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5.4 Innovation, Building New Capacity, and the Odd Disaster: Technology as Critical Friend

 

Technology has played a key role throughout the life of the project, both supportive and facilitative on the one hand, and disruptive and challenging on the other. It has shown itself in the need for new members of the project team having to learn Open Office and other open source movement-related software, for example, while retaining an awareness that individuals and organisations outside might very well be using other systems, with project staff having to adapt accordingly. With Mac computers being introduced to deepen and strengthen capability in a project heavily reliant on audio/visual media and presentation, team members had to learn to operate in both PC and Mac environments, to recognise the various strengths and weaknesses of the two, and to negotiate the mysteries and anomalies inevitably generated for non-specialists in even mildly complex technological ecosystems.

 

At a deeper level, the Trust has taken the opportunity presented by the project and Heritage Lottery Fund support to upgrade itself as a working organisation generally, and as part of this, to upgrade its information technology/communication systems. Throughout the life of the project, Trustee and i.t. specialist John Moorhouse has systematically replaced standard with high-speed ethernet cabling; upgraded the speed and capacity of the Internet connection; extended both the geographical range, and the capacity and security of the wi-fi system; integrated the diverse computer, storage and backup systems (which had grown up idiosyncratically and over many years for different parts of the Trust's work); enhanced the security systems; upgraded individual computers; and developed high-capacity, secure, automated, fast and robust digital storage and back-up solutions for the entirety of the Trust: Helping to ensure that the Trust is fit for future purpose.

 

Within this general increase in the Trust's ability to work efficiently and well, there has been a specific focus on enhancing technology and capacity within the Archive and Study Centre. Knowing that the project would be heavily engaged with digital material, for example, particular attention has been paid to storage and management of digital files, as will be discussed below; and John Moorhouse upgraded memory in two workhorse computers used both by staff and volunteers, to enable them to handle the new memory-demanding scanners and software at something other than snail pace, as well as installing high-speed ethernet cards to speed the pace at which the various project computers could send and receive digital files. But the needs of the project were also more prosaic. One of the earliest purchases was simply a new telephone system, to make it possible for each member of the project team to make and receive their own phone calls, while remaining connected with one another.

 

One of the primary objects of the project has been to enhance the day-to-day, long-term functionality of the Archive. Three new digital audio recorders and associated external microphones made it possible to loan equipment to volunteers, have multiple training and interviewing situations going on simultaneously, and, in the end, to make over 270 audio recordings. A digital video camera made it possible to record events and interviews, and contribute to digital stories. A digital still camera not only captured thousands of images of the project, but was an essential digitisation tool: Wennington Old Scholars, for example, used it in the marathon task of digitising 572 pages of the Wennington Senate Book. A photographic slide scanner and a conventional A4 scanner were similarly important and well-used tools.

 

Participants and supporters have played an essential role in this enhancing of capacity. An A3 scanner was purchased with the encouragement and financial support of Wennington Old Scholars. Community members and volunteers Ian Burley and Robert Clark independently and at different stages of the project identified a need, and gave us computer monitors which will continue in use well beyond the end of the project. Having deposited a collection of about 500 audio-cassettes featuring Squiggle Foundation Public Lectures and seminars, a grant from the Squiggle Foundation made it possible to purchase a high quality audio-cassette to CD (and vice versa) transfer machine: This has made it possible not only to digitise Squiggle audio-cassettes, but to create audio-cassettes of his interview for an interviewee without a CD-player, and to digitise both audio-cassette and reel-to-reel recordings which have come in during the course of the project.

 

A purchase which will contribute to the Trust's overall ability to communicate with visitors is a portable electronic display screen, which can interface with a large number of different types of information sources. It has been used in the course of the project to share documentaries, docudramas, and digitised cine-film related to the various communities, taken from the archive (much better than trying to crowd around and watch on a computer screen); to give powerpoint and multi-media presentations; to show photographs; and, by a volunteer, to annotate cine-film taken in her community.

