Digital Preservation futurology

I fancy attempting futurology, so here’s a list of things I believe could happen to ‘digital preservation systems’ over the next decade. I’ve mostly pinched these ideas from folks like Dave Thompson, Neil Jefferies, and my fellow Fellows. But if you see one of your ideas, please claim it using the handy commenting mechanism. And because it’s futurology, it doesn’t have to be accurate, so kindly contradict me!

Ingest becomes a relationship, not a one-off event

Many of the core concepts underpinning how computers are perceived to work are crude, paper-based metaphors – e.g. ‘files’, ‘folders’, ‘desktops’, ‘wastebaskets’ etc – that don’t relate to what your computer’s actually doing. (The early players in office computing were typewriter and photocopier manufacturers, after all…) These metaphors have succeeded at getting everyone to use computers, but they’ve also suppressed various opportunities to work smarter, too.

The concept of ingesting (oxymoronic) ‘digital papers’ is obviously heavily influenced by this paper paradigm.  Maybe the ‘paper paradigm’ has misled the archival community about computers a bit, too, given that they were experts at handling ‘papers’ before computers arrived?

As an example of what I mean: in the olden days (25 whole years ago!), Professor Plum would amass piles of important papers until the day he retired / died, and then, and only then, could these personal papers be donated and archived. Computers, of course, make it possible for the Prof both to keep his ‘papers’ where he needs them, and donate them at the same time, but the ‘ingest event’ at the centre of current digital preservation systems still seems to be underpinned by a core concept of ‘piles of stuff needing to be dealt with as a one-off task’. In future, the ‘ingest’ of a ‘donation’ will actually become a regular, repeated set of occurrences based upon ongoing relationships between donors and collectors, and forged initially when Profs are but lowly postgrads. Personal Digital Archiving and Research Data Management will become key; and ripping digital ephemera from dying hard disks will become less necessary as they become so.

The above depends heavily upon…

Object versioning / dependency management

Of course, if Dr. Damson regularly donates materials from her postgrad days onwards, some of these may be updates to things donated previously. Some of them might have mutated so much since the original donation that they can be considered ‘child’ objects, which may have ‘siblings’ with ‘common ancestors’ already extant in the archive. Hence preservation systems need to manage multiple versions of ‘digital objects’, and the relationships between them.

Some of the preservation systems we’ve looked at claim to ‘do versioning’ but it’s a bit clunky – just side-by-side copies of immutable ‘digital objects’, not records of the changes from one version to the next, and with no concept of branching siblings from a common parent. Complex structures of interdependent objects are generally problematic for current systems. The wider computing world has been pushing at the limits of the ‘paper-paradigm’ immutable object for a while now (think Git, Blockchain, various version control and dependency management platforms, etc). Digital preservation systems will soon catch up.

Further blurring of the object / metadata boundary

What’s more important, the object or the metadata? The ‘paper-paradigm’ has skewed thinking towards the former (the sacrosanct ‘digital object’, comparable to the ‘original bit of paper’), but after you’ve digitised your rare book collection, what are Humanities scholars going to text-mine? It won’t be images of pages – it’ll be the transcripts of those (i.e. the ‘descriptive metadata’)*. Also, when seminal papers about these text mining efforts are published, how is this history of the engagement with your collection going to be recorded? Using a series of PREMIS Events (that future scholars can mine in turn), perhaps?

The above talk of text mining and contextual linking of secondary resources raises two more points…

* While I’m here, can I take issue with the term ‘descriptive metadata’? All metadata is descriptive. It’s tautological; like saying ‘uptight Englishman’. Can we think of a better name?

Ability to analyse metadata at scale

‘Delivery’ no longer just means ‘giving users a viewer to look at things one-by-one with’ – it now also means ‘letting people push their Natural Language or image processing algorithms to where the data sits, and then coping with vast streams of output data’.

Storage / retention informed by well-understood usage patterns

The fact that everything’s digital, and hence easier to disseminate and link together than physical objects, also means better understanding how people use our material. This doesn’t just mean ‘wiring things up to Google Analytics’ – advances in bibliometrics that add social / mainstream media analysis, and so forth, to everyday citation counts present opportunities to judge the impact of our ‘stuff’ on the world like never before. Smart digital archives will inform their storage management and retention decisions with this sort of usage information, potentially in fully or semi-automated ways.

Ability to get data out, cleanly – all systems are only ever temporary!

