Archives General Preservation — 27 October 2015

Exactly-50-smallIn Celebration of World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, I want to offer you a sneak peak at a new tool we have developed and are readying for release.   This tool will enable a user friendly way for non-archivists or non-digital preservation specialists to safely transfer born digital data to the archive utilizing stringent digital preservation standards…for free.  First, a little context.


The Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History in the University of Kentucky Libraries has been recording, preserving and providing access to oral history since 1973.  Digital technologies have transformed our work in so many ways.  Tremendous advances in audio and video technologies have greatly elevated the potential for creating quality and affordable recordings.  Advanced and free technologies such as OHMS have transformed our abilities to discover and search oral history interviews online.  In line with the popularization of oral history methodology, the Nunn Center’s activities have been growing at a rapid rate.  We regularly maintain 15-20 concurrent interviewing projects resulting in resulting in an average of over 500 newly accessioned interviews per year.  As with most things in life, advancement creates new opportunities, which, in turn, create new challenges.

From the archival perspective, Oral History has always posed numerous challenges making it very difficult to preserve.  Although fidelity and resolutions have advanced to once unimagined levels, digital audio and video data files that are being created are, in some ways, even more fragile than their analog counterparts.  Professional digital preservation standards are well established, but, in practice, they are often abstract concepts that the typical archive is aware of and hopes to someday implement.

The Challenge

A core principle of digital preservation is the concept of fixity.  Actions that measure and re-measure fixity ensure that an archive is preserving a digital file that is exactly the same as the digital file that was originally created.  We have all had digital files corrupt, and the reasons are often a frustrating mystery, but it happens and the consequences can be catastrophic.  The professional digital preservation community has provided powerful and sophisticated workflows and tools (such as Bag-It, Bagger, and Fixity) to support the encoding and measuring of fixity information over time.  There is just one problem with the current model.  By the time a digital archive begins tracking fixity for a born-digital file created outside of the archive, the file has been moved multiple times, renamed, synchronized with a personal Dropbox account, and copied and pasted to an external hard drive to bring in to the archive.

Even in the most professional preservation environments, digital preservation is often something that happens as a final step.  In a born-digital workflow, digital preservation needs to be integrated into the first step. In my article, “The Digital Mortgage: Digital Preservation of Oral History,” I say “from the moment an interviewer presses the record button on an audio or video recorder, the interviewer becomes the curator or caretaker of a precious and fragile unique item.  Ideally, at the moment of creation, the digital file has begun its journey from the interview context to a stable archival repository ready to ingest the digital file into a sophisticated digital preservation system.”  The majority of oral history interviewers are not archivists or digital preservation specialists and the tools and workflows to track fixity are designed for deployment in professional archival environments.  To ensure that the Nunn Center is accessioning the original, we have been utilizing a very analog approach — having the interviewers drop the SD cards into an envelope, label the envelope, and bring us the envelope.  We regularly have interview “drop-offs” involving meetings in parking lots, rolling down windows and exchanging bags of SD cards.  I estimate that we have over 500 flash cards in circulation at any given point.  We cannot maintain the current workflow for accessioning born digital material.

The Nunn Center’s greatest workflow challenge is in transferring these born-digital interviews to the archive in a preservation-oriented, yet user-friendly fashion.  Of course we have instituted FTP transfers for select projects, but these are insecure processes and, alone, not recommended in the context of digital preservation and file fixity.  Without fixity information, there is no guarantee that the file transferred via FTP is intact.  It is safe to say the majority of our interviews are stored in a hostile preservation environment long before they make it to the Nunn Center.  Also, because flash cards sometimes do not get to us for months and the accessioning process is cumbersome, we have had recent instances when a digital file corrupted in transit and we did not know it for several months.


A few years ago, Bert Lyons and I began brainstorming the development of a tool that enables interviewers and project directors, with even basic computer and Internet skills, to simply and easily transfer their born-digital interviews to the Nunn Center remotely in accordance with professional digital preservation standards.  In fact, it would be so easy that the user (individual transferring the born-digital file to the archive) would be completely unaware of the sophisticated digital preservation and fixity processes taking place.  This tool would begin the digital preservation process when the interviewer connects a flash card or recorder to the computer, and ensure that the file transferred to the archive can be evaluated as to whether it is exactly the same as the file created on the recorder or cameras flash media or hard disk drive.

In partnership with AVPreserve and building on work originally begun by the Gates Foundation Archive, the Nunn Center has created Exactly, a simple and easy to use application for remotely and safely transferring any born-digital material to the archive.  Exactly is a user-friendly app that utilizes the Bag-It standard (an Internet Engineering Task-Force standard, developed by the Library of Congress and the California Digital Library, with current support from George Washington University and the University of Maryland), supports FTP transfer, as well as standard network transfers, and integrates into desktop-based file sharing workflows such as Dropbox or Google Drive.  Additionally, Exactly allows the archive to create customized metadata templates for the donor to fill out before submission.  With structured metadata coming into the archive with the digital object, the accessioning process will be a quick importing activity.  Exactly can even send email notifications when files have been delivered to the archive.

We are in the final stages of testing Exactly internally, and following a brief period of beta testing with select external partners, we will release it for open source and free distribution.  Exactly is addressing one of the Nunn Center’s greatest workflow challenges, but also one of the greatest challenges facing any archive working with born-digital material.  I can’t convey just how excited I am about this tool. Stay tuned for more about the release of Exactly.




About Author

Douglas A. Boyd

(3) Readers Comments

  1. Pingback: Latest Library Links 30th October 2015 | Latest Library Links

  2. Doug, once again a brilliant idea and initiative. Keep up the excellent work that benefits all oral history project from big to small. Truly revolutionary.

  3. Pingback: Exactly Transfer Tool Released | Digital Omnium

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