Tag Archives: Alexander Architectural Archives

Disk ≠ Image: Creative Solutions to Issues in Born-Digital Processing

Hello. It’s Abbie again, back with another installment on processing and publishing the Volz & Associates, Inc. collection. I recently had the opportunity to present on this collection at The University of Texas’ 2019 Digital Preservation Symposium, where I discussed some of my solutions to born-digital access and preservation issues.

In the course of processing this collection, some of the most significant roadblocks were related to problematic disk images and metadata generation. These revolved around two distinct media types: zip disks and CDs. The collection contains 85 inventoried zip disks. When these were imaged and analyzed in BitCurator, the report came back riddled with error messages. Even though the disk images had been generated successfully, something was keeping fiwalk from generating the correct metadata. This made it impossible to determine necessary information like disk extent, content, and the presence of possible PII or malware.

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Results for the zip disk analysis. Not what you want to see!

When processing CDs, I noticed a group of about a dozen disks each had the exact same metadata. While some similarities are expected, I thought it was strange that that many disks from different projects could each have identical specs. I analyzed the disk images and physical disks and found that they were all CDs of photos processed by the same company. The original content of the disks had been overwritten by the company’s built-in structural and technical metadata, making the disk images virtually useless for research purposes. However, when these disks were mounted in FTK Imager, a write-blocked environment, it became clear that the original images were still extant – they just weren’t being picked up in the disk images.

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Optical disks with identical metadata.

In both of these cases, I knew that the original content could be reached but didn’t know how to access it while adhering to the best practices set up by both the digital archiving community and the resources at my disposal. The disks with these issues amounted to nearly 1/5 of the imaged collection, and many hours of research and testing were put into how I could reprocess this information. Ultimately, I found myself faced with a choice – I could either preserve inaccurate representations of the disk by retaining the existing disk images or preserve inaccurate representations of the metadata by extracting extant files instead of preserving a disk image. The issue with preserving the metadata as it stood was that it was wrong to begin with, and the resources at hand didn’t provide a solution.

When thinking about how best to reprocess this information, I was drawn to this quote from a study undertaken by Julia Kim, the Digital Assets Manager at the Library of Congress:

“Most of the researchers emphasized that if it came to partially processed files or emulations and a significant time delay in processing, they would take unprocessed and relatively inauthentic files. Access by any means, and ease of access were stressed by the majority.”

“Researcher Interactions with Born-Digital: Out of the Frying Pan and into the Reading Room,” saaers.wordpress.com

While we certainly don’t want to prioritize patron opinion over archival standards, this quote made me question whether sacrificing access and preservation to retain imperfect metadata could truly be considered “best practice.”

Working closely with the UT Libraries Digital Stewardship department, I created a workflow whereby I extracted files using FTK Imager and generated SIPS and a bulk_extractor report using the Canadian Center for Architecture’s Folder Processing Tool in the BitCurator environment. The only impact on the metadata was a change in the “Date Modified” field, which now showed the date the files were extracted and could be amended to reflect the most recent date in the file tree. While this is an unconventional approach to digital preservation, the resulting AIPs and DIPs are better representations of the original disks and will allow us to provide more comprehensive data for future researchers.

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The amended workflow.
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Our new results.

After my presentation, I had the opportunity to talk to a digital archivist about this workflow. We discussed how best practice is ultimately not about perfection, but about preserving and providing access to our materials and documenting the process. While somewhat contrasted from the theoretical approaches I’d both learned in class and adapted from online resources, this approach seemed more natural to me. It affirmed both my processing decisions and the opinions I’ve developed about what best practice in the archival community is and should be. This process has shown me how vital the user is to the archive, especially when developing workflows for digital materials.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I love having opportunities to exercise creativity and problem solving in this position. It’s even better when those opportunities lead to breakthroughs that help me grow professionally and enhance the data we provide patrons. I’m excited to see new developments in our born-digital workflow as we get closer to making this collection available to patrons. Check back soon for a (final?) update from me – I hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about the behind-the-scenes work of born-digital archiving.

The Volz & Associates, Inc. Collection: Born-Digital Initiatives at the AAA

One of the many structures VOH Architects worked on: the Littlefield House on the University of Texas at Austin campus.
One of the many structures VOH Architects worked on: the Littlefield House on the University of Texas at Austin campus.

Hello! My name is Abbie Norris, and I am the current digital archives Graduate Research Assistant at the Alexander Architectural Archives. My primary job is processing the born-digital content received in the Volz & Associates, Inc. collection. This collection contains the records of the Volz & Associates, Inc. architecture firm, which is focused primarily on preserving and restoring historic buildings and interiors. The collection showcases notable buildings from Texas and United States history and is an excellent resource to discover how much is needed to keep historic buildings authentic and alive.

A gray CD reading "Images for Volz: Elisabet Ney Museum, April 2007"
A sample CD from the collection. Born-digital archiving requires preservation two ways: retention of the original media and capture of the data for long-term storage.

The Volz Collection is significant to the Alexander for several reasons, but most importantly, it is the archive’s first large-scale born-digital accession. In addition to analog records and building materials, the collection includes roughly 450 floppy disks, 250 CDs, 90 zip disks, and one lone flash drive. These materials document the life of the firm from the early 1980s to the mid 2010s. So far, we have imaged over 100 filetypes representing everything from office files to construction reports to historic photographs. It’s a diverse array, and as the project moves forward, we’re faced with many questions about how best to provide access to researchers.

