Community Digital Archiving

2013-2021 Archived site - Self-Sufficient Culture, Heritage and Free Software

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Assynt Archive now run by the Assynt Crofters’ Trust

  • August 3, 2020 12:28 pm

The Assynt Community Digital Archive started life in 2009 as a sub-project of a larger project run by the Assynt Community Association. Over the years, the Community Association has morphed into a different body with different priorities, and the Archive became a less easy fit. For several years now, no archival work has been possible on the system, but it was possible to maintain an instance of the archive to ensure the data remained safe.

A while ago, the Assynt Crofters’ Trust (ACT). a key local land owner, with an amazing history of driving change not just in Assynt, but in the entire Scottish land ownership debate, has been pondering additional services to the community. Although the ACT is not a community body as such, but “has enabled the ordinary people who live and work on the land to have some control over their own economic future”, it is aware of its place in the wider community of Assynt as well as the crofters who constitute the Trust. So when the ACT articulated a desire to maintain some form of Archive, at the very time that the Assynt Archive was seeking a new home, it was just a matter of sorting out the formalities and ensuring that the newly revamped Archive would meet the Trust’s requirements.

With a small grant from the Coigach and Assynt Living Landscape partnership, a new network and workstations more suitable for the new environment within the Assynt Crofters’ Trust office was set up. The work was brought in under budget and well within expected timescales.

Crucially, and in keeping with the “Prime Directive” of community archives, no data was lost in all the uncertainty and change, and the system is readily recognisable as the same it was under the old auspices.

The volunteer archivists who worked on the are looking forward to a time when the current health emergency allows for a new programme of work on the Archive. The work to publicise the new location of the Archive and its future is already under way.

On a financial and technical point, this web site, in 2015, noted the rise of the little Raspberry Pi singe board computer, and pondered what place this enabling little device had for community archives. Several revisions of the Raspberry Pi have been released since then, and it is worth noting that the entire new network, server and workstations has been built using Raspberry Pis. As a result, the full hardware costs of this installation have a mere 15% of the hardware costs of the original Archive network in 2009. This is a real-life example of how appropriate use of this technology, as the 2013 article suggested, smashes a barrier to entry for community digital archives.

Ownership, responsibility, activity

  • May 13, 2020 1:10 pm

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.

“Caring for Community Archives” event by the Scottish Council on Archives

  • March 26, 2019 3:10 pm

The Scottish Council on Archives, in conjunction with National Records of Scotland, presented a one day seminar on “Caring for Community Archives” at General register House in Edinburgh on Friday 22nd March 2019.

The day started with short introductions from John Pelan, the Director of Scottish Council on Archives, followed Paul Lowe, the Keeper of National Records of Scotland. One was aware, sitting in the room that was once the Keeper’s office, with the portraits by Raeburn of the first Keeper as well as others of Edinbirgh’s past nobility, of the significance of these positions. Somewhat trivially, a line from the Michael York film, Zeppelin, set in World War I, sprang to mind: “Destroy a nation’s archives and you destroy her soul.”

This was followed by a practical session by Peter Dickson, a man whose technical capability and understanding of his role was clear from his desire to share his knowledge. This session was mostly about how to handle and store physical artefacts, mostly paper, and the associated issues around environmental controls. One of the beauties of concentrating on a digital archive is that the specialised needs of physical artefacts are usually only needed briefly, but it was still a useful session.

We were also taken on a short tour of General Register House. This Robert Adam-designed building is now thought to be the oldest purpose-built national archive building still used for its original purpose. Details are on this wikipedia page.

A circle in a square – design detail of the building

After lunch, Dr Alison Rosie, the Head of the National register of Archives of Scotland provided a series of tips for community archives, based on her experience and knowledge. This was followed by Craig Geddes, the Council Records Manager from East Renfrewshire Council, on hos role and how local authority archives can work with community groups.

John Simmons then discussed a frequently misunderstood issue with regard to archives, the role of the GDPR and other privacy directives in relation to community archiving. The most significant takeaway from this talk was that, far from being a constraint to archiving, the GDPR specifically enables archiving to take place.

This was followed by two digitisation and digital sessions, one by Robin Urquhart on things to consider when setting up a project, and one by Tim Gollins, the Head of the Digital Records Unit at National Records of Scotland, talking about the safety and sustainability of digital community archives.

For me personally, the event was of interest to validate or reflect on the work of the last 8 years, as well as an opportunity to meet some practitioners associated with archives and records at a national scale. My Scottish Cultural Studies degree inter-disciplinary project and Honours dissertation looked at the issues between local expressions of heritage against such national cultural activity to see whether the scale of such activities, which on the face of it look the same, do in fact have much in common. So it was of great interest for me to understand a little more of the way the presenters of the seminar worked.

The entire event was skilfully and efficiently managed by Audrey Wilson, the Community Engagement Officer of the Scottish Council on Archives, and was a worth while way to spend a day for anyone with an interest in community archives. Thanks to Audrey and all the speakers.

Archiving an Archive site

  • August 18, 2018 2:41 pm

For a number of reasons, updates on this web site are slow at the moment.  However, the site itself will remain alive for anyone interested in its contents and interested in real-life stories of running a community digital archive, and I hope the site will soon have much to report.  Please contact me for any further information.


Assynt Digital Archive – Workstation updates

  • July 22, 2017 10:15 am

The four main workstations that are part of the Assynt Community Digital Archive have done their job since 2011, and remain adequate for what is needed in this role.  As with the main archive, part of the reason for this longevity is the use of Free and Open Source software, which is both kind to older hardware and allows us to stay up to date without software costs.

Until recently we have run the long term supported versions of the Ubuntu Linux operating system using the XFCE4 desktop.  This has been updated every three years, but eventually, such updates become lengthy exercises, and little configuration irritations creep in.

Now one of the joys of Free and Open Source software is how modular it all is. I have found through experience that the OpenSUSE Linux system upgrades really well and quickly, and while it does not have long term supported version like Ubuntu, nothing would be lost by trying OpenSUSE as an alternative.  As before, the XFCE4 desktop would be used, so that, to users, everything would appear to be the same.  The exercise in installing OpenSUSE has also allowed us to refresh and check our procedures and security setups.  The standard operating procedure for setting up the workstations is less than page long.

We now have bang up-to-date workstations again, and although this runs on ageing hardware, it remains fit for purpose.