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Digital curation

The National Collection for Architecture and Urban Planning consists of a large number of analogue documents and objects. They are composed of a physical carrier, which is provided with information employing diverse techniques (e.g., pen and ink, blueprints for drawings, photographic processes, etc.). Conservation is largely focused on the preservation of the carrier and the information. Digital documents and objects are constructed differently. They consist of bitstreams (the ones and zeros), which need representation information in order to be reconstructed into the – authentic – object or document. The environment – software, operating system, hardware – in which the document, model or work of art was created is of great importance for preservation, as it contains the representation information. Digital information is considerably more vulnerable than analogue information because software and the technical environment are constantly changing. Moreover, within architectural practice, digital files and models are complex, software is often vendor-dependent, and the quantity of digital information is growing exponentially. Behrang Mousavi elaborated on these challenges in 2017 in his article The Future of Digital Sustainability.

Preserving digital information

Research, measures, facilities and policies for preserving digital information are aimed at integrity, authenticity, reliability and usability, the so-called preservation objectives. Integrity is about the preservation of the digital object – the original bitstream, which must not be lost or altered unintentionally or without authorisation. Bit preservation represents the measures and strategy that guarantee digital integrity. Authenticity is under threat when there are changes to the context in which an information object was created. For example, the software or the operation system it worked on becomes obsolete. Measures are needed to prevent this loss of information. It is therefore important to keep an eye on technological changes that pose a danger. This is about functional preservation. The file can be migrated (converted) to a file format that remains readable for a long time, or emulation software can be used in combination with the original software to mimic the original environment. In some cases, the ‘computer museum’ approach is employed, in which case all the old hardware and software is preserved. In addition, the context plays a role. Information objects originate from an action or a process, such as a project phase or a meeting. If this context is not preserved, a large part of its meaning is lost. This is a question of reliability. Finally, digital objects must be locatable, which depends on safe and reliable storage, assigning unique characteristics, and being able to reference reliable descriptive and access metadata. The found file and the metadata have to be presented to the user in a usable and understandable way.

Setting up and testing the Digital Archive

In order to prevent the loss and/or unwanted modification of information, a safe environment is needed that monitors the integrity of the digital objects. This environment also contributes to the preservation of the authentic information objects. In order to preserve records, models, works of art and publications, it is vital to record as many properties as possible that are important for preservation and access. Among other things, this will facilitate migration or emulation. All this data is recorded in metadata sets that are inextricably linked to the digital objects that make up the information object. So you need a system that ensures that you know what you have, what its characteristics are, that preserves context and provenance, and also provides access and good management.

Archivematica

Het Nieuwe Instituut will use the Archivematica application to set up the Digital Archive. This is an open source digital repository application that complies with various standards for digital archive management and metadata. The system is part of a functional environment called a trusted digital repository and meets the requirements of the OAIS (Open Archival Information System) model, the reference model for the long-term sustainable preservation of (digital) archives. It describes the environment, functions, responsibilities and information units involved. By complying with the model, we can be sure that we ingest all digital acquisitions correctly, provide the required metadata, and take good care of their storage, management, preservation, rights management and access.

To be able to carry out preservation planning within the system, it is necessary to keep an eye on technological changes (technology watch). Knowing the user groups is also essential, because what they access in our digital collection must be understandable to them now and in the future. The implementation of preservation takes place within the framework of the preservation strategy developed by Het Nieuwe Instituut, which will be continuously managed and updated. If, for example, MS Word becomes obsolete, we will have to determine within our strategy what format the system converts Word files to. Another example is QuarkXpress. This desktop publishing program was widely used by designers and architects between 1995 and 2005, but has largely fallen into disuse in the meantime. Migration to PDF or, for example, Adobe InDesign is possible, but always leads to a loss of information. Emulation is another option. The preservation strategy determines the approach.

The Digital Archive in Archivematica will be activated in 2020 after a testing period. This will enable the effective, correct and controllable management and preservation of the digital collection. The functions of the system will be elaborated, workflows will be defined and implemented, and a metadata policy and metadata model will be developed and implemented. We will continue to refine our preservation strategy in 2020 and thereafter. The digital archives that will be used for research and testing include the MVRDV archive and the Michael van Gessel archive.

Preparation and BitCurator

It is important to properly prepare the material we include in Archivematica. The digital acquisitions we receive often involve all kinds of challenges such as inadequate organisation and the complexity of files and archives, a wide variety of file formats, and a lack of suitable descriptive metadata and information about the copyright status. Data can also be on old carriers, for example floppy disks and old computers. An environment is therefore needed in which metadata can be secured, analysed, organised and supplemented. We use the BitCurator environment, which is also used by the CCA (Canadian Centre for Architecture). This is a Linux environment that incorporates all kinds of software tools for securing, analysing, organising and further describing, and sustainably processing digital material. A benefit resulting from the preparation in the BitCurator environment is that the material that is included in Archivematica meets all kinds of quality standards.

Research and strategy

Het Nieuwe Instituut’s Preservation Policy (2018) is the policy framework within which the development of facilities, processes and strategy takes place. This connects the challenge of preserving digital architectural records with the standards, principles, concepts and models for digital preservation.

Emulation

For the implementation of our preservation strategy, additional research is being conducted into possible strategies for the AutoCAD .dwg and .dxf formats – by far the most common design software in our archives. Due to the complexity of these and other design software, converting to other, more sustainable file formats is often a problematic strategy. That’s why we also consider emulation, a sustainability strategy aimed at preserving digital resources as they were originally created and used. By applying emulation techniques, it becomes possible to mimic the behaviour of an outdated computer on another (newer) computer. Emulation can apply to four aspects of a computer: the hardware, the operating system, the associated software, and the digital objects created with that software. Het Nieuwe Instituut participates in the Software Archiving and Emulation project of the Dutch Digital Heritage Network, which investigates the possibilities of Emulation-as-a-Service (EaaS). EaaS is a scalable, cost-effective, cloud-based model for emulation procedures for use by heritage institutions. The project aims to create a test environment for EaaS and a manual for institutions that want to start with emulation. This will enable us to use an emulation service for the correct representation of information objects in the long term.

‘Implementing Digital Archive Between Creators and Keepers’

In 2018, research was conducted into the digital archives at six architectural firms that are part of Het Nieuwe Instituut’s acquisition profile. Many of the issues facing Het Nieuwe Instituut in the processing, management and preservation of digital archives arise from their origin in, and the information management of, architectural practice. We therefore need a better understanding of architectural practice and to share information with firms. The research has identified a number of risks and makes some recommendations. These results form the basis for further research in 2020.

Developing knowledge and skills

The institute began its professionalisation process in 2016 with an internal training course. Subsequently, Het Nieuwe Instituut developed Learning Digital Preservation (Leren Preserven) together with the Dutch Digital Heritage Network. Since then, the training course has made a major contribution to the training of heritage professionals dealing with the management and preservation of digital archives and collections. Het Nieuwe Instituut will elevate the management of its digital collection to the same level as that of its analogue collection. The professionalisation of the organisation will continue. Het Nieuwe Instituut will continue to develop into a knowledge centre and hub for digital preservation.

Text: Frans Neggers, digital archivist at Het Nieuwe Instituut and project leader of Learning Digital Preservation (Leren Preserveren) for the Dutch Digital Heritage Network.