Skip to content

A word about the way things may turn out with community activity,

It is sometimes useful to talk about community archiving activity as an initiative, rather than the more common term, project. The word "initiative" suggests a continuing process rather than one that needs action for a period of time, after which it ends.

While some community archive activities are indeed projects, it is worth while to think deeper about this aspect, to inform many of the decisions that are necessary in developing and running a community digital archive.

This issue has come to light again recently, and it reminded me of a few examples which show how these two words demonstrate a difference in the way a community archive might work.

The one example that sprang to mind was a community which managed to get some funding for a digital archiving project. For whatever reasons, they chose to place the entire project in the hands of a developer who was from outwith the area. The result, there is no doubt, is a digital community archive. It runs on a computer, and displays various images, documents and even video originating in that community. It was demonstrated to me about a year after the project funding came to an end. In spite of it being just that short space of time, it was easy to note several issues. One was that it was hard for the person demonstrating the system actually to make it work. Once that hurdle had been overcome, the general feel of the system was almost like a marketing website, rather than a deep well containing insights into the soul of the community. That outcome may have been by design, but I make the comment here for obvious reasons regarding this post. And the third aspect was that the archive was now a mere snapshot in time. It was not possible to add more information, at least by volunteers in the community, and so the activity can best be described as a project which was defined, was carried out, and delivered. I would argue, though, that other than during the project itself, it has little long term benefit for the community. Again, the responsible community group may well have had these ends in mind, knowing that they could move on to other things at the end of the project.

By contrast, one community of which I am aware, did indeed, approach matters as a continuing initiative. This led to them making decisions that would benefit the long term access and further storage of digital objects in the community, such as ensuring that the data could be exported or recovered from the system in a widely understood manner, should something untoward occur. In this case, though, the issue was not with the systems or processes, but with group responsible for the archive. Their focus changed, but they still had responsibility for a system that was very much live. The issues, unlike the example above, were neither operational, procedural or technical, but rather, if you like, political. The responsible group then had to make a clear decision regarding the future of the archive, rather than a default position of simply abandoning the work.

It may be argued that there is little difference between the two examples outlined. That may be true, but it does promote different ways of approaching the work. For want of a better description, and to draw on the terminology of the corporate world, one approach merely draws to an end while the other requires an explicit exit strategy.

There is a third approach, which may not fit easily into the points made in this post, but is worth a mention. It may be that a community understands the desirability of a continuing project, but because of abilities, interests or even personalities, the archiving activity becomes one person's sole charge. A variation of this theme is where one person is perceived to be in sole charge. This is where the lines of responsibility and activity can get blurred, an issue that needs careful addressing. Perhaps ideally, constant communication may be maintained with that individual, to let them know that, even if they are doing the majority of the work, the burden of responsibility is not theirs alone, and the bigger picture is being shared.

The Assynt Community Digital Archive was set up in 2011 as a long term community initiative.  Readers of this site will know that among the founding principles of the Archive was an adherence to metadata standards and the choice of Free and Open Source software on which to run the Archive.  Among the reasons for this, which have been proven over the years, is that Free Software finds no advantage in attempting to lock users in, the Free Software movement requiring technical excellence as the reason for staying with, or moving to or from, a software package.

The original choice of DSpace was an appropriate one for Assynt's archive, as at that stage it was not clear how the archive would develop, or how the community would make use of it.  DSpace would provide an industrial-strength, proven platform to hold securely any digital item thrown at it.

Another contender was the Omeka system, also discussed extensively on this site.  At the time the Assynt Archive was set up, Omeka was still in its infancy, having been developed from around 2008.   Like DSpace, it adheres to standards, most notably using Dublin Core metadata, as well as providing standard interfaces to export and import data.  Unlike DSpace, which seeks only to be a repository of information, Omeka also allows extensions for creating digital exhibits, and provides mechanisms to view some details of the digital record easier.  There are pros and cons regarding this philosophical difference in approach, which need not be discussed here.

One advantage Omeka has, in practical terms when it comes to managing a digital archive in the longer term, is simplicity of technical implementation.   Omeka is based on PHP and MySQL (or MariaDB) while DSpace is based on Java and Postgresql, requiring a runtime Java environment and a more complicated build and upgrade routine.  While it would be wonderful if Omeka abstracted the database requirement, allowing Postgresql to be used as an alternative to MySQL, there is no doubt that it is easier to run an Omeka instance than a DSpace instance.

