Our archivist, Dr. Craig Fees, has been invited to be the guest host for the Archives and Records Association's #ArchiveHour on Twitter on August 30th (2018). He will be online from 8 to 9 pm - posing questions, responding to questions, and taking part (or just standing back in awe at the technology) in the conversation that develops. The #ArchiveHour is a Twitter-based conversation that takes place on the last Thursday of each month from 8-9 pm, with a new theme each time, hosted by one of nine ARA nations/regions/sections and a guest host. It engages archivists and archive enthusiasts from around the globe. Craig will be tweeting on the PETT's Twitter handle @pettconnect.
This edition of #ArchiveHour is hosted by the ARA's Film Sound and Photography Group (@ARAFSPG).
The theme is:
2. A Hybrid Archive
("I initially resisted thinking of computers as a fundamental element in the planning of the Archive....")
I broke my digital teeth on a PDP8 computer back in high school in the late 1960s. The school must have had a computer club, but I don't remember it: I just remember spending hours undisturbed in a small basement room churning out reams of hole-punched computer tape, discovering do-loops, programming in Fortran, playing the computer into revealing things like the day of the week on which August the 9th or November the 25th fell in the Gregorian Calendar in whatever given year.
After that I didn't really engage with computers again until the late 1980s when I wrote my PhD on a BBC. At that point I didn't understand why you would want a computer to do more than one thing at a time, so the concept of multiple processes was beyond me; and the first time I bought a box of the - to me - radically new 3.5 inch floppy disks to store files on, I ended up taking them back in frustration; because I didn't realise you had to format them before they could be used. That lag in understanding is a continuing theme.
All of my MA and PhD research experience was in index cards and paper, with some microfilm thrown in; and when I was asked to set up the Archive and Study Centre in 1989 I brought the entirety of this hefty weight of experience née innocent ignorance with me. Fortunately, the legendary generosity of the Archives profession kicked in, and fortunately I was able to listen a little, as the first entry in the section below indicates. Ultimately, Reality dragged me and this small charity archive into the future.
"In archival terms a hybrid archive is one which holds both digital and paper records.
The PETT Archive and Study Centre holds paper and digital records, so is hybrid..."
A Hybrid Archive Emerges from the din of paper and analogue
The Archive and Study Centre was established in 1989. In my June 10, 1989 Archivist's Report report to Trustees I explained:
"I initially resisted thinking of computers as a fundamental element in the planning of the Archive. It has been borne in on me, however, that in our situation we ought to consider a computer as integral to the design and running of the Archive."
"The appropriate programme will help researchers locate relevant material from diverse collections quickly, of course, but it will also extend the life of our documents by pinpointing for the researcher only those he or she really wants to see - there will be no need to flip through an entire file looking for one or two pieces of paper, for example. Perhaps more importantly [because material will be located quickly and accurately].... it will significantly decrease the workload involved for the person or persons trying to run the Archive." [Meaning it would make running the Archive more feasible on the limited resources of a small charity. Ha!]
Seven years later the concept of what computers could do had expanded (and we were eyeing up a move from Atari to PC): Archivist's Annual Report for 1995-1996, May 9, 1996:
Part of this process [we were moving the Archive from original temporary premises into the core of its permanent home] will include an examination of the Archive's computer system. The basis of the current computer system is an Atari Mega ST2 purchased secondhand in 1989, with hard-disc and laser printer. At that time Atari was still an international competitor among computer systems, but it has become more and more isolated in a world that has come to be dominated by IBM-compatibles.
A computer serves various functions, one of which increasingly is as a port of communication. The potential for becoming an information site, of sharing the contents of our collections and the fruit of our activities with researchers here and abroad will be distinctly limited until we connect with the Internet. Similarly, our usefulness for visiting scholars will be enhanced if they can access the Internet through us. This seems certain. The question is whether it is better to upgrade the Atari system and invest in Atari-compatible components and software to do so, or whether it would make better economic sense to establish the Internet presence on an IBM-compatible system.
