Preserving Vancouver’s Digital Heritage

First in a series about Vancouver’s groundbreaking digital archives system.

Can you guess what the City of Vancouver has in common with the International Monetary Fund?

No? Both of their archives are collaborators on the same digital preservation project.

Archivist holding an 8-inch floppy disk

Archivist with an 8" floppy disk from our holdings. Anybody got a machine that reads these things?

Most organizations these days use digital recordkeeping to conduct their business. Some portion of what they create might be valuable to researchers in the future, but there isn’t a system available yet that can preserve it.  Since it is our duty to preserve and provide access to Vancouver’s digital heritage, we are building such a system.

Digital records deteriorate faster than a document from the 1800s or a photo negative from 1950.  Even though technology has made it easier for people to do their jobs, the archives that result from its use are at imminent risk of degradation and corruption.  To manage and preserve these archives, we need a system to protect them from obsolescence, malfunction and bit rot.

Archives users want digital access copies that they can read on their home computers. Beyond preservation, we have to focus on giving our researchers access to versions of files that they can view online or by using software that is free, open, and easy to find and install. For instance, our current website video exhibits offer users Ogg Theora versions of videos because  anyone can use it to view the videos for free.

A screenshot from a Yaletown Entertainment Co. video called "World in the City"

We expect an onslaught of digital donations over the next few years. Even though we have offered access to digital materials since the 90s, recent acquisitions have forced us to step up our efforts to prepare a system that can manage all kinds of archives (digitized, born-digital, and analogue).  In the past few years, we have acquired the following digital records:

  • GVTV – 1999-2009 – An online video series that was produced by the City about the people, places, history and issues shaping Vancouver and the region.
  • VERC (Vancouver Electoral Reform Commission) – 2003-2004 – The City established VERC to recommend changes to the City’s Electoral system. The digital portion of the archives include email, presentations, spreadsheets, and videos.
  • Studio B Productions – An internationally renowned Vancouver animation studio whose large donation includes digital animation files, images and spreadsheets.
  • Yaletown Entertainment Co.– A local film company producing works on Expo 86 and Vancouver and BC as tourism destinations.  We will digitize all of their film and video materials.  Come celebrate this work with us as part of the Vancouver 125th festivities.
  • VANOC 2003-2010 – The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games supported and promoted the development of sport in Canada by planning, organizing, financing and staging the Games.  Their archives are massive, over 25TB so far, of virtually every kind of digital file you can imagine. A small sampling of the video portion of the donation is available online in celebration of the one-year anniversary of the Games.

We don’t expect digital donations to slow down any time soon. For example, the City manages most of its own records in a system called VanDocs.  Since the Archives is the repository for the City’s archival records, we know for sure that born-digital content from VanDocs will make its way to the digital archives.

Finding digital archives solutions is a group effort. The digital archives team has worked with Artefactual Systems, Inc. to build an open-source digital archives system. Using open-source tools is good for two main reasons:

  • You can find out exactly what happened to a file from the time it was donated to when you first see it. This way, our work is transparent and it’s easier to prove that the file is as close as possible to the original.
  • It encourages collaboration. Sharing our work with the archival community at-large is mutually beneficial and results in a better product. Besides the International Monetary Fund Archives, other notable collaborators are the Rockefeller Archive Center and the University of British Columbia Library.

We will continue to blog about our work, but in the meantime you can follow along online:

  • Vancouver Digital Archives Project Wiki – This is where we share documentation about the project.
  • Archivematica This is the software package for digital archives processing that we are helping to develop with Artefactual Systems, Inc.
  • ICA-AtoM – This is the system we will use to manage and provide access to our holdings, including digital. 

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