The Little Compton Historical Society is a small organization dedicated to preserving the history and cultural heritage of Little Compton, Rhode Island. Although they face the common problem of limited resources that many organizations of their size do, the LCHS currently has several systems in place that will help them to reach greater success in preserving their digital holdings. Expanding on those established resources, this report will provide guidance on how LCHS staff can improve and ensure the prolonged safety of their digital collections. The recommendations are based on the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) Levels of Digital Preservation, a set of easy-to-use guidelines used to assess an institution’s current preservation status based on 5 areas: storage and geographic location, file fixity and data integrity, information security, metadata, and file formats.
First Steps (Minimum)
1. Copy any digital files held on external media to a stable location.
The first and most important task that the LCHS must address is the storage of digital materials on external media such as laptops, CD-Rs, and USB flash drives. Whether currently in use or not, these files should be copied to a stable storage system as soon as possible to avoid the possibility of data loss. As these types of media age, the files held within them become more difficult to access and preserve. Unused laptops become slow as the programs on them are not updated and – if the files on them are not fully backed up – they are at considerable risk. USB flash sticks and drives are easily corrupted and nearly impossible to repair, making them best suited for short-term storage. While commercially produced CD-ROMS have been known to have a lifespan of 30 years, CD-Rs that have had material recorded or “burned” onto them have a drastically different longevity, with some experts estimating that they last only 5 years. Further, as technologies rapidly develop there is a chance that CDs will require specialized equipment to access in the future, as we see with floppy disk drives today.
All of the files that are currently stored on these types of media should be transferred to a stable location on the main server. Even files that are not currently being used, such as the oral history collection, must be copied to ensure their long-term preservation. When copying files from external media, be sure to record any important information that is stored along with it so that nothing vital is lost in the transfer.
2. Create a full backup of all digital files on a physical hard drive.
Once all digital files have been moved to a stable location, it is highly recommended to do a complete backup of all digital holdings. By consolidating all files that are currently held on external media into a centralized, stable location, the LCHS will be assured that current and future backups are protecting everything. One way to ensure that vital information is kept safe is to create a backup on an external hard drive, then store it in a secure location either within or outside of the organization. This could mean Marjory storing it in a locked cabinet at the LCHS, or Fred taking it home with him. The external drive should then be updated monthly or quarterly, as resources allow.
3. Create a complete inventory of all digital holdings.
Now that all relevant digital files have been compiled and backed up, the LCHS would benefit greatly from a comprehensive inventory of all digital holdings. Since many of the holdings are already stored in PastPerfect, a great start is to use the tools provided by them. PastPerfect has an optional Inventory Manager upgrade that allows users to “create inventory lists, print barcode labels, track collections electronically, and ensure accurate records.”
The digital files not currently held in PastPerfect also need to be included in the inventory. A simple excel sheet can get the job done – and it is often useful to mirror the digital file names and organization on how the physical items are already organized. Compiling all of the digital holdings into one master inventory will help to combat the problem of duplicate files that currently appear in multiple locations. In the future, care should be taken to follow set standards for adding new digital files to the inventory.
An added benefit of an inventory is that have all of the information on digital holdings in one secure place will allow the LCHS to take a hard look at its holdings, reassessing which files are the most vital and whose loss would be the most detrimental to the organization. As historical societies are often stretched for time and resources, the preservation of those files can then be prioritized above others to ensure their continued safety.
Further Steps: Moderate to Aggressive
At this point, the LCHS should have at least 1 full, complete copy of its digital holdings stored on a physical hard drive. To meet the highest NDSA standards for storage, the LCHS could create additional physical copies of backups and do a “buddy swap” with organizations in other states. This can also be accomplished with an offsite backup service, like the one currently used – Backblaze. DropBox can also be used for a 2nd cloud backup, although this would require additional funding.
4. Run a full backup with Backblaze.
The LCHS currently uses Backblaze to routinely back up all files. There are several benefits to their service, most notably that backups are conducted automatically and don’t require constant oversight, and storage space is unlimited. Since this backup stores everything offsite, using Backblaze also boosts the LCHS to Level 2 on the NDSA levels: having at least one copy in a different geographic location. While not much more oversight is needed, Backblaze recommends checking in once a week to ensure that backups are running as scheduled.
5. Establish the fixity of digital files.
Fixity is “the property of a digital file or object being fixed or unchanged.” In other words, checking fixity means making sure that your files haven’t changed without you meaning them to. While there are technologies and programs that exist to maintain fixity at a higher level (see AVP’s fixity tool for an example), given the limited resources at the LCHS, this can be accomplished much more simply. Once all digital files have been consolidated and organized, have a volunteer record how many files are in each folder and the folder sizes. Once every quarter, delegate someone to do a quick check to make sure that all of the folder sizes and file counts are the same as they were originally. If there are any changes, it is clear that something has been added, deleted, or altered. If this was unintentional, the files can be restored using one of the backups. This is a simple way to quickly check that your digital files have not been tampered with, whether intentionally or not.
6. Create set standards for file and folder names.
It is vital to the continued organization and maintenance of digital files that the LCHS maintain set language and standards for file and folder names. The LCHS receives many donations of materials that often end up residing where they are originally downloaded, rather than fully incorporated into the collections. Developing a set process for these donated materials – and the particular aspects of what that process will look like – largely depends on the time available to Marjory or whomever is available to make sure the process is completed. When a new donation of files is received, resist the urge to leave them on the desktop. This can be as simple as having a folder titled “Donated Materials” on the network drive, with files labeled by donor name and the date of the donation. The most important thing is to establish consistency, a system that is easy to maintain but with a structure that is easily understood within the context of the larger collections. Once it is established and written down, the task of actually moving those materials to a permanent location can be delegated to a volunteer or docent.