Finally – it’s clear that there are no ‘long-term’ preservation system options. The system you procure today will merely be ‘custodian’ of your materials for the next ten or twenty years (if you’re lucky). This may mean moving heaps of content around in future, but perhaps it’s more pragmatic to think of future preservation systems as more like ‘lenses’ that are laid on top of more stable data stores to enable as-yet-undreamt-of functionality for future audiences?

(OK – that’s enough for now…)

Validating half a million TIFF files. Part Two.

Back in May, I wrote a blog post about preparing the groundwork for the process of validating over 500,000 TIFF files which were created as part of a Polonsky Digitization Project which started in 2013. You can read Part One here on the blog.

Restoring the TIFF files from tape

Stack of backup tapes. Photo: Amazon

For the digitization workflow we used Goobi and within that process, the master TIFF files from the project were written to tape. In order to actually check these files, it was obvious we would need to restore all the content to spinning disk. I duly made a request to our system administration team and waited.

As I mentioned in Part One, we had setup a new virtualised server which had access to a chunk of network storage. The Polonsky TIFF files were restored to this network storage, however midway through the restoration from tape, the tape server’s operating system crashed…disaster.

After reviewing the failure, it appeared there was a bug within the RedHat operating system which had caused the problem. This issue proved to be a good lesson, a tape backup copy is only useful if you can actually restore it!

Question for you. When was the last time you tried to restore a large quantity of data from tape?

After some head scratching, patching and a review of the related systems, a second attempt at restoring all the TIFF content from tape commenced and this time all went well and the files were restored to the network storage. Hurrah!

JHOVE to validate those TIFFs

I decided that for the initial validation of the TIFF files, checking the files were well-formed and valid, JHOVE would provide a good baseline report.

As I mentioned in another blog post Customizable JHOVE TIFF output handler anyone? JHOVE’s XML output is rather unwieldy and so I planned to transform the XML using xsltproc (a command line xslt processor) with a custom XSLT stylesheet, allowing us to select any of attributes from the file which we might want to report on later, this would then produce a simple CSV output.

On a side note, work on adding a CSV output handler to JHOVE is in progress! This would mean the above process would be much simpler and quicker.

Parallel processing for the win.

What’s better than one JHOVE process validating TIFF content? Two! (well actually for us, sixteen at once works out quite nicely.)

It was clear from some initial testing with a 10,000 sample set of TIFF files that a single JHOVE process was going to take a long time to process 520,000+ images (around two and half days!)

So I started to look for a simple way to run many JHOVE processes in parallel. Using GNU Parallel seemed like a good way to go.

I created a command line BASH script which would take a list of directories to scan and then utilise GNU Parallel to fire off many JHOVE + XSLT processes to result in a CSV output, one line per TIFF file processed.

As our validation server was virtualised, it meant that I could scale the memory and CPU cores in this machine to do some performance testing. Below is a chart showing the number of images that the parallel processing system could handle per minute vs. the number of CPU cores enabled on the virtual server. (For all of the testing the memory in the server remained at 4 GB.)

So with 16 CPU cores, the estimate was that it would take around 6-7 hours to process all the Polonksy TIFF content, so a nice improvement on a single process.

At the start of this week, I ran a full production test, validating all 520,000+ TIFF files. 4 and half hours later the process was complete and 100 MB+ CSV file was generated with 520,000+ rows of data. Success!

For Part Three of this story I will write up how I plan to visualise the CSV data in Qlik Sense and the further analysis of those few files which failed the initial validation.

Six Priority Digital Preservation Demands

Somaya Langley, Cambridge Policy and Planning Fellow, talks about her top 6 demands for a digital preservation system.

Photo: Blazej Mikula, Cambridge University Library

As a former user of one digital preservation system (Ex Libris’ Rosetta), I have spent a few years frustrated by the gap between what activities need to be done as part of a digital stewardship end-to-end workflow – including packaging and ingesting ‘information objects’ (files and associated metadata) – and the maturity level of digital preservation systems.

Digital Preservation Systems Review

At Cambridge, we are looking at different digital preservation systems and what each one can offer. This has involved talking to both vendors and users of systems.

When I’m asked about what my top digital preservation system current or future requirements are, it’s excruciatingly hard to limit myself to a handful of things. However, having previously been involved in a digital preservation system implementation project, there are some high-level takeaways from past experiences that remain with me.


Here’s the current list of my six top ‘digital preservation demands’ (aka user requirements):

Integration (with various other systems)

A digital preservation ‘system’ is only one cog in a wheel within a much larger machine; one piece of a much larger puzzle. There is an entire ‘digital ecosystem’ that this ‘system’ should exist within, and end-to-end digital stewardship workflows are of primary importance. The right amount of metadata and/or files should flow should flow from one system to another. We must also know where the ‘source of truth’ is for each bit.


