to preserve digital content in the Institute Archives and why it’s so important.

Preservation has always been a part of archival work, from storing paper documents in acid-free folders and boxes to conserving fragile or damaged items. Digital preservation is much more complex, and it’s almost certainly the greatest challenge facing archives today.  Between the vast array of file formats (and multiple versions of them) to the sheer amount of data produced on a daily basis, digital content poses a variety of difficulties for long term preservation.

So what is digital preservation?  There are a variety of definitions, but to keep it simple, here’s an excerpt from the Digital Preservation Coalition’s glossary.  Digital preservation “refers to the series of managed activities necessary to ensure continued access to digital materials for as long as necessary.”  In an archival setting, as long as necessary typically means permanently.  We want to be able to share digital images, documents, audio & video recordings, and other media types indefinitely, just as we always have for materials in analog formats.

I should also state what digital preservation is NOT.  Digitization does not mean preservation.  Archivists typically digitize stuff to facilitate remote access.  This supports research conducted by those who cannot easily visit our reading room to use collections.  In fact, digitized documents add to our preservation workload, because anything we create also needs to be stored, managed, and made accessible to end users.

So how do archivists manage to preserve all this digital material?  There’s really no one-size-fits-all solution; each repository must find its own solution.  Some institutions purchase a preservation system, others use a variety of applications to perform numerous functions.  For example, one step in the process is generating checksums, which are used to make sure files haven’t changed over time (a.k.a. fixity checks).  Another step is called normalization, in which a duplicate file in a special format is created to improve either preservation or access.  These and many other steps are taken in order to ensure the trustworthiness of a file over time and to ensure that it will be in a format that future technologies can read.

Screenshot showing several micro-services performed by Archivematica when 35 George M. Low images were transferred into the system.

At RPI we’re using an open-source system called Archivematica, which aggregates a number of micro-services to perform a variety of preservation functions.  These are necessary to conform to the OAIS reference model, an international standard for digital preservation (ISO 14721).  Our Archivematica implementation serves as a dark archive for preservation quality files in formats such as TIFF, PDF/A, WAV, etc.  We began by uploading a series of digitized George M. Low images into Archivematica; later we’ll add scanned copies of RPI publications, including back issues of The Rensselaer Polytechnic, the alumni magazine, and several RPI histories.  Ultimately we plan to use the system to preserve born-digital content, which is becoming an ever-larger portion of our acquisitions.  Without an active preservation program, digital materials are subject to deterioration (bit rot), loss through human error, and other calamities.  This is especially risky for born digital collections since they lack analog backups.

The future of archives is undoubtedly digital, both for sharing our records and for preserving electronic files.  Long term preservation and access do not come cheap, and the trick will be to develop sustainable systems.  And while open source solutions avoid vendor fees, they come at a price in terms of staff time spent maintaining them.  Hence, we’ve contracted with a vendor to host our preservation system, whose technical support has been a big help as we face the moving target of digital preservation.  As RPI archivists, we value the materials in our care no matter what forms they take, and we’re committed to preserving their valuable information for future researchers.

Dr. Robert R. Gilruth and George M. Low in front of Apollo capsule, 1968.
Dr. Robert R. Gilruth and George M. Low standing in front of Apollo capsule, 1968 (George M. Low Papers, #1987-12). Images from this collection were the first items uploaded into Archivematica after a lengthy testing process.
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Behind the Scenes in the Archives: Emerging Technologies

This week is International Archives Week. Around the globe archivists are celebrating how they Empower Knowledge Societies! In keeping with the celebration, I’d like to first share what we do, who we serve, and how. Then I’ll introduce our audiences to a new information management system implemented by the Institute Archives, called ArchivesSpace and explain how we came to this implementation. Finally, I’ll touch on why this is so important. 

We (the archivists) operate according to our mission. We are required to select, appraise, organize, manage, and maintain Institute records of historical value and special collections materials. We have to make practical sense (and provide historical context) before the researcher can get adequate access to records and manuscripts. We are also required to provide facilities for the retention, preservation, servicing, and research use of our materials, and serve as a research center for the study of the Institute’s history and the history of science and technology. We also serve the Institute’s administration and operations by promoting knowledge and understanding of their development. This mission now extends to the digital environment in addition to the analog materials that we continue to collect and manage.

Traditionally, if anyone wanted to conduct research with our archival records, they were required to set up a special visit to Rensselaer and pore over documents to gather the data they were looking for. For example, remember the book The Great Bridge, by David McCullough? The author spent months with the Roebling collection when it was housed in a small room located in the old library (now the Voorhees Computing Center) during the 1960s in order to write his famous book about the Brooklyn Bridge. This was long before collections began to be accessible to the world via the Web.