For files stored in PastPerfect, there are tools available to maintain this naming consistency. If authority files have not yet been set, this is a good place to start. Double-check that the authority files in PastPerfect accurately reflect how the files will be organized and entered in the future. This should also extend to the files that are not currently in PastPerfect but stored on the LCHS server; continuity between systems is key. Separating the core files containing the digital collections from current, ongoing projects will help to ensure that nothing vital is altered and can be further protected in the next step.
7. Further restrict access to computers and digital files.
Discussion of naming standards and collections organization also speaks to the NDSA category regarding Information Security. Since many different people collaborate on projects at the LCHS, it is difficult to fully oversee the access levels of every single file. The LCHS has already begun to address the problem of information security by restricting docents’ access to the servers where important information is stored. LCHS staff is encouraged to continue this trend by putting restrictions on individual folders that do not need to be accessed by volunteers, restricting their ability to accidentally delete or alter files they do not need to work with. As a next step, documenting these distinct levels of access granted to each user will bring the LCHS up to Level 2 on the NDSA chart.
In measuring the current digital holdings of the LCHS against the NDSA Levels of Digital Preservation, the LCHS is below the threshold for minimum preservation standards in several areas, most notably storage, file fixity, and metadata. However, with a commitment to instituting changes and some time, the status of the digital holdings can be greatly improved. Taking these actions sooner, rather than later, will decrease the risk of catastrophic data loss and help make the digital collections more user-friendly and widely accessible. Below is a quick before-and-after glance at each of the NDSA fields as related to the LCHS:
Storage and Geographic Location
Digital files are currently dispersed throughout various locations, some of which are backed up and others which are not. Materials that are currently stored on external media such as laptops, CD-Rs, and USB flash drives should immediately be moved to the network. Safely housed on the network, they will be properly backed up and no longer subject to data loss caused by environmental factors, physical degradation of media, and data corruption. The multiple levels of backups that are already in place will thus be more complete and can be expanded to include the recommendations listed in the steps above regarding physical hard drives, Backblaze, and DropBox.
Volunteer Collection Manager Fred Bridge has a solid system in place for integrating digital files into PastPerfect that can serve as a model for how other digital files are accessioned. The key to continuity of the current systems (and any new ones that are put into place) is to document these processes. Any staff or volunteer who currently handles digital files is encouraged to record their personal organization methods – even just by writing them out in a Word document – to prevent future confusion when and if they are not present to access files. Doing so will, at the very least, shed light on where and how items are currently stored, even if resources and time don’t allow for a full-scale reorganization and standardization of all collections.
File Fixity and Data Integrity
There are no current systems in place to monitor the fixity of digital files, but this is easily corrected. As explained in Step 5 above, fixity means making sure that files have not changed without the organization meaning them to. Creating a document that keeps track of how many files are supposed to be in each folder and the size of them is a simple first step towards advancing in the NDSA levels. With limited staff and resources, it is not expected that the LCHS will be able to invest in highly technical fixity tools or immediately advance to a high NDSA level in this regard but making it a priority to monitor file and folder counts on a quarterly basis is a big move in the right direction.
Recent changes to access made at the LCHS have greatly improved their status in this area. As a next step, the LCHS should further restrict individual files and folders from non-staff or project leads. As new volunteers or docents are granted computer access, make sure that they are only granted access to the materials they need; it is always better to grant access to smaller sets of files than to give widespread access to files that can be accidentally altered or erased. Creating and maintaining a Word document that lists who has been granted access to certain files will bring the LCHS up to Level 2 in this area.
There are many reasons that a complete inventory of digital files will benefit the LCHS. For collections management purposes, an inventory gives staff a better handle on what they have, where there are gaps, and what they would like to collect in the future. The problem of duplicate files existing in several locations is much easier to tackle when there is a master inventory – users will know where to find certain files without having to re-download and save them in a separate location. This inventory can be started using PastPerfect’s built-in tools and expanded as needed to include all of the digital files held by the LCHS. Once the master inventory is completed, make sure that it is safely stored in multiple locations, both physically and digitally. As mentioned above, it may be helpful to separate permanent collections from current projects so that there is no conflation between the two.
The LCHS is currently on the right track towards basic preservation when it comes to file formats. Nearly all of the digital files are in commonly used formats such as JPEG, TIFF, and PDF, making the work of preserving them all the easier. If the opportunity arrives to accept files in other formats, the LCHS should strongly encourage donors and partner organizations to continue to use only commonly-used formats that run little risk of obsolescence. If the resources arise to delegate the task to a volunteer or docent, it is also helpful to create a list of all file formats currently in the collections. This will help to identify and monitor the lifespan of the digital files since certain formats require updates, while others fade from use. Maintaining an inventory will raise the LCHS to Level 2 of the NDSA levels on file formats.
The ultimate goal of digital preservation is to ensure the long-term access of materials for users, both now and in the future. The current tools that the LCHS uses, like PastPerfect, include options for expanding access that should be fully utilized when resources allow. For example, PastPerfect includes the option to make your records appear in Google searches, if desired. While it is understandable that the LCHS would not want all of its materials to be freely accessible to the public on the internet, one way to increase traffic and use of digital collections is to make some of the materials available on a wider platform, like Wikimedia Commons or Flickr. Staff can choose which images to share, while also keeping some of them available for sale or use only with permission.
All of the steps detailed in this report are informed suggestions based on the current state of the LCHS collections and its goals for the future. While this is by no means a comprehensive preservation plan, following these guidelines will allow for greater information security and less risk for their valuable digital holdings, whether currently in use or not. The ultimate goal is to maintain these collections for the foreseeable future to the best of our knowledge and capability.