Not Nothing: Tying loose ends on our legacy digital workflow

“Contents: nothing”

As we get ready to celebrate the close of our Leon Levy Foundation-funded Legacy Digital project, we can take this opportunity to reflect on the work we’ve done and most importantly, the content we’ve transferred from physical storage media dating back to the early 1980s. The contents found on these 1,000 storage media items were, contrary to the image above, a whole lot of something: an assortment of audiovisual documentation, research papers, scientific hard data, meeting minutes, conference proposals and presentations, among other nuggets of insight into WCS’s activities over the past thirty years.

Due to the nature of our project and the fact that we’re working with digital media items, a good part of our workflow is centered on key appraisal decisions. SAA (Society of American Archivists) defines the act of appraisal as a process for “determining whether records and other materials have permanent (archival) value.” These determinations take place prior to a donation, and after accessioning, in iterative steps that include establishing the integrity of materials and intellectual control as well as documenting preservation actions taken upon materials.

Integrating appraisal decisions to our workflow was challenging. This is because, as a project archivist hired to implement workflows for processing our digital content, I came to the project unfamiliar with many of the subjects and names represented on the disks. I had been operating under a MPLP  (More Product, Less Process) mindset, favoring the establishment of a technical environment for the workflow over the content of the items I had been working on. It made the question of “what should be kept?” more pressing and pertinent. This opened up an ongoing conversation with Institutional Archivist Madeleine Thompson, whose breadth of knowledge informed decisions about what the WCS Library and Archives is able to collect at this point in time, when it is developing its digital preservation capabilities. These conversations bestowed upon me a greater appreciation for the content I was working with and its enduring value.

Those appraisal considerations unlatched parts of our workflow for refinement. Now, we start our digital processing workflow with a piece of physical carrier media and its corresponding drive, which is connected via a write-blocker to a modern computing system. The write-blocker enables a user to acquire data from digital storage media without altering the contents within the storage media. We make a bit-by-bit disk image of the storage media using the BitCurator environment, a bundle of free and open-source digital forensics tools and software.

3.50″ floppy disk drive connected via write blocker to our forensic workstation.

File format identification, an understanding of an object’s identity and characteristics, is the starting point for any digital preservation action, one which includes the planning and migration of an obsolete file to a preservation friendly format. Making use of available file format identification tools and interpreting the results when dealing with huge amounts of file types was also a difficult step to define within our processing workflow.

After a disk image is created, we analyze its contents by characterizing (the act of identifying the technical characteristic of a digital object) the files contained within the disk image. In the case of HFS-formatted disks (an early Mac OS file system), we use HFSExplorer found on the BitCurator environment, to browse and extract Mac formatted disk images. During the process of developing our workflow, we started dabbling with Brunhilde, a graphical user interface reporting (GUI) tool developed by Tim Walsh, based on Richard Lehane’s Siegfried, which runs a signature-based file format identification tool on a directory or disk image. Siegfried uses the National Archives UK PRONOM file format signature, an online technical registry that supports digital preservation services, and’s MIME-info file format signatures.

Recently, after re-evaluating our workflow, we have started using another stack of tools developed by Tim Walsh (at the Canadian Centre for Architecture), and we’ve been very pleased with the results. Intended to be used in a BitCurator environment, the stack of tools we’ve been using are the SIP creator tool and the Disk Image Processor tool, both of which report on and transform a disk image into an Archivematica conforming transfer package that we can ingest into our cloud storage.

All of this seemingly endless tool exploration and testing feels worthwhile once we turn our focus towards reviewing and contextualizing the content found on the disks. One notable accession that we’ve been working on is a series of optical disks documenting WCS’s Caribbean and Mesoamerican program, established in 1988 and led by Dr. Archie Carr III.

Most of the items from the Mesoamerican program center on the Paseo Pantera, later called the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a protected area comprising regions in Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and southern states in Mexico. The images below  document field work and a GPS workshop related to the Paseo Pantera project in the Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge in Honduras.

