This week we dig into the procedures that power the NRS Web Continuity Service. We are a multi-faceted service, dealing with numerous stakeholders and subject areas. With that in mind, we need to ensure our processes are efficient and effective, to help us deliver a high quality web archive.
But what do we mean by ‘high quality web archive’? In web archiving, quality can be related to three elements:
Completeness – how much of captured website’s links, text, downloads etc. the crawler has been able to access and capture
Behaviour – how much of the navigational functionalities within the captured website snapshot have been preserved, compared to the live site
The NRS Web Continuity Service went live in February 2017. Delivered as part of NRS’s Digital Preservation Programme, our service allows us to archive selected websites that fall within our statutory and strategic collecting remit, and make all archived snapshots accessible in the NRS Web Archive. After just a few months of operations, we are delighted to say that the service is fully functioning and delivering on what it set out to do. To find out more, keep on reading!
As a national archive, NRS collects the archival records of the Scottish Government, Scottish Courts, and the Scottish Parliament. We also collect the records of many public authorities, Public Inquiries in Scotland, and a selection of private organisations: full details here. This collecting remit extends to websites – which is where the Web Continuity Service comes in.
As we found out last week, web archiving is technically tough. To manage this, we procured the services of a commercial supplier, Internet Memory Research, to deliver the technical elements of our service. This allows us to focus our in-house efforts on stakeholder engagement, appraisal and selection, quality assurance, and service advocacy. See our Service Model document for more details. We’ll talk more about our processes in our next blog.
Our Web Archive operates on a permissions’ basis, whereby we ask website owners to provide us with information ahead of capture to enhance our collection knowledge and permit us to manage access to archived content appropriately. We only archive content in the public domain, but it’s still important to get owners’ insight on any potential copyright or other sensitivities, as well as talk through the benefits of the service for them e.g. support recordkeeping, assist web teams in managing historic content etc.
This permissions’ process has been effective in helping website owners get to grips with the concept of the web archive. Furthermore, it has helped forge closer links between NRS and parts of our stakeholder organisations with whom we’d perhaps not spoken to before e.g. IT teams, web teams, communications. These new connections may prove invaluable to future discussions on transfer of other born digital records.
We capture selected sites every month, giving us flexibility to schedule crawls in line with owners’ requests and to help capture as much unique content as possible e.g. before or after a significant event, during business/website change etc. Each site is normally captured between one and two times a year, creating a representative record of its existence and development.
Our service also has one special trick up its sleeve: Web Continuity, designed to help combat ‘link rot’ on government sites. ‘Link rot’ refers to instances where online information located on a specific web URL is taken down or moved, meaning that if a user navigates to this link, they are likely to receive a ‘404 page not found message’.
To help our stakeholders manage this risk, we provide them with a free opportunity to connect their live website with the NRS Web Archive via Web Continuity redirection. With this in place, when a user navigates to a broken link within the owner’s live site, rather than receive a ‘404’ error message, they will be redirected into the web archive and an automatic search for an archived version of the information will be made and served back with associated branding. This will mean that users will see many fewer broken links and help preserve the online chain of official information. One of our service’s key objectives is to support Scottish Government’s dedication to openness, citizen participation and transparency, and we intend to measure its impact over time.
Following on from last week’s introductory blog on web archiving this post takes a broader look at the technical and collecting environment of web archiving, as well as a brief look at its history.
The World Wide Web was pioneered in the late 1980s to help share information more efficiently and effectively. Needless to say this new system proved to be a hit, leading to its global rollout in the early 1990s. It didn’t take long for observers to ponder that there was probably a lot of content on the Web that would be worth saving for posterity (particularly due to its vulnerability to change), but how?
Today, online content is perhaps even more susceptible to change and loss, as a typical webpage has an average ‘lifespan’ of 44 to 75 days. Without action to capture content before it changes, we may end up with large gaps in history as recorded by the Web, which some researchers are already beginning to battle with. If we want to understand how our modern society ticks, we need a way to grab and save as much of this content as possible. To do this, we need web archives.
But what exactly do we mean by ‘web archiving’?
Web archiving can be defined as the process of capturing content that has been made available via the World Wide Web, preserving this content in a web archive, and making this accessible to users.
The most scalable way to do web archiving is with web crawler software. Crawlers are instructed to visit a selected website, or ‘seed’, on a certain date, and to explore this seed via its hyperlinks, copying content as it goes. The copied content is termed a ‘snapshot’. Each snapshot is often quality assured, and then preserved within ISO 28500:2009 WARC (Web ARChive) files. The WARC file constitutes an archival record of the snapshot captured at that point in time, and has the major advantage of enabling archivists to package together multiple related files from a website snapshot and preserve these long-term as individual entities.
To ensure users are aware they are viewing archived content (and not a live site), archived content is clearly identified via a banner and rewritten URL.
As well as a core preservation argument, many libraries recognise the merit of archiving websites as part of their drive to record our cultural memory, whilst many archives also recognise official government websites as part and parcel of a nation’s public record.
