In my last blog post I wrote about HSP’s ongoing wrestling match with its card catalog and the difficulties in converting legacy systems and data. One thing I failed to mention is the importance of designing any information system with future data migration in mind. This is of particular importance for an archival institution, like HSP, which has the end goal of maintaining records in perpetuity.
The graphics shelf list currently going through conversion survived as a viable access and retrieval system at HSP for more than a century. That system’s time has finally come, however, and for a variety of reasons (most of which could not have been predicted in the age of steam) we must spend a large amount of effort to bring its data into the digital realm. Surely it will be more simple in the future to migrate systems which are already digital?
Computer systems currently have a very brief lifetime. MANX, the manuscript management system at HSP built from a Microsoft Access database, has been in use for less than a decade and already needs to be replaced. Hardly the same life expectancy as the card catalog. Even so, MANX can be considered a dinosaur in the tech world where it is recommended that most systems be cycled out every 3 to 5 years. What can we do to prevent future difficulties in managing and migrating data from one system to the next?
Since we cannot predict what the future will hold, the best thing we can do is collaborate and standardize. We are moving ahead in this spirit at HSP by adopting the Archivists’ Toolkit open source software (AT). Though I am currently having some difficulties in getting data from MANX into AT, due to the nature of moving from one data model to another, I believe that once imported the data will be easier to migrate into future systems. AT has community support, is becoming more widely adopted, and has a data model built on the DACS rules. All of this translates into support from peers when it is time to move to something new, as well as widely adopted content standard in which to frame your information. Simply put, you no longer need to be alone when designing an archives system, and there will be many others in a proverbial migration boat built with the same structure come a few years time. All of this provides an incentive in the archival profession to find solutions to future migration issues together, hopefully making the jump from one system to the next a far easier task than what many of us face today.
There is no guarantee that community driven and profession specific software will solve all of our migration issues. There are many who are skeptical of open source software and fear adopting a system that relies on development and support by their peers. While there are certain risks involved, I believe that building these systems together will in the long run make things easier for us all. I only hope these efforts allow the systems librarians who succeed me in centuries to come find their migration tasks less challenging than mine.