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Self-preservation: The Gibraltar National Archives uses cloud to safeguard its history

The head of the Gibraltar National Archives discusses how cloud and archiving technologies are safe-guarding its history for future generations

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Digitally preserving history

Retaining corporate data for many years after it was created is a concept many enterprises are familiar with, and is an essential part of ensuring their regulatory and compliance obligations are met.

Another important aspect of this process that some fail to appreciate is that access to this data also needs to be safeguarded. This is because of the likely event the application or device it was originally created on has fallen out of common use by the time it is needed.

While regulatory compliance is the key reason why many enterprises embark on this process in the corporate world, for the Gibraltar National Archives (GNA), digital preservation is an essential part of ensuring the annals of its cultural heritage and democratic history are safeguarded forever.

It is a process that started in earnest in 2011, when the government of Gibraltar set out plans to make it easier for people from all over the world, with an interest in the history of this overseas British territory, to access the information held by the GNA through digitisation.

At the time, all of the records the archive held were paper-based and needed to be transcribed and uploaded to a database one by one, starting with the 1704 census register.

This is considered to be a landmark document in the history of Gibraltar, as it provides an account of who resided there during the year of its capture by Anglo-Dutch in the War of the Spanish Succession.

This later paved the way for the area to fall under British rule, after Spain ceded the territory to Britain in 1713.

Protecting data for future generations

Given the laborious nature of the task at hand, the GNA team claim it took nearly two years to upload and digitise the bulk of census material and make it accessible to users via the web, taking us to 2014.

Around this time, Anthony Pitaluga, now head of the GNA, was brought in to oversee the running of the project, which had just one other person working on it, and set about expanding its scope.

Despite the limited amounts of manpower at his disposal, Pitaluga sought permission to expand the remit of his digitisation project to include other forms of historical information, including the ecclesiastical registers and military records because of its historical value and importance.

To help the team make sense of all this data, Pitaluga got in touch with the National Archives in London to get some insights into their working practices. On the back of these conversations and numerous site visits, he began to appreciate the difference between digitisation and preservation.

“I was an IT graduate, but I hadn’t even thought about this question of digital preservation until it was brought to my attention [by the National Archives],” he tells Computer Weekly.

“The risk was we could have spent all this time and money doing digitisation only to lose [this information] a few years down the line because it is not preserved correctly.”

On the back of recommendations from the National Archives team, Pitaluga decided to kick the tyres of digital preservation software provider Preservica’s technology to see if it was up to the job of permanently protecting its data.

Digitisation versus preservation

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Preservica CEO Mike Quinn says Pitaluga’s realisation that digitising content is not the same as preserving it is a concept many enterprises still struggle with.

“Digital preservation is all about actively managing the file formats and ensuring they remain readable by applications in future,” he says.

“It’s about taking a proactive stance and saying, ‘This is in Lotus Notes, this is in Word Perfect and this is in Word ’97, and those formats will be redundant soon, so we need to maintain them’,” he said.

Where the GNA and other organisations like it are concerned, preservation is about ensuring a paper trail pertaining to the creation of these entities will persist for many years to come.

“The Gibraltar National Archives have a lot of important cultural, historic and democratic information they want to future-proof and preserve … for the memories of their nation,” Quinn adds.

Pitaluga eventually opted to install the Preservica Cloud Edition, which – in turn – hosts customer data in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) public cloud, making use of the firm’s S3 and Glacier cloud storage options.

This, in turn, has saved the GNA from having to invest in local servers, storage and networking equipment, with the organisation hailing the move as a “cost-effective” and “affordable” technology choice.

Preserving document authenticity

Another feature of the setup that proved particularly appealing to Pitaluga is the assurances it offers concerning the fixity of the documents uploaded through Preservica, should there ever be cause in future for their authenticity to be called into question.

“We have different versions of the Gibraltar constitution going back to 1850, and we’ve had different versions as our constitution has developed. [From time-to-time] we need to prove judicially those documents are the ones created originally at a certain point in time, and that capability in Preservica is very important,” says Pitaluga.

The system also allowed GNA to create a searchable database for its handwritten documents, to make them easier for historians and other interested parties to make sense of the information contained in the thousands of documents Pitaluga and his team have uploaded.

The nature of the data the GNA is concerned with preserving means there have not been any hard deadlines as such for the project to meet. This has allowed the team to methodically work through the stack of documents it has to digitise in its own time.

However, with 10 September 2017 marking the 50th anniversary since the people of Gibraltar voted to remain under British rule during the 1967 sovereignty referendum, the GNA team sent out an appeal for pictures, videos and other data pertaining to this period.

Once again, this has added to the GNA’s workload, but is an important part in ensuring a record of what life was like there at this time is preserved for future generations, which is an ongoing challenge for Pitaluga and his team.

“People often ask me when our digital preservation project will be finished. I tell them never, because every day we are collecting records. Every day we are archiving unique material from newspapers to government records all for generations to come,” he says.

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