Institute Archives “old” home page, circa 2005

Starting in the late 1990s, as the internet was starting to take off, archives, museums, and libraries began digitizing all sorts of collections to showcase what they have in their repositories and began sharing them on the World Wide Web, making their archival material visible and accessible in unprecedented ways. All kinds of databases started to develop that catered to these needs. In the early 2000s the Institute Archives implemented a couple of databases for just this reason, and for almost two decades we’ve shared historical photographs, the student newspaper, and documents from the manuscript collections. None of these databases could be connected easily though. They’ve been proprietary systems (owned and controlled by a vendor) – what we call information silos. We could never really point the researcher to a digitized document and then provide the appropriate context for where the physical document lives within a particular collection.

In the spring of 2011, I implemented the archives first archival description system  (called Archon) so that lists and inventories of our records and manuscript holdings could be discovered and searchable more easily online. This connected a global community of researchers to collections like George Low’s NASA papers, or Eben Horsford’s baking powder records. This was an open source database created by a couple of archivists from the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. It was a fantastic system and revolutionized the way we provided knowledge of and access to the records we house. Sadly, Archon became unstable and the technology it was built with became outdated. In order to sustain an open source system, money and an extremely large community of users is required to sustain it. Last fall, with the impending doom of Archon inching closer, we secured a new open source system called ArchivesSpace which is supported by an incredibly large pool of colleges and universities (Yale, MIT, NYU – to name a few).

This past spring we (the Institute Archives and Special Collections) rolled out ArchivesSpace for managing and providing web access to descriptive information and inventories of records and various collections we house in the Institute Archives. This revolutionizes our management practices and will, down the road, dynamically impact additional systems we are working on replacing to better serve our communities!

Times have changed, the web has changed, technology and information exchange has also changed. These changes have driven not just how we work, but also how we assist the research endeavors of our communities. In 2016 we began investigating new open source platforms for better access and connectivity to the Institute Archives digital collections, including the inventories I spoke of earlier. This is very labor intensive work that takes time and expertise! I only wish we could easily pull out the data and associated digital collections from one database and move everything into another but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. We have pored over thousands of bits of data (and continue to do so), we’ve had to figure out new workflows and collection management tactics and strategies, training ourselves and others how to move from one system to another, and then make it pretty(!) for the “end-user.” Why do we do this? For starters, we’re required to collect, protect and preserve nearly two hundred years of the Institute’s history, so we’re immersed in both analog and the digital worlds now. But moreover the data landscape in the 21st century and expectations of information seekers is always changing therefore we’re always striving to ensure we deliver benefits to citizens and Knowledge Societies.

Next, you’ll hear from Tammy who will regale you of another system implementation we’ve been working on!

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Happy Preservation Week

With all that’s going on during the worldwide corona virus era, it can be challenging to think long term.  But that’s what archivists do, and this pandemic is no different.  So I’d like to take this opportunity to share information about an annual national event called Preservation Week.  Why am I writing about this to our blog readers?  Because YOU can get involved!

Personal papers including formal correspondence, postcards, family letters, enclosures, a program, and a gift tag.

Preservation Week (PW) is an effort headed by the Association for Library Collections and Technology Services (ALCTS), a division of the American Library Association.  While preservation activities typically focus on historical collections in libraries, archives, and museums, the PW web site states that people should take action on “the items held and loved by individuals, families, and communities.”

That’s where you come in.  The ALCTS web site has a Saving Your Stuff page with tips on caring for photographs, books, paper, audio visual materials, digital content, etc.  You can also get free advice from a preservation expert in her Dear Donia page.  And if you’re home with a family member, you can “attend” a free oral history webinar on conducting an oral history interview.  What better way to spend your time when there are no public activities and you’re cooped up inside most of the time?

Photos from the Monger, Shattuck, and Putnam paternal line. Carte de visites, photographs, “Shattuck Saga,” and Last Will and Testament.

Another source of information on collecting and caring for personal materials is a book that just recently came out.  Creating Family Archives by Margot Note is “a step-by-step guide to organizing and preserving your family memories and documents.”  You can find more information and even sample pages on the Society of American Archivists web site, where you can also place an order.  This reasonably priced book ($24.99) is also available on Amazon.

I’ve noticed that many cultural heritage organizations are asking people to keep journals of their pandemic experiences.  Check your local historical association or public library to see if they plan to collect that sort of documentation.  Even if they don’t, you may just want to record your thoughts and activities for yourself.  If you do, be sure to preserve it for posterity!

And last but not least, please remember to preserve yourself from COVID-19!

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Continuing Up the Hill: the ’87 Gymnasium

Rendering of the proposed gymnasium as it appeared in the 1912 Transit.

The ’87 Gymnasium was dedicated in June 1912. Planning for the new facility went back a couple of years earlier to 1910 when a Board of Trustees committee was established to investigate the feasibility of developing a department of physical culture at the Institute. The committee concluded that a completely equipped modern gymnasium was necessary if such a department was to be established. In June 1911 Stewart Johnson, Class of ’87 and a member of the Board of Trustees, announced that his class would finance the construction and equipping of the building.