This seems like a no-brainer. We work in Library Land. Libraries rely on standards. We also work with computers and other technologies that also require standard ways (protocols etc.) of communicating.

For files and metadata to flow from one system to another – whether via import, ingest, export, migration or an exit strategy from a system – we already spend a bunch of time creating mappings and crosswalks from one standard (or implementation of a standard) to another. If we don’t use (or fully implement) existing standards, this means we risk mangling data, context or meaning; potentially losing or not capturing parts of the data; or just wasting a whole lot of time.

Error Handling (automated, prioritised)

There’s more work to be done in managing digital materials than there are people to do it. Content creation is increasing at exponential rates, meanwhile the number of staff (with the right skills) just aren’t. We have to be smart about how we work. This requires prioritisation.

We need to have smarter systems that help us. This includes helping to prioritise where we focus our effort. Digital preservation systems are increasingly incorporating new third-party tools. We need to know which tool reports each error and whether these errors are show-stoppers or not. (For example: is the content no longer renderable versus a small piece of non-critical descriptive metadata that is missing?) We have to accept that, for some errors, we will never get around to addressing them.


We need to be able to report to different audiences. The different types of reporting classes include (but are not limited to):

  1. High-level reporting – annual reports, monthly reports, reports to managers, projections, costings etc.)
  2. Collection and preservation management reporting – reporting on successes and failures, overall system stats, rolling checksum verification etc.
  3. Reporting for preservation planning purposes – based on preservation plans, we need to be able to identify subsections of our collection (configured around content types, context, file format and/or whatever other parameters we choose to use) and report on potential candidates that require some kind of preservation action.


We need to best support – via metadata – where a file has come from. This, for want of a better approach, is currently being handled by the digital preservation community through documenting changes as Provenance Notes. Digital materials acquired into our collections are not just the files, they’re also the metadata. (Hence, why I refer to them as ‘information objects’.) When an ‘information object’ has been bundled, and is ready to be ingested into a system, I think of it as becoming an ‘information package’.

There’s a lot of metadata (administrative, preservation, structural, technical) that appears along the path from an object’s creation until the point at which it becomes an ‘information package’. We need to ensure we’re capturing and retaining the important components of this metadata. Those components we deem essential must travel alongside their associated files into a preservation system. (Not all files will have any or even the right metadata embedded within the file itself.) Standardised ways of handling information held in Provenance Notes (whether these are from ‘outside of the system’ or created by the digital preservation system) and event information so it can be interrogated and reported on is crucial.

Managing Access Rights

Facilitating access is not black and white. Collections are not simply ‘open’ or ‘closed’. We have a myriad of ways that digital material is created and collected; we need to ensure we can provide access to this content in a variety of ways that support both the content and our users. This can include access from within an institution’s building, via a dedicated computer terminal, online access to anyone in the world, mediated remote access, access to only subsets of a collection, support for embargo periods, ensuring we respect cultural sensitivities or provide access to only the metadata (perhaps as large datasets) and more.

We must set a goal of working towards providing access to our users in the many different (and new-ish) ways they actually want to use our content.

It’s imperative to keep in mind the whole purpose of preserving digital materials is to be able to access them (in many varied ways). Provision of content ‘viewers’ and facilitating other modes of access (e.g. to large datasets of metadata) are essential.

Final note: I never said addressing these concerns was going to be easy. We need to factor each in and make iterative improvements, one step at a time.

Customizable JHOVE TIFF output handler anyone?

Technical Fellow, James, talks about the challenges with putting JHOVE’s full XML output into a reporting tool and how he found a work around. We would love feedback about how you use JHOVE’s TIFF output. What workarounds have you tried to extract the data for use in reporting tools and what do you think about having a customizable TIFF output handler for JHOVE? 

As mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve been looking to validate a reasonably large collection of TIFF master image files from a digitization project. On a side note from that, I would like to talk about the output from JHOVE’s TIFF module.

The JHOVE TIFF module allows you to specify an output handler as either Text, a XML audit, or a full XML output format.

Text provides a straight forward line by line breakdown of the various characteristics and properties of each TIFF processed. But not being a structured document means that processing the output when many files are characterized is not ideal.

The XML audit output provides a very minimal XML document which will simply report if the TIFF files were valid and well formed or not; this is great to a quick check, but lacks some other metadata properties that I was looking for.

