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more on open source and digital preservation

October 23, 2009

My last post was a little toe-dip into some hardcore library school geek material and it seems that some of you are into it. Let’s continue then! You learn amazing things in library school all the time. And I am not being facetious! Open Source software is like an anti-capitalist’s wet dream. Open Source communities have created a world in which people work together towards a common purpose without getting paid for it – and as a result, the final product is often tighter, more user-friendly, and has fewer bugs than its proprietary version.

This week I completed an assignment wherein we were given a folder (a virtual folder) with 14 word processed documents in it, all created and saved in outdated formats with file extensions that microsoft word would not open. The two main programs we used to open these files were a program created at the National Archives of Australia (NAA) called Xena, a free software program that transforms files in outdated formats into new, open source formats. The NAA’s investment in creating software like Xena is for long-term digital preservation – it is backed up by the well-understood notion that open-source formats are digital preservationists’ best friend, as they are the most stable and most likely to survive long-term.

Xena did not work with all of my files, however. Some of the extensions were too old even for Xena to read. Miraculously, OpenOffice (the free software I told you about earlier this week) was able to open all of the remaining files except for one. The last one was a PowerPoint file, created and saved in an older version of PPT which of course PPT 2007 refused to open – thanks, microsoft, for preventing me from opening a program created with your own software. I had to turn that file into a PDF to make it readable.

Why should you care? Firstly, when you think of regular archives, it’s nonprofit professionals who are in charge. When it comes to digital materials, we have software and hardware that mediate our access to those materials. And we do *not* want microsoft or any other corporation controlling our access by controlling the software!

Secondly, those of you who are from or live in the US will not be surprised that the US is behind many other countries (mostly in the EU or former British colonies) in its plans and resources for digital preservation. That is why my school had to bring in someone from New Zealand to teach the course that I’m taking. It seems that the US’s penchant for privacy and individualism trumps the importance of managing the long-term survival of digital materials. And to be clear, I am not talking about people’s individual files, I’m talking about huge amounts of scientific and other scholarly research, as well as government records and other similar information.

Want to read more?
Ariadne is a free online magazine geared towards library, museum, and archives professionals but could be read (or at least perused) by anyone.
The Ten Thousand Years Blog is written in lay language – unfortunately difficult to find in the world of digital preservation. The author is an archivist and historian but writes about current digital preservation issues.
The LOCKSS program is pretty cool. LOCKSS stands for Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe. It is based at Stanford and it is an initiative to provide libraries with the software they need for easy and cheap long-term digital preservation, and then saves the files on servers in multiple places. Pretty freaking great.

More useful OS stuff:
The Open Source Initiative – all about Open Source software. Contains news stories and other updated information.
Sourceforge.net is an amazing website for finding Open Source software.

The Europeans also have humor in their education about digital preservation. I present the latest installment of…DIGIMAN:

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