Monday, 8 January 2018

Hull's Woolly Zoo 2018 Extravaganza

A very Happy New Year to you all as we resume our normal activities following Christmas here at the History Centre. And whilst 2017 might be over, we are by no means any less busy as our first exhibition is just three weeks away!

Throughout 2017, those of you who are regular visitors to our Facebook page will have noticed hundreds of pictures of amazing woolly creations made by yourselves and staff here at the History Centre. These were sent in as a response to a year-long social media campaign. Through this campaign, we aimed to highlight a largely forgotten piece of Hull's history. During the 19th century, Hull was home to a regionally famous zoo full of animals, including polar bears and elephants. Whilst the Hull Zoological Gardens were open daily to the public, every year the Hull Zoological Society put together a season of extravagant galas. These galas were held at the Zoological Gardens and always ended with a grand display of fireworks (probably not great for the animals!). 

This story has long intrigued a number of us here at the History Centre, so we decided to make it our first exhibition of 2018. But we wanted to make this exhibition a little bit different, out of the ordinary - much like the Zoological Gardens were. So, we decided to try and recreate the zoo out of wool... The response to our social media appeal for exhibits was overwhelming, and we now have all the components for what will hopefully be a fantastic exhibition. 

The exhibition will be free to enter! It opens on the 1 February, and will run until the 7 April. During this time, we will be holding a number of free events aimed at both children and adults. Events programmes are available to pick up at the History Centre, and you can contact us for further information at or on 01482 317500. Keep an eye on the History Centre’s Twitter feed and Facebook page, and of course here on the blog, for further updates over the coming weeks…
Verity and Claire, Hull University Archives staff

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Archivematica UK User Group Meeting

I recently travelled across the snow-covered country to a very wet Aberystwyth to attend the December meeting of the UK Archivematica User Group kindly hosted by The National Library of Wales.

The day started with an interesting update from Rachel McGregor from the University of Lancaster, about their joint project with St Andrews University and the University of Cambridge to compare Archivematica and Preservica. They are both digital preservation software packages; Archivematica open-source and Preservica commercial. 

Rachel identified the need to think about the wider environment when weighing up which to use - as on a paper, the two systems could be said to do the same things. In practice this is not necessarily the case. She encouraged us to consider what kind of data or records you have, what you are trying to get out of a system and what your institutional context is. 

The University of Lancaster is quite ambitious about the amount of input they want into a digital preservation system – they are not looking for a “hands-off” approach of feeding material in and expecting the system to do all the work. From that perspective, Archivematica is Rachel’s preferred option. Her testing had also found that though the two systems are largely on a level-footing when it comes to file format identification, Archivematica narrowly has the edge when it comes to research data, especially with compressed files. She has found Preservica to be better for reporting as this functionality is built into the system whereas you would need to plug another application in to Archivematica yourself to produce meaningful reports. 

It was highlighted that Preservica creates much shorter METS files than Archivematica – this lead to some debate in the room as to whether Archivematica’s METS files are too long. Do we need all the information they include? And do they take up too much space? Rachel concluded that for her institution (with its primary focus being the long term preservation of research data), her preference was for Archivematica but that for other people working in different contexts she would be equally glad to recommend Preservica.

It’s thought-provoking to hear about peoples’ opinions about the two systems having moved from using Preservica in my last job to Archivematica here at the History Centre. 

An update from Jen Mitcham at the Borthwick Institute at the University of York emphasised the need, when using Archivematica, to have a really robust and clearly defined IT support network in place. It brought to light the fact that open source ≠ free when you take into consideration the staffing and intense IT support required. 

There was a group session to discuss what changes people have made to their Format Policy Registry (FPR) on Archivematica. This is a database that allows users to define policies for processing particular file formats e.g. what preservation and access formats to normalise to and what tools to use for that normalisation. There was shared agreement in the room that it would be useful to know what tweaks other institutions have made, how those institutions are similar/different to yours and why they have made those tweaks. Some people questioned the practice of normalising JPEG to TIFF, especially given that TIFFs take up so much space and asked the question, “what are we gaining?”. Are we guilty of following such practice because “it’s just the done thing”? 

There was acknowledgement that several institutions don’t feel they have the time, resources or expertise to be modifying the FPR - especially on an ongoing basis - and would like to be able to look to Artefactual to provide best-practice “default” settings for the FPR. Interestingly, later on during his update, Matthew Addis from Arkivum announced that Archivematica and Preservica are collaborating to investigate FPR and possibly produce an interoperable registry shared between the two systems.

All in all it was a very useful and informative day. Thank you to our hosts at the National Library of Wales for being so accommodating and providing a slap-up Christmas lunch! 

(see also Jen's blog reflecting on the meeting and the Format Policy Registry in particular)

Laura Giles
City of Culture Digital Archivist

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Digital Archives – working with depositors

On this, the first International Digital Preservation Day, we here at the University of Hull working on the City of Culture Digital Archive project are thinking about our experiences of some of the earlier stages of digital preservation: working with depositors to share expectations from both sides, fact-find and prepare records as fully as possible for their transfer to the archive early in 2018. There will be a range of artist and participant depositors but the bulk of the archive will be received from the Culture Company which was founded to deliver the year’s activities. There are currently in the region of 100,000 digital records in scope for this project. 

The Culture Company’s Asset Bank which contains thousands of image and video files
One of the key differences between this project and others I have worked on is the immediacy. As archivists working with “traditional” records we often expect a delay of some years between records being created and used and then becoming “archival”.  In this project our intention is to capture the activities of a single year and once that year is over to process them through Archivematica and provide public access to what we can as soon as possible. 