Ten years later, in 1998, on a Asia Program accession record, an International Programs Newsletter details the devastating effects of Hurricane Mitch on the Central American region. The report communicates the aftermath, like so:

Hurricane Mitch, the fourth most powerful hurricane ever recorded, took thousands of lives and left the Central American landscape and economy in ruins.  The hurricane made landfall on the northern coast of Honduras.  Jim Barborak, who has been working in Central America for 20 years and helped set up Honduras’ National Park system, says that, in terms of environmental damage, Mitch chose an extremely vulnerable target.  Central America has one of the highest deforestation rates in the tropics (1 million acres per year), and one of the highest rates of population growth outside of sub-Saharan Africa.  The loss of life and level of damage were exacerbated by poor watershed management.  With hundreds of thousands of unemployed and homeless people in Honduras and northern Nicaragua as a result of the storm, pressure on remaining wildlands and wildlife and fisheries resources will increase greatly for several years as desperate people hunt, fish, practice slash and burn, and harvest timber, firewood, and other forest products just to survive.  At present, WCS is working in more parks in Honduras than any other NGO and the seven parks and reserves where we are working all suffered, and will continue to suffer as a result of the storm.

This is one of the many ways in which disparate media items on separate accessions are linked to the present. As hurricanes become stronger and more frequent, these records broadcast the role and relevance of conservation biology.


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Happy Pirate Day! [Instagram]

Here’s Don Dickerman, who, when he wasn’t measuring frigate bird wingspans as part of the Department of Tropical Research’s 1925 Arcturus Expedition to the Galápagos, was running a Greenwich Village nightclub called the Pirates’ Den. Obsessed with pirates, Dickerman also had a bit part in Errol Flynn’s pirate movie The Sea Hawk. Photo © WCS. WCS Archives DTR Photo Collection. #pirateday #frigatebird #galapagos #dtr #archives
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The WCS Archives is now on Instagram!

Follow us there to join our expedition through historical treasures from @thewcs and its parks, @bronxzoo, @nyaquarium, @centralparkzoo, @thequeenszoo, and @prospectparkzoo.  Membership brochure featuring the Bronx Zoo’s Gibbon Island, early 1950s. WCS Archives Collection 2016. #bronxzoo #zoohistory #gibbonisland #gibbons #archives
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Happy 40th to Wild Asia!

On August 19, 1977, the Bronx Zoo’s Wild Asia exhibit opened to the public.  New York Times review on that date declared that

Wild Asia conveys a feeling of remoteness wrapped in a pervasive and palpable stillness, which is broken only by the occasional snort or shrill of one of its 200 animals and birds of Asian provenance, the delighted gasp of visitors seated in the monorail train that makes a circuit of the region or the muted roar of traffic on the nearby Bronx River Parkway.

Over the past forty years, the monorail has continued to elicit delight from visitors while also educating them about the challenges several of the exhibit’s species face in the wild.  Among the highlights in the history of Wild Asia’s animal collections include Manhar, the world’s first gaur calf born to a Holstein cow by embryo transfer, in 1981; the addition of Rapunzel, the first Sumatran rhino to live at the Bronx Zoo, in 1990; and the addition of another endangered species, Turkmenian flare-horned markhor, in 2014.

To celebrate this anniversary, we’re showing off a few items from the Archives.

Wild Asia brochure, circa 1977. WCS Archives Collection 2016

Guide to Wild Asia, created by NYZS Education Department, 1979. Sections include Land and People of Asia and Wildlife, Man, and Conservation in Asia. WCS Archives Collection 2016

Visitors watching rhinos from the Wild Asia monorail, circa 1977. WCS Photo Collection

For more on the exhibit, see Processing Archivist Sana Masood’s post on the WCS Photo Blog, Wild View.


Legacy Digital Project Update

Since we last left off, we’ve been incredibly busy here at the archives!

circa 1980s floppy disk photo “archive”

For starters, we have been working on capturing the 46 miniDV tapes that were part of the Legacy Digital project’s media selection. You might remember miniDV as the small cassette tape widely used in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Depending on your age, you may have shot your first amateur horror film or skate video on one of these. DV (for Digital Video) is an international standard for consumer digital video created by a consortium of 10 companies, which included Sony, Hitachi, and, Panasonic, amongst others electronics giants. The DV standard uses digital technology to record picture and sound on a high density, metal evaporate tape that is enclosed in a plastic (mini!) cassette. Because miniDV is a tape-based format, it is subject to a similar sort of degradation commonly found on analog videotape, including binder deterioration and mold. In addition, since the tape width is so slim, it is particularly prone to drop-outs, head clog banding, and data loss. To make matters trickier, you’ll need a format-specific camcorder or video tape player/recorder to reformat these tapes.