As diverse as the filetypes are the kinds of buildings included in the collection – though many are tied by one important identity. Volz  worked on buildings of many functions, styles, and preservation needs. While these buildings span the United States, the majority of them are located in Texas. Included are the Governor’s Mansion, the Alamo, the Lyndon B. Johnson Ranch, and the Alexander’s own Battle Hall. I love working with this visual representation of Texas history. Whether it’s by noticing design similarities between county courthouses or the way historic landmarks are used and maintained, the collection is an in-depth look into how architecture shapes our state and its identity.

Scaffolding covers a green dome atop a white tower.
Restoration underway on the Colorado County Courthouse dome. Photo credit: Volz O’Connell Hutson Architects, (http://voharchitects.com/projects/colorado-county-courthouse/).

In my four months of working with this collection, I’ve learned an incredible amount about both the intricacies of born-digital archiving and the breadth of work architects do. Through the frustration of software bugs and the triumph of imaging previously unreadable disks, this is a fascinating collection that provides many learning opportunities.

The next steps of the project are to finalize the creation of a finding aid for these born-digital materials and to determine methods of access once the collection is published. Check back here soon for collection updates and an in-depth look at the world of born-digital archiving at the Alexander Architectural Archives!

School of Architecture Event Recordings

For the past seven years, UT’s School of Architecture has been posting videos of lectures, forums, and other presentations hosted by the school to their dedicated Vimeo page. The turnaround is superb; many events held just this fall, like a talk given in October by alumnus Craig Dykers of Snøhetta, are already available online for anyone who missed them, whether for reasons geographical (hard to find a cheap flight from Oslo) or spatial (they simply couldn’t find an open seat in the packed lecture hall).

For the past three years, we at the Alexander Architectural Archives also have been working (until now behind the scenes) to provide online access to past School of Architecture events, albeit from a different, earlier era, when programs were recorded on audio cassettes instead of HD video. Cassette tapes, unfortunately, are a notoriously unstable storage medium. Their magnetic tape is particularly susceptible to degradation through processes like acid hydrolysis. So, since 2013, we’ve been collaborating with Digitization Services at UT’s Perry-Castañeda Library to digitize a collection of approximately two hundred cassette recordings of interviews and public lectures given at the School of Architecture during the 1980s and 1990s by prominent architects and architectural historians from both the United States and abroad, including AIA Gold Medalists Ricardo Legorreta, Charles W. Moore, Glenn Murcutt, and César Pelli, among others.

Audio cassette tapes of UT School of Architecture event recordings from the 1980s and 1990s stored at the Alexander Architectural Archives in Battle Hall

Once reformatted, we review all the audio to capture index terms like persons, places, subjects, and architectural buildings and sites mentioned by speakers so that when the digital files are uploaded to Texas ScholarWorks, UT-Austin’s institutional digital repository, keywords and other descriptive metadata can be added with the files to facilitate search and discovery of the recordings. The audio review process can be arduous, as the original recordings, many of which were of slide lectures, have neither transcripts nor listings of images. Often we must ascertain, through minimal verbal description, which building an architect might have been talking about at a given moment during a lecture, even though someone in the audience at the time would have known immediately simply by looking at the slide being shown.

So far around one hundred of these cassettes have been digitized. Of these, we’ve currently ingested digital versions of over twenty-five of these historic programs (each program might have several .mp3 files associated with it) into Texas ScholarWorks. Anyone with a University of Texas EID can sign in and download and listen to them. (The collection can be browsed and bookmarked here: https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/43672) We also encourage outside researchers who don’t have immediate access to contact us (apl-aaa@lib.utexas.edu) should they want to listen to any particular recording, which we anticipate they will. To read secondary literature about Fay Jones, for instance, is one thing. To listen to his understated, gentlemanly Arkansan drawl reveal the inspiration behind some of his most cherished and sublime of works—how, say, Thorncrown Chapel winks at Sainte-Chapelle—is incomparably more beguiling.

Happy Birthday, Blake Alexander

Blake Alexander in his UT office
Blake Alexander in his UT office

Blake Alexander, namesake of the Alexander Architectural Archive, was born on February 4, 1924 in Paris, Texas. He was a longtime architectural educator at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture as well as a dedicated force in the education, documentation and preservation of Texas heritage.

Professor Alexander first started the collection that today is known as the Alexander Architectural Archive in 1958 when he adapted an assignment for his architectural history course at UT to follow the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) format. This required students to measure and document historic Texas structures. The documentation collection quickly outgrew his office and began to collect in a small storage room, dubbed “Alexander’s Closet”.

Blake Alexander with Ty Cox at Winedale's Lewis Place (Stagecoach Inn)
Blake Alexander with Ty Cox at Winedale’s Lewis Place (Stagecoach Inn)

During the 1960’s, a student brought Professor Alexander large paper sacks full of water-damaged drawings that had survived the 1900 Galveston hurricane. The drawings were from prominent local architect Nicholas Clayton, and sparked the idea to welcome the donation of original drawings by Texas architects that deserved to be preserved. In 1979, The University of Texas Libraries began to collect these drawings in “The Architectural Drawings Collection”.

The “Architectural Drawings Collection” was renamed the “Alexander Architectural Archive” in 1998 after the Texas Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians launched a campaign to honor the archives founder and recognize Professor Alexander’s pioneering contribution to the preservation of our architectural history. Today, the archive contains over 200,000 drawings and over 61 linear feet of papers, photographic materials, models and ephemera representing projects from Texas and beyond. The archive and Professor Alexander’s efforts have been an invaluable resource for restoring some of Texas’ most important and beloved buildings.

Happy Birthday, Blake Alexander!