There are some huge advantages to this approach. We know that working with digital archives can present a complex set of issues surrounding ownership, software, file types and beyond. We’re in the brilliant position that where there is doubt we are able to approach the record creators directly and seek clarification. I have been able to sit down with members of different teams to talk to them about how they create, store and share records. 

The City of Culture team are extremely busy delivering a packed programme of cultural events and activities. Whilst they are very supportive of the development of the archive, on a day-to-day basis they often have limited time to engage in the administrative activities that would help make processing the archive at a later stage easier. This means that in some cases, records that should be on the team SharePoint or Asset Bank sites are liable to linger on personal drives and that files are stuck with meaningless titles or are stored in labyrinthine folder structures. 

The Culture Company’s team SharePoint site where they store and share records
Whilst for archivists this is hardly a new phenomenon, we have been grateful to receive support in tackling this from the senior management team at the Culture Company who have declared one day in December “Archive Day”. 

On Archive Day no meetings will be allowed and everyone will be asked to concentrate solely on sorting out their digital files. This will help the Culture Company as much as it helps us as it will help to ensure that staff don’t leave at the end of their contracts with important records still saved locally and will also give them the opportunity to flag any records with commercial or other sensitivity that we, without that insiders’ perspective, may not immediately recognise. It makes sense for the people who know the records best to do this work.

Hopefully by the time the next International Digital Preservation day rolls around we’ll be in a good position to talk about some of the technical components of digital preservation. In the meantime my tips for the early stages of a digital archive project are:

  • Be prepared to encounter a small amount of jitters from depositors – I’m sure we’d all be a little daunted at the prospect of all our records suddenly being made public! Reassure them that this is not the case and come prepared with a good knowledge of the legal landscape in this regard. Encourage questions.
  • Advocate for the digital archive at a high level within the organisation you are collecting from – they are the ones with the authority to ensure that records are managed well!
  • Get out there and talk to digital preservation colleagues at other institutions – we’re all in a great position to learn from each other.

Laura Giles, City of Culture Digital Archivist

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The sinking of the SS Neptun, Part 2

In a previous post  I narrated the events which led to the loss of the SS Neptun on 27 June 1936. I also informed you that the owners of the vessel – J. Lauritzen – held the Humber Conservancy Board (HCB) responsible, and sought compensation in the Admiralty Court. It is now time to reveal the outcome of this case.

The trial was heard on 3 November 1937 by Mr Justice Langton. A copy of The Times Law Reports dated 10 December 1937, found amongst the records of the Engineer’s Office, outlines the details of the case.

The plaintiff’s argued that the loss of the Neptun was due to one or more of the following: breach of contract, breach of duty, breach of warranty, and/or negligence on the part of the Board.

They argued that through the publication of charts and plans indicating a minimum depth of three feet at low water in the Whitton Channel, the HCB had represented or warranted (unless notices were issued to the contrary) that such a depth existed at the deepest point. The Board counter argued that the Humber was a tidal estuary with a bed of sand subject to constant change and thus such a representation was not possible; a fact well known to those familiar with the Estuary. The positions of the Middle and Lower Whitton lightships had been altered on the fateful day, and notices issued alerting mariners of the change. Furthermore, all the Board’s charts bore a disclaimer alerting mariners that the Board accepted no responsibility for any inaccuracies. It was therefore concluded that the HCB had given no such representation or warranty.

Upper Whitton Lightship

The next charge by the plaintiff’s was that by taking dues from vessels using Humber Ports, the HCB entered into a special relationship with the owners of these vessels to maintain the navigation of the Humber to a certain standard. The grounding of their vessel represented a failure to meet this obligation. 

Establishing the Board’s responsibilities was a vital part of the case, but Langton found the Board’s attitude to be ‘vacillating, obscure and unsatisfactory’. The Board’s representatives had claimed that the obscurity of the various Acts of Parliament which conferred upon it the duties of a beaconage authority made it impossible to place any definitive responsibilities upon it. The HCB had been operating more than thirty years, and the Judge found it difficult to believe that they had not at any point sought to understand the extent of their obligations. The Elder Brethren of Trinity House were therefore called upon to define them, and outlined these minimum responsibilities as follows:

  • To find the best navigable channel via sounding.
  • To signpost such channels with sea marks (buoys, floats, lightships etc.).
  • To illuminate sea marks at night.
  • To re-sound the channel as and when the opportunity presents itself.
  • To keep a vigilant watch on any changes to the river, and adjust marks accordingly.
  • To maintain records of soundings and alternations to sea marks.
  • To publish further supplementary information and guidance.
The Judge ruled that the Board was therefore not responsible for maintaining the Humber channels to a certain standard, but was instead responsible for marking the safest known route and removing obstructions.

Humber Conservancy Board Wreck Marking System

The final charge made by the plaintiff was that the HCB had been negligent in taking soundings of the channel, and in positioning the Middle and Lower Whitton lightships on the day of the accident. The Judge having consulted expert advice, considered the resources of the Board, and taken into account its prompt response to the accident, concluded that the Board ‘had not been guilty of any want of reasonable care in the discharge of their obligations’.

The Judge had no responsibility for uncovering the circumstances behind the accident. But, with the view to the possibility of an appeal, offered the following explanation ‘that the pilot was a man of cautious habit who made a deliberate choice on the information available to him at Blacktoff, but that in this case his calculations were based on too small a margin of safety and upset by circumstances beyond his control’. In the Judge’s opinion, the accident was caused by ‘a combination of poor judgement and misfortune’.

The judgement was delivered on 29 November 1937; the case was dismissed with costs awarded to the HCB.

Neither the HCB nor the Neptun’s owners claimed that the pilot or crew was responsible, or had acted in any way improper. The ship was a victim of the unpredictable and shifting sands which characterise the Humber to this day.

Robert Astin, Project Archivist