Lawlor & Haase, the architects of the Walker Chemical Laboratory and Russell Sage Laboratory, were retained as architects. Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent of Harvard University, an eminent authority on college gymnasiums, was hired as project consultant. The construction contract was awarded to the Whitney-Steen Company of New York City. According to The Polytechnic, “The gymnasium is designed in the current American classical style. It primarily is colonial of the Georgian period and detailed in classical Italian.” It was built of Harvard brick, laid in Flemish bond style with limestone trim and a copper roof. The swimming pool was to be a duplicate of the Carnegie pool at Yale. Total cost of constructing and equipping the building was $150,000. Ground was broken for the building on September 12, 1911 and work was completed in November 1912.

A swimming pool 75 feet by 30 feel is situated in the basement, which is eighteen feet in height. There is a gallery around it. The basement also contains four bowling alleys with a mezzanine floor above on which are shower baths and 800 lockers. Filters for the pool and a wash room are also in the basement. The first floor contains rooms for baseball practice, basketball and fencing, a squash court and the offices of the Professor of Physical Training. Above this floor is a room 125 feet by 64 feet in size with a height of 23 feet to the trusses and 36 feet to the peak of the roof. It is used for general gymnastic practice. A running track encircles this room in a gallery ten feet above the floor. The building is completely equipped with the best forms of gymnastic apparatus. In consequence of the construction of this gymnasium, the Board of Trustees has inaugurated compulsory athletic exercise for members of the freshman class, and the existence of the pool has enabled a rule to be adopted requiring that each member of this class must know how to swim.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Bulletin: ’87 Gymnasium. Vol. 11, no. 4, December 1912, pp.4-7.

Work on the building was closely monitored by the student body, most of whom were civil engineering majors and no doubt enthusiastic sidewalk superintendents. The Polytechnic featured almost monthly progress reports, including photographs that have left us with a diary of the building’s construction.

A large L-shaped addition was made to the east and south side of the gym in 1937. The addition included handball courts, bowling alleys, locker rooms, offices, an “exhibition court,” running track and a rifle range. Improvements were made to the swimming pool and space for spectators was increased. The addition and building alterations were designed by faculty in the architecture department and the preliminary plans were drawn up by senior architecture students. The project was completed in the spring of 1938.

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A Last Minute Gift

As 2019 is winding down and we’re preparing for the Institute’s annual holiday break, a surprise arrived in the Institute Archives.  A FedEx box was delivered containing a heavily wrapped parcel.  An RPI yearbook perhaps?  Or maybe an old photo album?  It was neither.  Rather, John, Jen and I opened the package to discover a student scrapbook dating from the 1910s.

Samuel S. Waters scrapbook, 1913-1918

According to the donor, the scrapbook was found while “straightening up some dusty corners of our community library.”  Since there was no known local affiliation the volume was sent to Rensselaer – more than 100 years after its creation!

Samuel S. Waters

Our records hold precious little information about the book’s compiler, Samuel Stephenson Waters, RPI Class of 1917.  The 1917 Transit sheds some light, including that prodigal son “Steve” Waters had returned from “a year’s vacation.”  He had apparently been quite involved in student activities as president of his freshman class, a member of the Rensselaer Union Nominating Committee, and a player on his class football team.  Perhaps his focus on non-academic endeavors explains the fact that Mr. Waters never graduated from Rensselaer!

The scrapbook itself lays bare Waters’s less than stellar academic record.  Many of his grade cards are glued onto its pages, and while he passed all of his admissions tests, things went downhill from there.  His grades cluster at the lower end of the scale of RPI’s grading system, including d (deficient), n (not examined), and the curious n.s.e. (not sufficiently examined).

In contrast to his math and science classwork, Waters did well in French and drawing courses in which he regularly earned a p (passing).  However, those courses could not carry him through the rigorous civil engineering program in which he was enrolled.

The scrapbook also provides ample evidence of Waters’s activities outside of the classroom.  There are concert programs, season passes to RPI athletic competitions, and never-before seen photographs of pushball & flag rushes, surveying expeditions, etc.  As a military school graduate, Waters also interspersed the pages with clipped articles, poetry, and other materials related to military duty.  Selective service cards indicate he registered in 1917 and appeared before the draft board in 1918.  It’s unlikely he served in World War I, since a telegram indicates he commissioned as a captain on November 23, 1918.  The armistice was signed twelve days earlier.

We’re grateful for this donation documenting a young man’s life at RPI.  Among its many bits and pieces are a few small Christmas cards.  I share this last minute gift with our readers in the hope that you enjoy a wonderful holiday season.

Christmas card, circa 1917
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