WheatonArts and Cultural Center’s (WACC) digital collection is wide-ranging in terms of content and origin. Digital photographs of over 15,000 3D artifacts in the permanent collection of the Museum of American Glass have been taken by volunteers and interns on their own equipment. Born-digital artworks are being accessioned now as well. There is 165 GB of digitized video in the collection already and artist fellows are encouraged to provide documentation (often video) of their creative process, which can be born-digital or analog, according to the artist’s preference. Meanwhile, the staff has been digitizing photographs, negatives and other papers in the WheatonArts archives. What appears at first glance to be a wild and wooly collection is in fact quite organized, thanks to the hard work of a curatorial team who appreciate WACC’s digital materials as worthy of collection status.
With an administration that is keen to realize the benefits of a well-managed and preserved digital collection and an enthusiastic staff, WheatonArts is poised to move forward. Here’s how they could proceed….
The five general categories of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) Levels of Digital Preservation are 1) Storage and Geographic Location, 2) File Fixity and Data Integrity, 3) Information Security, 4) Metadata and 5) File Formats. For each category, institutions can improve their preservation program by advancing through Levels 1 to 4. The levels are 1) Protect your data, 2) Know your data, 3) Monitor your data and 4) Repair your data. It is inevitable that organizations will find themselves at differing levels for each category. How is WheatonArts doing so far?
Well, on the first and most urgent category, storage and geographic location, WheatonArts is approaching Level 2. WACC currently stores at least four copies of preservation and access files and that’s really going above and beyond what’s required of even the highest level. So actually, there’s some redundancy that could be eliminated. But, while one copy is not always collocated, by virtue of being taken home by a member of staff on a regular basis, none is in a different geographic region with different disaster threats. A clear next step is to correct that, and a simple solution is to swap hard drives with a buddy institution. Staff have suggested the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington. The relationship doesn’t have to be reciprocal for it to work just as well for WheatonArts but ideally, arrangements like these provide further occasion for dialogue between two institutions with overlapping missions. As for the cost, beyond the hard drive and secure shipping, it’s non-existent for either organization. An aggressive replacement schedule of every two years or so would safeguard against bit rot.
Cloud storage options, like Amazon’s, have been discussed, but after further discussion with WheatonArts IT, it turns out that cloud backups of data on the server are already happening. Assuming that orderly and regular backups to a cloud are occurring, and that the curatorial staff will have more control over that process in the future, geographic concerns might be settled without the buddy system. In the short term, however, and for the opportunity for intermural dialogue on digital preservation, I’d still recommend the swap.
Artist requirements and rights considerations (in addition to demands on resources) create obstacles to transferring all WACC’s digital material to one storage system, but within limits, they intend to do so. Furthermore, this project is an occasion to better understand and document that system. WheatonArts can achieve Level 2 on storage and geographic Location.
The staff has made a start on the second category, file fixity and data integrity, by habitually counting files for agreement across multiple storage locations. An easy (and free) tool for checking this more deeply and systematically is AVP’s Fixity Utility. WheatonArts can download the software for their operating system and run it against any hard drive in their possession. Until server/cloud backups are better understood by staff, establishing fixity on local storage should be a good enough next step. It might also be a good idea to try exporting some files from the server to see how straightforward that is and to do some spot checks against fixity information for the same file backed up elsewhere. WACC can start working toward Level 2 by checking fixity on ingest (or creation) for all digital files once they’ve downloaded the AVP utility.
There is no reason, with the cooperation of technical staff, why WheatonArts can’t eventually achieve Level 4 for the third NDSA category, information security. Access is limited to the curatorial and IT staff and the latter should be able to advise on how to restrict unauthorized access and to efficiently track and log who performed what actions and when. The next step on information security is probably to make that an item on the agenda for the next meeting with technical support.
With “a breadcrumb trail of our digital image and multimedia files through all the various storage places since we started having digital image and multimedia files to store,” WheatonArts has worked hard to inventory and connect files to their metadata in PastPerfect, the collections database since 2014. Since much of the metadata required for the higher levels in the NDSA model is generated automatically with digital objects and we’ve discussed adding fixity information to that array already, the biggest challenge for WACC will be logging any metadata not captured by PastPerfect. The very next step, however, will be to make sure that the inventory of objects and storage locations is up-to-date and that the inventory itself is backed up like the data it describes. One backup should be to that buddy’s hard drive. This will assure that WACC can have the requirements of the first level satisfied.
The staff has already reached level 2 on file formats. While they can’t dictate formats to artists, they have a limited set of formats they actively preserve, TIFFs and JPEGs for digital photos, for example, and they have a current inventory of files and their formats. The next step here is for staff to stay educated about obsolescence risks for the formats they’re preserving. That would place the program at level 3 and while unlikely with the formats in question, migration en masse to newer or more sustainable formats, could then be performed if necessary.
WheatonArts does not have a digital collections policy. The curatorial staff recognize their responsibility to care for and interpret this new type of collection for their patrons. They have made significant progress on digital preservation. There’s plenty room to grow, but the relatively simple recommendations outlined here, in accordance with NDSA guidance, should stabilize the program, help staff secure broader support for their efforts within their organization and provide focus and credibility for grant applications.