Although the Atari remains a useful tool within the day to day work of the Archive, the view I take after discussions with various people is that it would be better to invest in IBM compatibles. As Albert [Lamb, our specialist curator for progressive/alternative/democratic education] has had recent experience in developing and negotiating a system for the Summerhill Trust, and as I have felt that it would be particularly useful to the Archive were he able to do more work from home, I have asked him to set out what we would need and what it would be likely to cost. [Which is to say] approximately £2,700, with Albert utilising his own computer, software and printer.
DISCOVERING THE INTERNET
Our first Internet connection cost us something in excess of £400 annually. We had to go in through the MS-DOS dialogue screen, and to make it all work the first time the ISP (Epinet) sent a locally-based engineer (in wonderful full Goth mode), to programme the connection and talk us through. I remember the sounds of connecting to the Internet (down a phone line) as enthralling.
There were absolutely no boundaries placed on us in terms of bandwidth and storage, which was a freedom one understood then but only really understands now; having said which, we shaved the "e" off the domain name because of how precious memory was at the time - so the website was, and for many years remained, pettarchiv.org.uk.
We went live with our website early in the following year, 1997, and entered an all-new and exciting era; another part of the story.
PERSNICKETY COMPUTERS EAT TIME LIKE A RARE CHOCOLATE MOUSSE: SPECIAL JOYS OF A CHARITY ARCHIVE
From Report to the Trust, February 8, 2005 :
There are three networked computers on the Archive and Study Centre side, each of which has its own history and idiosyncracies. My main computer, for example, will no longer read CDs or floppy disks once the machine is booted (although, fortunately, it will still write CDs), and one has to circumvent this through the capacities of the others. (The potential cost of repair has deterred attempting to have it fixed).
Something of the history of these computers could be glimpsed in the Report of February 19, 2002, in a section on "Computers" which began:
Much of the period covered by this report has been characterized by recurrent computer failures and problems...
And some of the implications appear in the Report for March 4, 2003:
That coincided with one of our series of computer crashes, and the loss of Teresa (among other things), and it is clear to me that in the juggling of balls I did not follow this up properly. Apart from anything else I ought to have gone to France to meet with the current archivist; and I am not certain that the goodwill and the opportunity have not been lost. [Reader, they were. - ed].
BECOMING A HYBRID ARCHIVE: AN ONGOING STORY
Our first digital accession was a Word document, carried on a 3.5" floppy disk, which came in 1996. It was followed five years later by the second: a CD carrying a set of born-digital photographs, accessioned in 2001. The graph below shows the occurence of digital accessions since.
By the early 2000s the importance of born-again digital records - digitised as opposed to born-digital - became apparent even to me. In the Archivist's Report for February 19th, 2002, where I had been asked to set out some blue-sky thinking for potential grant proposals, for "Archives" I wrote:
Among the tasks for which we would wish to seek grant funding would be the digitizing of the collections, and in particular the transfer of photographic, video, audiotape, and film materials to reproducible electronic formats. There are a number of reasons for this, primarily to do with creating preservation copies of vulnerable materials, creating handling copies, and putting materials into formats which are readily, widely and inexpensively accessible to the public.
The importance of born-digital files was also beginning to impose itself. My Reports to Trustees always included a list of recent accessions, and from the Archivist's Report of July 10, 2004 onwards, until the point had been made, I began to add an asterix to digital accessions, to highlight their presence for Trustees. I explained:
[The asterix] indicates the direction things are going. Digital archives will come to represent a major area of our work and holdings; and while this seems as if it should make life for the archive simpler and less expensive, it is more likely to have the opposite effect, especially as format, software and equipment roll over into commercial and practical obsolescence. On the other hand, storage space will represent less of a problem; unless the problem of obsolescence and preservation is addressed by ensuring that there are non-digital copies as well.
"more likely to have the opposite effect"....
The understatements of innocence are wonderful.
The rise of digital and its associated technology had impacts throughout the Archive, sometimes in fundamental ways, as this entry from the Archivist's Report for 3 July 2010 indicates:
SPIKES IN THE GRAPH
The graph of dgital accessions above shows spikes in 2005 and again in 2007, and then a zooming spike in 2011/2012. The latter reflects the enormous rise in accessions generally during the Heritage Lottery Funded "Therapeutic Living With Other People's Children" project and its shadow. The drop-down from 2013 onwards reflects the loss of all but one member of the Archive team in the wake of the end of project funding (from 3.75 fte positions to .5). In archives time, people, and relationships matter.