Even though miniDV is oftentimes mocked or associated for its lack of picture quality (DV uses lossy compression for video, while the audio is stored uncompressed), DV was highly prominent and commercially favored because it had a comparably better image quality than the contemporaneous Hi8 or Video8 formats. MiniDV was broadly used by artists, community organizers, independent media productions, and non-profits. Its extensive use gave way to the mass popularization of non-linear editing (NLE) systems, such as Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, and Avid Media Composer, which have become and continue to be, benchmark software for editing media.

Hi there! I’m a miniDV cassette.

The tapes we’re working on here capture a variety of activities, including the One World, One Health Congress in Brazil (2007),  an interdisciplinary forum for animal and human health care and environmental science, the AHEAD (Animal Health for the Environment And Development) Forum, and video recordings of WCS’ Veterinarian programs on the field.

In order to get the content off these tapes, we needed the necessary equipment to set up a modest miniDV transferring workstation. So, we ended up enlisting the collaboration of WCS Video Producer, Jeff Morey, who as luck would have it, had a couple of miniDV camcorders in his studio that he was willing to lend to the archives. We set up a time to meet, and voilà, we were in business. Jeff was ready with a 4-pin to 9-pin IEEE 1394 FireWire cable, and a FireWire to Thunderbolt adapter that could connect to our workstation. Using Adobe Premiere Pro, we are able to capture the tape’s native DV stream. According to moving image archivists Dave Rice and Chris Lacinack in their paper, Digital Tape Preservation Strategy: Preserving Data or Video?a DV stream contains:

  • Video (NTSC or PAL)
  • Audio (48, 44.1, or 33 kHz; 2 or 4 track)
  • Metadata from the Source Tape
  • Time Code
  • Closed Captioning (as auxiliary data, not video line 21)
  • Camera Metadata (iris, gain, white balance, etc.)
  • Original Recording Date and Time
  • Metadata from Device Read (Occurrences during playback)

When the video is captured onto a computer, it is stored as a raw DV stream that we later wrap into a Quicktime container file. Although, Quicktime is a proprietary codec, it is still widely used. This way, we ensure that we retain the original metadata gathered from the source tape, wrapped in a format that can be reproduced in virtually any contemporary video player. After transferring our tapes, naming them according to our file-naming convention, we checksum them using hashdeep, a program that will “compute, match, and audit hash sets”, and off they’ll go into storage. 


Meanwhile, we’ve also successfully upgraded our Archivematica installation from version 1.4 to its current 1.6 incarnation. Like I mentioned in our last post, we’re using Archivematica, a standards-based open-source digital preservation system, to process the archives’ digital objects. We have also been testing Archivematica’s processing configuration and our format policy registry (FPR), which will be ready to receive, verify, extract and normalize the disk images and the files contained in them, that we’ve been creating over the months. After testing seemingly endless configurations, our default processing configuration looks like this right now:

send transfer to quarantine: No
Remove from quarantine after (days): N/A
Generate transfer structure report: Yes
Select file format ID command (transfer): None (This selection let’s you choose from your ID tool options. We’ve been mostly selecting ID by extension)
Extract packages: Yes
Delete packages after extraction: No
Examine contents Examine contents
Create SIP: Send to backlog
Select file format ID command (Ingest): Identify using Siegfried
Normalize Normalize for preservation
Approve normalization Yes
Reminder: add metadata if desired continue
Transcribe files (OCR) Yes
Select file format ID command (submission documentation and metadata) Siegfried
Select compression algorithm 7z using bzip2
Select compression level Normal (you have to select something here, even though no compression is applied)
Store AIP None (last step where you can choose whether to continue or reject AIP)
Store AIP location DuraCloud aip-storage
Store DIP location DuraCloud dip-storage

We’ve also been using Archivematica’s appraisal tab for the first time. The appraisal tab is a new addition to Archivematica 1.6. Its development, captured in great detail in this blog,  was coordinated with University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library by way of a Mellon grant sponsorship.

