A tech developer friend of mine used to describe the documentation he was forced to write by his management as “write-only”, as no-one would ever bother to read it. But as an archivist, what happens if no-one can read what you have carefully curated and stored for future generations?
Data in a file is only useful if you have a tool that can read it – and there is no guarantee that the commercial tools available today will work or even be available in the years to come (try opening a 1990’s WordPerfect document today!) To solve this, we validate both the content and form of a file as we store it to ensure that it meets the documented standards, and that a standard-based tool could be created to read it if necessary. Fine so far, but how good is the validator, and who will maintain that into the future?
The Open Preservation Foundation (OPF) was established in 2010 to build upon the results of PLANETS, an EU-funded project that addressed challenges in the then-emerging field of digital preservation. Part of our remit is to maintain file format validators, and we have chosen to do that through open source software.
Open source isn’t just another name for free software, it is a different model altogether. An open source tool’s source code is open for all to see, examine, and correct if it is flawed. This generates a community guarantee that the tool works as advertised, but also the ability for a tool to live long after it’s creator is active. Who would have thought that SUN Microsystems, Nokia, Motorola and many more 1990’s giant companies would no longer be around in 2020?
OPF’s open source hack events are opportunities for users to make meaningful contributions to the software they use in their work. Participants in our 2019 events significantly boosted the development effort we could apply to the likes of JHOVE. As a result, we were able to release a version of JHOVE that was made up almost entirely of community contributions. We are producing more releases of this kind, and are currently in the fifth week of our Spring Hackathon, the biggest OPF event of it’s kind to date!
Open source development is about creating knowledge, tools and communities that are sustainable for the long term. Increasingly, the archival, records, and data management landscape faces new challenges, from maintaining trustworthy sources of information to evaluating the benefits of emerging technologies. Adopting open source principles and embracing collaboration and sustainability can help to drive progress and ensure durable and viable solutions to these challenges and those that are yet to come.
Martin Wrigley, Open Preservation Foundation