Catching up with past NDSA Excellence Awards Winners: Project Electron

In 2020, Project Electron received the NDSA Innovation Award in the Project category. It impressed the awards panel with its comprehensive adaptation and extension of traditional archival principles and workflows to digital materials. A multi-year initiative at the Rockefeller Archive Center, it sought to implement sustainable, user-centered, and standards-compliant infrastructure to support the ongoing acquisition, management, and preservation of archival digital records. The panel also appreciated the positioning of this initiative as an open-source and standards-based effort. This would allow maximum opportunities for its transferability to other programmatic contexts in a time when many archival institutions face significant challenges in supporting digitized and born-digital records and special collections. Headshot for Hillel Arnold

We contacted Hillel Arnold and found out how Project Electron has evolved and learned how it has impacted other work.

1) What have you been doing since receiving an NDSA Excellence Award?

We operationalized Project Electron in August 2019. Since then, we’ve continued to build on the infrastructure, methodologies, and expertise we built during the project.

One of the next big pieces of work we undertook was a complete rebuild of our discovery environment, locally branded as DIMES. The knowledge about building event-driven pipelines we picked up from Project Electron shaped this project, and also allowed us to complete it relatively quickly under challenging circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can read more about this project in the blog post announcing its launch.

Once we’d done all of that, the number of applications we needed to maintain had grown significantly, so we’ve also spent a fair amount of time improving our maintenance chops. As many folks know, I feel strongly that maintenance practices are both a core part of technology work as well as an enabler of strategic initiatives. We refined our continuous integration and continuous deployment pipelines, and instituted regular, efficient processes for dependency management. This continues to be an important area of focus for us, as we look for ways to implement DevOps methodologies and tools which help to expand our pool of developers among our colleagues. 

Finally, we’ve continued to invest in building a User Experience and Accessibility program to support ongoing evaluation and improvement of these systems. 

2) What did receiving the NDSA award mean to you?

For us, the Innovation Award was important because it provided external validation not only of what we were doing, but how we were going about it. It felt really good to know that other people saw value in what we were doing, even if they weren’t going to use our code, or if a completely different approach made sense for them. It also verified that our project values had been instrumental in directing us towards solutions that were reproducible and based in archival standards and practice. Most of all though, the award reaffirmed our participation in a community of digital preservation practitioners, which is incredibly important to the project team as well as the Rockefeller Archive Center as an institution. We have a lot to learn from each other!

3) How has Project Electron evolved since you won the Excellence Award?

As I mentioned above, Project Electron was an important platform for us in a number of ways. On the systems side, the approach we took has allowed us to extend the existing infrastructure to support additional workflows. So far we’ve built additional services to support a data pipeline for archival description, creation of image derivatives and IIIF manifests, and we’re in the process of building out services to support the ingest of digitized AV content. We’ve also spent some time improving the infrastructure’s scalability so we can process large files and large packages of files. 

Going into the project, we always knew we would have to build more than just software applications. So, we’ve also spent a significant amount of time building a user community around the tools and working to support adoption across our donor organizations. In many cases this has involved implementing other tools such as DART to support the creation of BagIt bags by organizations. 

We’re also trying to find ways to support records management processes in our donor organizations, since having an empowered records management function is key to successfully onboarding organizations because they are an effective way of mitigating concerns many of our donor organizations have about risk management. We’ve taken some broader approaches in this area too, such as spinning up a Records and Information Management Program to support these efforts, as well as establishing the Advancing Foundation Archives conference and community. 

4) What do you currently see as some of the biggest challenges in digital preservation?  

Climate change. In order for the work of digital preservation to be useful, there needs to be a future in which the records we’re preserving will be used. Thankfully, there is a growing conversation around issues of climate change and sustainability, and the ways that digital preservation is impacted by and can impact them. The things that make us skilled digital preservation practitioners (thinking about systems, data flows and disaster recovery) are also key ingredients in supporting sustainability, so we have a lot to offer. At the same time, significant changes in this area are going to require us to both work collectively across the entire archival sector, and also to develop partnerships outside of it.

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Learn more about the other winners from the 2020 NDSA Innovation Awards!

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