The 2005 and 2007 spikes are also project related. Twelve of the 2007 accessions were theses by students of the Reading University Therapeutic Child Care Course, sent for inclusion in the Archive and Study Centre's Online Library's Online Theses and other publications section.
2005 saw the advent of a special relationship with psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Judith Issroff, a student and colleague of Donald Winncott, who kept (and keeps) a wide-ranging reflective diary (born digital, on her computers), sent in regular installments over the Internet and accessioned into the digital storage. 2005 also saw the beginnings of accessions both directly from RadioTC International (another of the Archive's initiatives, which I will explain elsewhere), and as a consequence of its connections. In archives, outreach and connection have quantifiable consequences.
The Evolution of a Digital Storage System
The Archive's original digital storage system - hundreds of 1.44 MB floppy disks.
The operating system of our first Windows PC and all its accompanying software had to be hand-fed into the computer on 3.5" floppy disks, one by furshluginer one. A month or two after our investment a CD version came out. The world changed. Time's horizon opened before us.
And then came the optical disks.
Our original computer system was Atari. When we moved to PC, there was a period of a year or so when Windows would read Atari floppy disks and files, and Maureen dedicated a part of her life to translating from the one digital province to the other. With the advent of CD-ROMS, there was another Great and labour-intensive Migration. And then came the DVDs - the gold DVDs, on the back of the gold CDs, which would last relatively forever in their archival sleeves interleaved with carbon disks.
And perhaps they will. But unless the sun flares at the wrong time and unleashes a spectacular geomagnetic fury directed at the Archive, perhaps we will never need to find out.
An archivally preserved computer virus
But what about this carefully preserved virus, safe on CD inside its archival sleeve? Do we dare migrate it to the next generation of digital storage? Do we have an obligation to do so, if only for the sake of those archived email attachments? Is a 2004 virus a precious historical artifact? And is it lurking like a curse in a deep Siberian frost, frozen in the CD and safe until it's thawed through migration; or is it like long-dead mould, ugly and not to be inhaled, but no longer actively threatening its neighbours or the material it is stored on?
2010-2018, with hiccups
And now the hard-drives
A disastrous off-the-shelf RAID system acquired with the help of an HLF grant in 2010 was replaced, when it fatally imploded more or less immediately, by a RAIDed NAS system with 8TB of effective storage, put together by PETT Trustee John Moorhouse and connected to the in-house, blindlingly fast and secure ethernet system, also installed by John. In old age it has developed idiosyncracies and character, as has John and the rest of us, but remains as a backup, giving way as the Primary Store in 2017 to the FreeNas beauty above: eight 6 TB hard drives, purchased with the help of an HLF Transition Grant, configured for maximum safety in RAID Z3, giving an effective digital reservoir of a little over 24 TB.
In RAID Z3 three of the eight hard drives can fail simultaneously without the loss of data, and against that very unlikely scenario we also invested in three additional 6 TB back-up drives.
Building a computer bank: Maintaining an in-house capacity to read files
For some years, many of the personal, institutional and organisational archives we have taken in have been born-hybrid, and have often come with the original computers behind the floppies and discs. By analogy with sound and video archives, we have always felt it made sense to retain an inhouse capacity to read the files. In our technical store we therefore have a small museum of computers and component peripherals, including:
Plus PCs and Macs in use in the Archive itself.
One of those Macs-in-use is at least ten years old - we got it as a gift, second-secondhand; and we have a PC which is a similarly ancient hand-me-down, among hand-me-downs. Is this unique to charity archives? No matter, we cherish them:
Because it means we have more machines which we can share with users, who may even feel more at home with the old ones;
And, because we have a number of old peripherals, which are obsolete as far as more recent PCs and Macs are concerned - they won't even deign to speak to them, and the peripherals are so old there aren't even any make-them-compatible drivers to download - which we can't afford to replace (who has the money), but which continue to do unique and useful jobs: An A3 scanner, for example, which came thanks to an HLF grant, and reaches out from the depths of the past to help us serve researchers and online users in the present. Dedication indeed. TechnoCaritas personified.