Meanwhile, in Assynt, we are gearing up for some additional demands of the digital Archive, as the Coigach and Assynt Living Landscape Partnership (CALLP) has been successful in gaining lottery funding for a series of large projects over the next five years.  It s likely that these projects' data legacies will be met by the Assynt Community Digital Archive, and there was a desire to ensure that a suitable degree of flexibility, to support better the projects' potential requirements, was available to them.  It looked likely that Omeka, now a much more established system, would be a better option.

A series of meetings and demonstrations of the systems with the volunteer archivists gave the go-ahead to transfer one DSpace community to Omeka, to see whether it suited general requirements.  That was successful, and all the DSpace communities and collections were transferred, using import plugins on the Omeka side, and standard export interfaces on the Dspace side.

Among the advantages are a slightly more acceptable, to casual browsers, user interface - Omeka looks more modern and less academic in its standard guise - and the fact that many data types, especially images, are displayed in line with the record.  From a systems architecture point of view, it was decided to provide each existing (and future) DSpace community with its own Omeka instance, so that each community or project can make its own decisions about how look-and-feel, or even about where it wants to host its data.  This approach does make for more repetitive future systems administration, but also spreads any future risk.

As before, all the new systems were built using virtual machines, making the systems less hardware-dependent.  Hardware, in some circumstances for community archiving, is now much less of an issue compared with a few years ago, and Omeka's lighter requirements contribute to this.

It looks as though cross-training to Omeka would be easy, and training new volunteers would be no more challenging than with DSpace.

The change to Omeka from DSpace for the Assynt Archive by no means implies than Omeka is "better" than DSpace, or that Dspace is not fit for this purpose. It simply means that, given this choice of option, for Assynt's current requirements, Omeka looks to fit the bill a little better.

If you want further information about this, please contact me.

As in many rural communities, place names in Assynt mean a lot more than merely words on maps.  They indicate what is and was important to everyday life, and very often give a glimpse of how much more the land was used in times gone by.  Alastair Moffat notes in one of his books that the landscape, in the form of place names, doesn't forget, and when we start tapping into this source of history, we can see what he means.  For example, we have many names of Norse origin in Assynt, although no clear physical evidence of Norse settlement has yet been found, and, intriguingly, we have names that are an amalgam of Norse and Gaelic.

Over the years, a number of events and meetings of interest groups have been arranged about place names. We have a retired Ordnance Survey surveyor in the area, who led one event.  And individuals with an interest in place names have compiled lists, especially of place names that appear on no map, but were once commonly used in the area.  Almost every nook and cranny in the landscape has, it seems, been named.  But we have already forgotten most of these names, and therefore their significance.

At a  recent place names of Assynt event arranged by Assynt Leisure and Learning, we noted that it would be good to bring our knowledge together in a common place.  It was possible to prototype such a system quite quickly using the Omeka archiving software, together with appropriate geo-location plugins.

The site is a work-in-progress, and it will be interesting to see how it is likely to be used, who is likely to contribute information, and why.  You can have a browse yourself at http://www.tinslave.co.uk/AAA

 

It was a very welcome invitation from Lucy Conway of the Island of Eigg History Society, Commun Eachdraidh Eige, to visit to assist the group there to develop plans for a community digital archive. Late October weather and ferry crossings do not always make ideal partners, and in this case, the Loch Nevis, the usual ferry was out of operation.  The easiest way from Assynt to Eigg is via Skye, meaning two ferry trips, from Armadale to Mallaig and then on the Small Isles ferry.  In one of those delightful connections that bind small communities, the landlady of the B&B at which I stayed on Skye was the mother-in-law of the skipper of the MV Orion, the dolphin spotting boat brought on as a passenger ferry while the Loch Nevis was being repaired.

Not far from Armadale, just as inter-passenger chatting started up, we ran into a huge school of common dolphin, perhaps well over a hundred in the main group, though just a few at a time came to investigate us.

Dolphinss. Sound of Sleat
Dolphins. Sound of Sleat

From Mallaig, looking back to Knoydart in the morning light was dreamy.

