The IFI scoops prestigious prize for novel digital archiving project

4 Dec 2018

Exterior of the IFI. Image: IFI

The IFI drew extensive inspiration from the open source software community to improve its digital archiving pipeline.

The Irish Film Institute (IFI) beat out major contenders such as the White House Historical Association, UK Parliamentary Archives and the West Sussex Records Office at this year’s Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC) Awards.

Held in the Amsterdam Museum, the prestigious DPC Fellowship award was accepted by Kasandra O’Connell, head of the IFI Irish Film Archive, and Kieran O’Leary, the IFI’s data and digital systems manager. The institute was recognised for its pioneering work on the IFI Loopline Project, in the ‘Safeguarding the Digital Legacy’ category.

The Irish Film Archive was inspired by the open source software community to develop IFIScripts, a suite of 55 open source scripts to support and automate its digital preservation activities. The scripts have since been shared with the global preservation community and are now used by the British Film Institute and the University of California, Berkeley.

Not only has IFIScripts helped the Irish Film Archive fulfil its digital preservation remit within its limited staff and financial resources, but it has completed its first end-to-end application on a preservation project for a collection of material from leading Irish production company Loopline Film.

The project necessitated creating new custom tools, including the creation of a computer program that allowed the Irish Film Archive to identify where there were multiple copies of the same file, partial files and fragments. The team drew up guidelines that allowed them to identify these duplicate and corrupt files, which were then isolated and eliminated via a verification tool as an automated way to appraise the 350,000 objects concerned. It would have been impossible to watch and assess each individual item otherwise.

An idea born out of frustration spoke to O’Leary and O’Connell about the project. O’Leary said: “IFIScripts was born out of frustration, namely internal budget constraints and unresponsive commercial vendors, which inspired us to look to the Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) community for solutions that would support our digital preservation activities in a sustainable and efficient manner.”

According to O’Leary, as his proficiency in Python increased, the scripts grew in sophistication. Inspired by the work of fellow archivist Dave Rice of CUNY TV, O’Leary chose to publish the scripts to GitHub as they were written.

He added: “It’s very heartwarming to hear the different ways that our tools are accessed by other users. Sometimes it’s just straightforward usage by archivists, but sometimes it’s by folks working in film festivals who use the tools to work with Digital Cinema Packages. Other times users improve our scripts, and sometimes they are just used as a reference for someone who wants to build something similar.”

A digital transformation journey

The IFI has been in the middle of a major digital transformation drive for some time now, which has transformed its ability to “to collect, preserve and make accessible the digital collections which we are acquiring in ever-increasing quantities”. It added: “This transformation to digital has not only required the acquisition of new technological solutions, but staff have also been obliged to develop new skills and new ways of thinking about collections management and access.”

From the Irish Adverts Project cataloguing and digitising ads from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, to the Irish Independence Film Collection, which consists of historic newsreels from 1900 to 1930, the archive has accomplished a lot in such a short time.

O’Connell added that the staff of the Irish Film Archive were the driving force behind this major win. “Of course, none of this could have happened without the willingness of the IFI Irish Film Archive staff to leap into the unknown, upskill and enthusiastically embrace change. Their fearlessness and ingenuity over the last five years has been remarkable, and this nomination is public recognition of that.”

She added that in a general sense, more needs to be done to underline the importance of digital preservation, even in day-to-day life. “All the content that makes up our personal histories is in danger of being lost through benign neglect because people just don’t realise how vulnerable it is.

“I genuinely believe that basic digital preservation should be taught in schools. A really good starting point for anyone interested in looking after their digital content is the Library of Congress’s personal digital preservation resource.”

O’Connell noted that as the IFI is the “custodian of Ireland’s moving image heritage”, preserving material digitally is crucial to protect against media obsolescence, format deterioration and other risks.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects