Mia Willis

Mia Willis

Last updated on 21 September 2021

Mia Willis works at Historic England

As maternity cover for the Historic England Archive’s Digital Preservation Officer I expected to consolidate the work and clear the backlogs caused by the pandemic, develop programmes of work, manage the Digital Preservation Assistant and work with other archive staff and depositors to improve our flowlines and metadata standards. This, on top of re-opening our offices post-pandemic, becoming a manager for the first time and generally looking after and preserving our 66+ TB of data sounded like quite the challenge.

But digital preservation is full of surprises, and the Digital Preservation team at Historic England have been thrown a big surprise: The Repatriation of our Digital Archive.

Two years ago, we moved from an environment of remote storage, which was incrementally backed up onto tape, to a Microsoft Azure server hosted in a couple of locations (see our blog from December 2019 to see where we were then). Alongside our server we run a suite of Direct Attached Storage devices (DAS) as two of our backups. Although Cloud storage offers several pros, we found that this solution was not right for our Archive. This server has been a costly solution, as our team accesses records frequently to carry out data cleaning projects to maintain our data. We have also been unable to run fixity checks on our records on the Azure server as these would increases costs even further. Language barriers between the Digital Preservation team and IT have meant that the full extent of our work was not fully understood or considered before the move to the cloud in 2019, and they’re feeling the pinch. As well as being a costly solution, access to our assets has been slow and the security of our material has been limited; all Digital staff have had to use the same user and login for our chosen FTP to transfer and amend our data, meaning we rely on (many!) spread sheets to audit the work we carry out. All these issues have affected the Digital Archive, and our IT team suggested that we repatriate our data to an on-premise server built and maintained by them.

The Digital Preservation team has been in talks with IT over the past two months, and we have been given a short deadline to devise a new plan for the preservation of our digital material before IT starts to repatriate our data. This has been tricky as we need to consider a fair bit; we need to audit our material and create projections of where we may be in 1-5 years’ time, look at our backup regime, investigate preservation tools and practices, install them and train our staff, and contact the provider of our DAMS, Extensis Portfolio. 

So, what have we done so far?

Over the past 6 weeks’ we have researched preservation tools to figure out what will work best for us, and how we may implement them in our new environment. We have specifically looked at fixity, as this is a huge challenge for our data in the cloud server, and transfer tools. This will be a personal godsend as staff carry out manual transfer and basic fixity checks during the ingest of our material. This has then evolved into investigating how we may embed these new processes. Attending the ‘Recordings of Workflows Webinar Series’ in April and looking through the shared workflows posted in the COW-a-thon has provided us with loads of ideas and has shown that we don’t need to have all the answers right away; these new workflows can start simple and develop over time as our archive does. We’ve also audited our current data to understand the extent of our collections and to create projections for where we may be in 1-5 years’ time. As we’re moving away from a scalable cloud server, we must make sure that our new environment can expand with our archive. We’ve also started assessing our backups using the NDSA Levels of Preservation. Although we are moving our archive back to Historic England, we should not move backwards in our preservation practices. 

The next six months will see the Digital Preservation Team working closely with IT to create a scalable, secure environment with a suite of preservation tools, and the full repatriation of our archive, and with the recruitment of a new Digital Archive Development Lead to transform our digital infrastructure and lead on installing a replacement DAMS. This, along with our day-to-day activities will be a tough challenge, but I hope it will help us to build a stronger archive and preservation strategy in the future.

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