 

5.4.1 Disaster, Recovery, Advance

The steady and at times challenging and disruptive drumbeat behind every other aspect of the project - crucial, at times beautiful, and yet highly demanding of staff resilience and resources - has been the matter of digital storage and management. It was known from the outset that the project would generate and take in a high volume of digital material, involving a large number of files some of which would be extremely large: It is an increasing fact of life in any working environment, and particularly in the world of contemporary archives. Learning about this, developing, and putting in place long-term, 21st Century systems for managing and preserving digital files was an essential element of the project purpose and design.

 

The upgrading of cables and ethernet cables has been mentioned: With the growing number of files and the huge amount of memory involved, a high speed means of transferring and coping with them was vital. Equally, or perhaps more vital, was the actual storage.

 

The project adopted the RAID approach to digital storage. One of its earliest purchases was a multi-terrabyte, 5 hard disc RAID digital storage system configured to ensure that if any one of the hard-drives failed or looked as if it were going to, it could simply be replaced, and the information it held restored through the magic of mathematics and communication with the other discs. The system itself was on a separate battery back-up system, to ensure continuity and time to power-down in the event of a power failure. As the RAID system effectively provided its own back-up, no additional back-up was installed. As confidence in the system and its security developed, so did its use. When, three months into the main project in July 2010, not one disc but the system as a whole failed, it presented as a disaster: A specialist computer disaster information-retrieval company said that it might or might not be able to retrieve part or all of the data on the RAID discs - they had been successful and unsuccessful in the past; but whether they could or not, the attempt by itself would be extremely expensive.

 

In theory, not only all of the audio, video, image and text files created during the project had been lost, but a substantial body of pre-project material, which had begun to be transferred as part of a process of creating a unified and integrated digital archive storage system. In practice, after a great deal of work - one set of recordings retrieved from external transcriptionist Christine Foley; another recording from the interviewee; photographs from the person to whom copies had been sent; copies and back-ups on various hard-drives, and CDs and DVDs - the definitive losses were comparatively few. The project team had established an internal blog/diary to help document the project and discuss and share issues, which was entirely lost. The majority of the new archive cataloguing was lost and had to be carried out again: A total of 225 record entries, including the entire PP/AIR (Tony Rees) collection - 184 record entries comprising 728 catalogued items. Fortunately, following extensive work, only two recordings and a small number of early project photographs remained unaccounted for. Time and confidence were the principle casualties.

 

The failure of the original RAID digital storage system led Trustee John Moorhouse to accelerate a two-stage approach to building a new, Trust-wide i.t. system. The failed RAID was replaced in the first instance with a comparable but more robust system, complemented by manual and, later, automated backup, which proved its efficacy in May through June of 2011 when a technical fault took the main storage drive out of action. Built-in resilience and redundancy were tested again from the end of July 2011, when the designated archival storage section of the system refused to accept new custom, and refused as well to delete old files. The entire system was replaced at the beginning of October 2011 as a Trust-wide initiative, with each new multi-terrabyte component - Digital Archive Store 1, Digital Archive Store 2, Digital Archive Work Space, P.E.T.T. Administration Store, and so on - individually configured to run with three internal drives replicating the data in real time, and an external, automated backup running every 4 hours. The possibility of failure has been minimised; and with three internal drives creating back-ups in real time, and a failsafe external back-up being generated at regular intervals, the consequences of corruption or failure have also been minimised. As transferring files from the old digital archive store to the new system took an entire weekend - even with high-speed ethernet cards and cables - this is reassuring; there is a tremendous amount of information and data now being held and handled, far more than a step-change from the position at the beginning of the project.

 

Disruptive and distressing as it was at times, especially for the project team, the course and conduct of the project itself does not seem to have been heavily disturbed by the disaster and by the turbulence of successive problems and upgrades. The expertise of John Moorhouse, and the creativity and resilience of the project team clearly worked together well; and the Trust's goal of taking the opportunity of the Heritage Lottery Fund-supported project to usher the Archive and the Trust into the fullness of the digital age is being realised.