The full XML output provides the same information that was provided in text output format, but with the advantage of being a structural document. However, I’ve found some of the additional metadata structuring in the full XML rather cumbersome to process with further reporting tools.

As result, I’ve been struggling a bit to extract all of the properties I would like from the full XML output into a reporting tool. I then started to wonder about having a more customizable output handler which would simply report the the properties I required in a neat and easier to parse XML format.

I had looked at using an XSLT transformation on the XML output but, as mentioned, I found it rather complicated to extract some of the metadata property values I wanted due to the excessive nesting of these and the property naming structure. I think I need to brush up on my XSLT skills perhaps?

In the short term, I’ve converted the XML output to a CSV file, using a little freeware program called XML2CSV from A7Soft. Using the tool, I selected the various fields required (filename, last modified date, size, compression scheme, status, TIFF version, image width & height, etc) for my reporting. Then, the conversion program extracted the selected values, which provided a far simpler and smaller document to process in the reporting tool.

I would be interested to know what others have done when confronted with the XML output and wonder if there is any mileage in a more customizable output handler for the TIFF module…


Update 31st May 2017

Thanks to Ross Spencer, Martin Hoppenheit and others from Twitter. I’ve now created a basic JHOVE XML to CSV XSLT stylesheet. Draft version on my GitHub should anyone want to do something similar.

Validating half a million TIFF files. Part One.

Oxford Technical Fellow, James, reports on the validation work he is doing with JHOVE and DPF Manager in Part One of this blog series on validation tools for auditing the Polonsky Digitization Project’s TIFF files.

In 2013, The Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican Library) joined efforts in a landmark digitization project. The aim was to open up their repositories of ancient texts including Hebrew manuscripts, Greek manuscripts, and incunabula, or 15th-century printed books. The goal was to digitize over one and half million pages. All of this was made possible by funding from the Polonsky Foundation.

As part of our own Polonsky funded project, we have been preparing the ground to validate over half a million TIFF files which have been created from digitization work here at Oxford.

Many in the Digital Preservation field have already written articles and blogs on the tools available for validating TIFF files, Yvonne Tunnat (from ZBW Leibniz Information Centre for Economics) wrote a blog for the Open Preservation Foundation regarding the tools. I also had the pleasure of hearing from Yvonne and Michelle Lindlar (from TIB Leibniz Information Centre for Science and Technology) talk at IDCC 2017 conference on this very subject in more detail when discussing JHOVE in their talk, How Valid Is Your Validation? A Closer Look Behind The Curtain Of JHOVE

The go-to validator for TIFF files?

Preparation for validation

In order to validate the master TIFF files, firstly we needed to retrieve these from our tape storage system; fortunately around two-thirds of the images had already been restored to spinning disk storage as part of another internal project. When the master TIFF files were written to tape this included MD5 hashes of the files, so as part of this validation work we will confirm the fixity of all the files. Our network storage system had plenty of room to accommodate all the required files, so we began auditing what still needed to be recovered.

Whilst the auditing and retrieval was progressing, I set about investigating validating a sample set of master TIFF files using both JHOVE and DPF Manager to get an estimate on the time it would take to process the approximate 50 TB of files. I was also interested to compare the results of both tools when faced with invalid or corrupted sample sets of files.

We setup a new virtual machine server in order to carry out the validation workload; this allowed us to scale this machine’s performance as required. Both validation tools were going to be run on a RedHat Linux environment and both would be run from the command line.

It quickly became clear that JHOVE was going to be able to validate the TIFF files a lot quicker than DPF Manager. If DPF Manager is being used as part of one of your workflows, you may not have noticed any real-time penalty when processing small numbers of files, however with a large batch, the time difference with the two tools was noticeable.

Potential alternative for TIFF validation?

During the testing I noticed there were several issues with DPF Manager, including the lack of being able to specify the number of threads the process could use, which I suspect resulted in the poor initial performance. I dutifully reported the bug to the DPF community GitHub and was pleased to see an almost instant response stating that it would be resolved in the next monthly release. I do love Open Source projects, and I think this highlights the importance of those using the tools being responsible for improving them. Without community engagement, these projects are liable to run out of steam and slowly die.

I’m going to reserve judgement on the tools until the next release of DPF Manager. We will then also be in a position to report back on our findings from this validation case study. So check back with our blog for Part Two.

I would be interested to hear from anyone else who might have been faced with validating large batches of files, what tools are you using? what challenges have you faced? Do let me know!