The appraisal tab allows for the archivist to decide, mid-way through transfer, which files become part of the SIP and how they are arranged. It also allows the archivist to preview files, list the number of file formats by their PRONOM PUID (Persistent Unique Identifier), lets you visualize file formats in a tasty pie chart, search for PII (Personal Identifiable Information) and credit card numbers (using Bulk Extractor) and apply tags to objects. In addition to all of this sweet-sounding appraisal business, the tab includes an ArchivesSpace pane which allows an archivist to connect the digital content processed on Archivematica to an ArchivesSpace finding aid. Here at the archives, we were in the process of migrating our Archivists’ Toolkit finding aids to ArchivesSpace, so this feature is very much welcomed, and exciting in terms of what we can now include in our finding aids (now with an item-level digital object!).

Author of the upcoming book The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation and digital archivist, Trevor Owens recently published in his blog the fifteen guiding digital preservation axioms. The very first axiom, A repository is not a piece of software”, has been one of the more challenging lessons learned during this project. Owens continues:

 Software cannot preserve anything. Software cannot be a repository in itself. A repository is the sum of financial resources, hardware, staff time, and ongoing implementation of policies and planning to ensure long-term access to content.

Next time I’m in the weeds, feeling conscience stricken that I’ve spent 3 hours trying to figure out the cause of that nagging normalization error, I’ll remember this, as it is part of the process and, ultimately familiarizes yourself with your system components.

On our next blog post, we’ll discuss the changes we’ve made to our FPR, working with HFS formatted disk images, and finally entering the production phase of our project!

This post highlights work that is being completed as part of our Legacy Digital Removable Media Project, which has been generously funded by the Leon Levy Foundation.  For more about the project, please see this October 2016 post.

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One small step for an archive, one giant leap for an archivist

The advantage of working with highly customizable, open-source tools is the ability to tailor your workflow to the specific needs of your institution or collection. The disadvantage is that you have to customize your workflow, and by that you may find yourself testing configurations in seemingly endless fashion. With so many manually entered steps along the way, a single mismatched configuration can throw pieces of your processing workflow into a tailspin and leave you, hoping, in bouts of desperation, for a one-size-fits-all magical turnkey solution to all digital archival objects for their forever-and-ever-nothing-will-ever-be-lost deep storage.

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A pacific world

An interesting feature of the records of former New York Zoological Society (NYZS) President Fairfield Osborn Jr. is his creative output: the numerous speeches, articles, books, and other such works he produced during his tenure as President at the Society, from 1940 to the late 1960s.

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Mochi’s Silhouettes

Ugo Mochi is not a household name.  But his artwork is known and admired by many.  Mochi was best known for his animal silhouettes.  Created from paper with details to scale, these silhouettes are Mochi’s greatest contribution to art as well as to the study of the natural world.  [, history section, accessed 2/1/17]

The New York Zoological Society’s (now the Wildlife Conservation Society) Bronx Zoo was a favorite spot for Mochi.  He used Zoo animals when creating his most famous book, Hoofed Mammals of the World (1953).  A few years after his death in 1977, Mochi’s daughters donated to the Zoo the 40 original plates used in the Hoofed Mammals book.  WCS adapted some of his silhouettes in logos and exhibit graphics.

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The World of Tomorrow, Today: Remembering the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940

In April 1939, the New York Zoological Society (NYZS) presented their Zoological Wonders pavilion to the public at the very first New York World’s Fair. The 1939-40 Fair brought highlights from the New York Zoological Park in the Bronx and the New York Aquarium in Manhattan to Flushing Meadows in Queens. In this month’s post from our NHPRC grant project, we are presenting a selection of materials unearthed from records from the NYZOs Corporation, a former NYZS subsidiary created to coordinate the Society’s participation in the 1939-1940 World’s Fair. Fairfield Osborn Jr., the Secretary of the Society’s Executive Committee at the time, managed that participation in his last task before becoming the Society’s President in 1940. As such, the World’s Fair materials illustrate the beginning of a new era at NYZS.
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