San Diego supercomputer center staff help nation's archivists with digital-preservation expertise

In the Digital Age, there is an urgent need to preserve vital electronic records to capture our nation's history, which can vanish in an instant with the crash of a hard drive, or more gradually in migration to new and incompatible hardware and software.

Daunting challenges to reliable preservation loom, and digital preservation was a hot topic at the recent annual meeting of the nation's archivists, where researchers from the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) took center stage in the discussions.

Reagan Moore, Richard Marciano, and Chien-yi Hou, all researchers at the University of California San Diego's SDSC, participated in the unusual joint meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators (NAGARA), and the Council of State Archivists (CoSA).

SDSC has participated in sustained collaborations with the archiving community since the late 1990s, and the maturing of these relationships and growing understanding between the communities was reflected in the meeting, according to archivists in attendance.

Marciano, a computer scientist and director of SDSC's Sustainable Archives and Library Technologies (SALT) lab, was elected to a three-year term on the steering committee of the Electronic Records Section (ERS) of the SAA. This is the first time a computer scientist has served on the ERS, and marks an important step forward in collaboration between archivists and information technologists as they pioneer viable solutions to preserving electronic records.

In another sign of fruitful connections, Marciano introduced Hou, the first person at SDSC to have the title of Digital Preservation Specialist, as representing a new generation of professionals who bridge the computer science and archiving communities.

"These collaborations are a two-way street," said Marciano. "Not only do information technologists provide useful insights for digital preservation, the problems archivists face in preserving digital records are now also enriching computer science research." Hou's thesis topic in computer science was inspired by challenges in how to archive and access multiple versions of an electronic record.

Moore, director of the Data Intensive Computing Environments (DICE) group at SDSC, gave the keynote address to the ERS meeting, speaking on building preservation environments using data-grid technologies. He identified relevant preservation concepts for authentic electronic records, and described how those concepts have been tested in the NARA Transcontinental Research Prototype Persistent Archive. The preservation concepts have been implemented in the Storage Resource Broker data grid, which is being used to preserve records at the institution level (e.g., UCSD Libraries), the project level (e.g., National Science Digital Library), and for state archives (e.g. the Persistent Archives Testbed).

Moore also described the development of a next generation data management technology, called iRODS (for Integrated Rule-Oriented Data System). The new system enables the validation of assessment criteria for trusted digital repositories, a key capability in assuring authenticity in electronic records. Users can express their desired management policies in the form of rules, which are then automatically applied by the data management system.

Archivist Mark Conrad, chair of the NAGARA Committee on Electronic Records and Information Systems, and immediate past chair of the ERS, expressed his appreciation for SDSC's contributions to the archivists' joint conference. "The archival profession is extremely fortunate to have SDSC a recognized leader in digital preservation as a collaborator," he said. "Thank you for your support of these important collaborations."

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