Sustainable preservation of digital private law archives with SCALA

Digital private law archives often consist of diverse and poorly organised contents, but current preservation systems are mostly designed for similar collections of digital files. Cultural archive institutions are increasingly acquiring more assorted archives, but don’t yet have the necessary systems and work processes in place to receive (‘ingest’) and preserve them sustainably, or keep them accessible. That’s why we’re developing a prototype system in the SCALA project, to do just this.

Challenge

Digital private law archives: a definition

Private law archives are documents in any form that people or organisations in the private sector create or receive, which are preserved in light of their work or activities. The SCALA project is dealing specifically with digital documents that are saved on CD-ROMs or hard disks, for example by architects, writers, trade unions, volunteer organisations or religious institutions.

What makes the long-term storage of these types of archives so challenging?

Current digital preservation systems assume well-organised archive files, such as we often see in state archives. But private law archives, on the other hand, usually consist of more arbitrary folder structures containing a mixture of assorted file formats, such as text documents, video and image files, PowerPoint presentations and compressed graphics files.

This vast amount of content means there’s not enough time to process it in detail immediately when transferring it. The partners in this project are therefore working on a storage system that saves the digital files securely and manages the risks that can make them inaccessible in the short term. The files are safeguarded until there’s enough time to process the archive contents properly.

The AIDA network combines strengths

Individual archive institutions do not have sufficient knowledge, people and resources to tackle this issue, which is why a number of them decided to join forces in the AIDA network. AIDA (Automatic Ingest Digital Archives, link in Dutch) is an agenda shared by nine institutions. This network of partners is aiming to take concrete steps, in the 2019-2023 policy period, to eliminate the most critical shortcomings for the sustainable long-term preservation of digital collections of private law archives.

In February 2021, resources were allocated to set up a pilot preservation system in the first phase of SCALA which will test the AIDA partners’ shared preservation policy in practice.

Our role

The Flanders Architecture Institute (VAi) is coordinating the SCALA project in which meemoo is a partner alongside ADVN (Archive for National Movements), Amsab (Institute for Social History), AMVB (Archive and Museum for the Flemish Living in Brussels), AVG-Carhif (Archive and Research Centre for Women’s History), CAVA (Centre for Academic and Liberal Archives), Letterenhuis and Archiefbank Vlaanderen. We’re responsible for hosting the pilot preservation system selected in 2021 (RODA) and controlling the configuration and further development of the RODA application. Our role also includes storing the archive containers produced by RODA, and helping to write up the necessary technical and contents specifications. We look at the RODA system in more detail at the bottom of this page.

Approach

How can this assorted collection of digital private law archives be preserved? In this project, we’re looking at what role E-ARK containers can have for the sustainable long-term preservation of assorted, poorly organised digital archives.

What is E-ARK and why did we choose it?

E-ARK stands for European Archival Records and Knowledge Preservation and is a new pan-European standard for packaging information objects for long-term storage, regardless of software, suppliers or archive institutions. It ensures that information objects created today can remain accessible for decades, regardless of whether the institutions or suppliers that originally packaged the object still exist. Want to find out more about this e-archiving building block from the European Commission? Read more here.

The SCALA pilot preservation system is a tool for creating and managing AIPs (Archival Information Packages) in accordance with E-ARK. We chose E-ARK for the SCALA project because it’s a standard that allows for the management of different versions of a digital archive. We can use these different versions to perform preservation actions one step at a time and keep the archive and preservation history up to date.

Important side note! E-ARK is not an inventory and does not provide access to the archive; it serves as a tool for keeping digital files accessible in the long term. The inventory will be drawn up in the AIDA partners’ archive management systems, from where access to the relevant files in the E-ARK container is then granted.

What is AIDA’s role?

The SCALA pilot preservation system is being tested on meemoo’s infrastructure using the preservation strategy put forward by AIDA. But because AIDA partners ultimately want to be able to make optimal use of the different infrastructure solutions that the Flemish heritage sector has access to, AIDA wants to create a broader collaborative model around the use of E-ARK containers for the preservation of digital archives.

SCALA will involve other infrastructure partners, such as LIAS, DAV and FelixArchief for feedback and expertise regarding our implementation of E-ARK, and we hope this will encourage them to use it.

Steps in 2021

We certainly didn’t stand still in the first year of the project. We started by running a tender process to choose a technical partner, which ended with us selecting KEEP SOLUTIONS. Then we installed the basic version of their RODA preservation system on meemoo’s servers. Good to know: RODA supports native E-ARK.

After this, we started testing. We organised an initial workshop for data providers in mid-October with a focus on:

  • using the ingest tool RODA-in to learn to make E-ARK SIPs (Submission Information Packages);

  • transferring SIPs to the RODA preservation system;

  • getting to know the basic RODA functions.

After checking this basic version, we will then take a closer look at plug-ins for additional or customised functionalities in a subsequent workshop with the SCALA partners. We will carry out comprehensive testing throughout the autumn of 2021. KEEP will also be developing some custom functionalities for us.

Did you know...

that SCALA refers to the opera house in Milan where the opera AIDA premièred? So it’s very meta! It also stands for System-independent Containers using e-ARK, for the Long-term preservation of digital Archives.

The boxes of the Scala in Milan just before the start of a production - 1936

Partners

Do you have a question?
Contact Bert Lemmens
Expertise Officer
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