This situation leads many web archives to devote effort to quality assuring content once it has been captured, and assessing whether any remedial actions may be possible. Crawling technology continues to be improved, often as part of international collaborations.
Given these challenges, it’s sobering to recognise that the perfect web archive, full of content that is complete and fully operational, simply does not exist. However, web archives remain pragmatic in the face of this, constantly re-evaluating methods, processes and strategies, never losing sight of their core goal: to preserve a representative, high-fidelity record of the Web.
In our next blog, we will explore how the NRS Web Continuity Service fits into all of this, what web continuity is, and how our work actively supports the Scottish Government’s commitment to openness and accountability.
Welcome to our blog! Over the course of few weeks, we will take Open Book readers on a tour of NRS’s new Web Continuity Service. Web archiving and Web Continuity represent an exciting new era for archiving at NRS, providing a digital tool that directly supports our mission to,
“collect, preserve and produce information about Scotland’s people and history, and make it available to inform present and future generations.”
Stay tuned for bite-sized articles on how this new service operates, and how it will contribute to the development of Scotland’s national archive collection and support the Scottish Government’s transparency agenda.
Websites as archival public records and the ‘looking glass’ into government
Nowadays, when a member of the public wants to understand something about government, the first source they will likely check is an official government website (probably found via Google).
In this multi-channel era, government websites have a critical role to disseminate official, trusted information, so that the government remains accountable and transparent to the citizen.
As a result, government websites form an integral part of the public record. National archives, who capture, preserve and make available public records, are therefore taking steps to capture a representative record of this modern aspect of government. To do so, national archives are creating web archives. Web archives have been around for some time. Nevertheless, the process of web archiving is technically challenging: more on that in our next blog post.
If done well, web archiving has the potential to dramatically alter the way we record, preserve, and analyse the activities of our government and wider society.
Selecting and capturing government websites, evidencing how these change over time, and making the output of this archiving process clear, reusable and interoperable, can create a powerful ‘looking glass’ into modern official business. It can also do this in a scalable and consistent manner.
Furthermore, emerging research is indicating that web archives may form the single most important contextual record for understanding society in the last twenty years, and will continue to do so. Here’s some examples to ponder:
Do you want to understand how US institutions reacted to the September 11th attacks? The Library of Congress has a web archive collection dedicated to this which is free to access, including this archived snapshot from the US Department of State, dated 12th September 2001.
Turning closer to home, the snapshots of the Scottish Parliament website, now captured by National Records of Scotland, provide a navigable resource for the business of Scotland’s devolved legislature, with time-stamped captured content available on Current Bills, MSPs, and special events and visitors to Holyrood.
Observant readers will quickly notice some unusual features about these archived pages; they all have arresting headers to show the user the page is archived and when this occurred, and some of the original dynamic functionality such as search, unfortunately may not work.
What is key though is that these archives have attempted to capture information from these websites as completely and accurately as possible.
In the next blog, we will explore the core technology behind web archiving, its technical challenges, and how archives (and NRS) are responding to this new era of collecting.
For many archivists embarking on a Digital Preservation programme, the biggest challenge is knowing where to start. NRS has been helping local authority archivists to overcome this initial hurdle with two new tools to help archivists get started with digital preservation.
Last summer, two Heritage Lottery-funded Skills for the Future trainees, seconded on year-long placements, joined our the Digital Records Unit to help local authority archivists get started with digital preservation. A year later, they have developed two tools which will enable archivists to take their first steps in digital preservation. These are the ‘Digital Preservation Guidance for Local Authorities’ and the ‘Capacity Planning Tool – Counting The Bits’.
The Digital Preservation Guidance for Local Authorities is written guidance tailored for local authority archivists and other staff who will be responsible for digital preservation. This may include records managers, information managers and IT staff. The guidance is written in simple, non-technical language so that the audience can be as wide as possible. The aim is to give anyone working directly or indirectly with digital preservation a clear idea of what it means and what is involved, to facilitate the start of the process.
The Capacity Planning Tool helps local authority archivists to calculate what their digital storage needs are. It does this by helping them to estimate how many digital records currently sit within their organisation, and helping them to estimate what percentage of records they need to preserve in the long term. Although this might sound like a simple task, it can be surprisingly difficult for archivists to make these calculations on their own. It is not uncommon for archivists to have no relationship with the digital records being created within their organisation. Even finding out where digital records are kept can be a challenge!
The Tool works by asking archivists complete a simple series of questions about records currently held within the organisation. It allows the archivist to identify and prioritise the departments that are most important to them. It also provides guidance about how to go about sourcing the necessary information. Once this information has been input, the tool makes some calculations based on factors such as estimated percentage of total records to be captured in the digital strategy; number of records that sit on the live system; and number of records that will be created to sit within the repository. These calculations equip users with tangible figures that can be used to initiate a conversation about resourcing needs. The results are shown as easy to use graphs and tables, which archivists can use to demonstrate their capacity requirements in an easy to understand format.
Like many projects that appear complex at the outset, the key to a successful digital preservation strategy is to break down the process into its constituent parts. Together the Capacity Planning Tool and the Guidance act as a foundation upon which a successful strategy can be built.