TinSlave-184819-28102015

Once on Eigg, we held long discussion with Camille Dressler and Alex Boden, as well as with Trisha McVarish of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust.  Later, Alex du Toit from the Highland Archive in Fort William joined us.  Bizarrely, Alex, like me, was born in Cape Town, and for two old Capetonians to meet and chat on the island of Eigg 6000+ miles from where we started was surreal.

And on the score of thinking about South Africa, I stayed at Lag Eorna, which, photographed from a particular angle, could easily be mistaken for a farmhouse in the Western Cape mountains.

TinSlave-113730-29102015

An eventful night passed, as around 4.00am, the large Coastguard helicopter landed roughly at the spot form which the above picture was taken, to get someone to hospital following a medical emergency. (All turned out fine.) The helicopter landed in driving wind and rain, apart from the pitch blackness of the night.  It was a reminder of how fortunate we are with our emergency and medical service in the Highlands and Islands.  A subsequent tweet about this drew the response from the coastguard that they come out to attend emergencies at any time of the day or night, and in any weather at all.  Such routine courage from people with lives of service.

The discussions with the History Society and Trust developed the ideas they were formulating.  Here is hoping for a long and fruitful connection with Eigg and it islanders.

TinSlave-122919-02112015

What?  The dolphin picture is the most interesting part of this post?  Righto, here's another one.

TinSlave-185318-28102015

There was a film-maker on board the ferry, going to Eigg for an assignment, to whom I got chatting.  When the dolphins appeared, everyone was furiously photographing the delightful event... - except our film-maker, who was filming people's reaction to the dolphins.  It was an interesting lesson in perspective, and I think perhaps he understood that the significance of these encounters is their almost mystical effect on us, rather than the sight of the animals themselves.

 

Helmsdale
Helmsdale

The True North conference took place at Timespan in Helmsdale on Friday 6th and Saturday 7th March 2015.  The conference title was a good way of reflecting the eclectic nature of the presentations, from technologists through to sound artists, geo-political visionaries to genealogists and many points in between.  I had a five minute slot into which I managed to cram one or two practical issues which are the real experience of running digital archives, especially at a small scale and I hope I managed to convey something of interest based on actual practice.

The event was attended by artists, poets, writers, musicians academics, archaeologists, historians, technologists, architects, sociologists and generalists like me.

Friday morning was bright and clear, and the wonderful Emigrants memorial was asking to be photographed.

"The Emigrants"
"The Emigrants"

And the views from Timespan situated as it is just downstream of the Telford bridge crossing the Helmsdale river are irresistible

Telford Bridge over the Helmsdale river
Telford Bridge over the Helmsdale river

The usual conference-style presentations were interspersed with round-table discussion by sets of presenters, providing plenty of thinking time.  One of the sessions was presented by one of my Cultural Studies lecturers, Matt Sillars of UHI. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Matt's presentation style, of laying out a straight forward fact, then layering several conclusions on that foundation in quick succession,in such a way that the audience feels as though they themselves had reached those conclusions. There were also elective sessions which included some walks, which even in Saturday's drizzle was refreshing.

Medieval Hospital search
Medieval Hospital search

The conference ended with a brilliant exposition of the issues associated with documenting cultural expression, by Ross Sinclair.  Ross managed this by pretty much performing his presentation, making a far better impact than a more conventional presentation.

Ross Sinclair
Ross Sinclair

The event was great for making new acquaintances, some of which I hope will develop further and lead to collaboration.

In case this sounds far removed from Real Life (as Ross Sinclair would put it) there was a direct reminder at the B&B at which I stayed of the reality of history, in this case the Kildonan Gold Rush of the 19th century - the B&B owner pans for gold in the river and has been fairly successful, the gold in the picture on the hand that panned it.

Panned gold
Panned gold

Many thanks to all at Timespan for very good organisation, the volunteers for smilingly keeping everyone fed and watered and to all the unseen folk who made it all happen.  As an old techie, I could not help noticing that the time stamp on one of Saturday morning's presentations was just before 2.00am, meaning they had been working at ensuring all was ready into the small hours. This attentiveness was  a hallmark of an excellent conference.