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ArchivePress: When One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Posted by Richard M. Davis on 24th June 2009

ArchivePress (logo)JISC-PoWR has discussed many times how best to preserve blogs for future use. No one should be in any doubt any more that there are rapidly growing corpora of blogs that contain valuable information or commentary – scholarly, actual, political, or personal – which merit keeping no less than famous and not-so-famous journals and diaries of the past.

Yet, as we discovered in JISC-PoWR, few institutions have truly incorporated web archiving into their overall records and asset-management systems, let alone recognised the specific value of blog content (or even of using blogging to replace traditional approaches to reporting and minuting). Perhaps it just seems too complicated. For those that want to, the only tools that seem to be readily available are specialised tools – like Web Curator Tool and PANDAS – that utilise crawlers like Heritrix and HTTrack to copy websites by harvesting the HTML framework, and following hyperlinks to gather further embedded or linked content. The result might typically be a bunch of ARC/WARC files (a file format specifically designed to encapsulate the results of web crawls), containing snapshots of the browser-oriented rendering of web resources. For many web resources, especially static pages, this is sufficient. When it comes to blogs, though, the archived results seem a bit too static – as I noted in an earlier JISC-PoWR post.

Treating blogs only as web pages overlooks the fact that they are derived from rich, dynamic data sources, and are usually databases themselves. An archive of blogs should allow us to do exactly the same kind of selection as on a live blog: selecting posts by author, date, category, tag. And since a blog is structured data, isn’t the underlying data a more appropriate target for long-term preservation, rather than endless, often duplicate copies of just one particular view of that data?

So what if, instead, the archiving tool were a bit of software already in use, or at least widely used, supported and understood? And Open Source, naturally.

This is the premise behind ArchivePress, a new JISC-funded project being undertaken by ULCC and the British Library. It is a ‘proof-of-concept’ project to progressively explore the implications and possibilities of using newsfeeds and blogging software – WordPress, of course – to capture and archive blog content dynamically, as it happens. ArchivePress will demonstrate the use of feed-reading aggregation to populate the database automatically with posts, comments and embedded content. The result will be a working model of a WordPress installation, with extra plugins, which can be easily setup by any institution to harvest content from blogs they have an interest in. We’ll continue our association with UKOLN, who, along with Lincoln University and the Digital Curation Centre, have agreed to let us use some of their blogs in our development and testing.

In some respects there seems nothing terribly new to anyone already adept with blogs, newsfeeds and newsreaders – except that this appears to be the first attempt to exploit them to create accessible, managed collections of blog posts, with the potential to meet the more exacting requirements of archives and records management, such as reliability and authenticity. Even organisations that have a single mandated blog platform may wish to consider this approach to preserving their blog content. ArchivePress might also be of value to other blog-based activities, from local-history projects, to school and college blogs.

ArchivePress has its own website and blog, that will build a cumulative picture of its results and the issues it encounters over the next 6 months. It wouldn’t have been possible without JISC-PoWR, and we hope it will complement that work. Please check it out and add it to your feed reader. We have a great team who will be contributing, including Maureen Pennock (ex-UKOLN, now at British Library) and Ed Pinsent (UKWAC and JISC-PoWR) – and we even plan to squeeze some guest posts out of web preservation alumni. I’ll also be talking about ArchivePress at the Missing Links workshop at the British Library in July.

Posted in Challenges, Events, missinglinks09, Software, Web 2.0 | 11 Comments »

Set a blog to catch a blog…

Posted by Richard M. Davis on 23rd March 2009

Much discussion of blog preservation focuses on how to preserve the blogness of blogs: how can we make a web archive store, manage and deliver preserved blogs in a way that is faithful to the original?

Nesting...

Since it is blogging applications that provide this stucture and behaviour (usually from simple database tables of Posts, Comments, Users, etc), perhaps we should consider making blogging software behave more like an archive. How difficult would that be? Do we need to hire a developer?

One interesting thing about WordPress is the number of uses its simple blog model has been put to. Under-the-hood it is based on a remarkably simple data base schema of about 10 tables and a suite of PHP scripts, functions and libraries that provide the interface to that data. Its huge user-base has contributed a wide variety of themes and additional functions. It can be turned into a Twitter-like microblog (P2 and Prologue) or a fully-fledged social network (WordPress MU, Buddypress).

Another possibility exploited by a 3rd-party plugin is that of using WordPress as an aggregating blog, collecting posts automatically via RSS from other blogs: this seems like a promising basis for starting to develop an archive of blogs, in a blog.

The plugin in question is called FeedWordPress. It uses the Links feature of WordPress as the basis of a list of feeds which it checks regularly, importing new content when it finds it, as Posts within WordPress.

I installed FeedWordPress a while ago on ULCC’s DA Blog, and set it up to import all of the ULCC-contributed posts to JISC-PoWR, i.e. those by Ed Pinsent, Kevin Ashley and myself. I did this because I felt that these contributions warrant being part of ULCC’s insitutional record of its activities, and that DA Blog was the best to place to address this, as things stand.

JISC-PoWR also runs on WordPress, therefore I knew that, thanks to WordPress’s REST-like interface and Cool URIs, it is easy not only to select an individual author’s posts (/author/kevinashley) but also the RSS feed thereof (/author/kevinashley/feed). This, for each of the three author accounts, was all I needed to start setting up FeedWordPress in DA Blog to take an automatic copy each time any of us contributed to JISC-PoWR.The “author” on the original post has been mapped to an author in DA Blog, so posts are automatically (and correctly) attributed. The import also preserves, in custom fields, a considerable amount of contextual information about the posts in their original location.

In many cases, I’ve kept the imported post private in DA Blog. “Introductory” posts for the JISC-PoWR project blog, for example: as editor of DA Blog, I didn’t feel we needed to trouble our readers there with them; nevertheless they are stored in the blog database, as part of “the record” of our activities.

This is, admittedly, a very small-scale test of this approach, but the kind of system I’ve described is unquestionably a rudimentary blog archive, that can be set up relatively easily using WordPress and FeedWordPress – no coding necessary. Content is then searchable, sortable, exportable (SQL, RSS, etc). (Note, by the way, what happens when you use the Search box on the JISC-PoWR blog copy in UKWAC: this won’t happen with this approach!)

For organisations with many staff blogging on diverse public platforms this would be one approach to ensuring that these activities are recorded and preserved. UKOLN, for example, manages its own blog farm, while Brian and Marieke have blogs at WordPress.com (as well as contributing to this one), and Paul Walk appears to manage his own blog and web space. This kind of arrangement is not uncommon, nor the problem of how an institution get a grasp on material in all these different locations (it’s been at the heart of many JISC-PoWR workshop discussions). A single, central, self-hosted, aggregating blog, automatically harvesting the news feeds of all these blogs, might be a low-cost, quick-start approach to securing data in The Cloud, and safeguarding the corporate memory.

There are more issues to address. What of comments or embedded images? Can it handle Twitter tweets as well as blog posts? Does it scale? What of look-and-feel, individual themes, etc? Now we start needing some more robust tests and decisions, maybe even a developer or two to build a dedicated suite of “ArchivePress” plugins. But thanks to the power and Open-ness of  WordPress, and the endless creativity of its many users, we have a promising and viable short-term solution, and a compelling place to start further exploration.

Posted in Preservation, Software, Web 2.0 | 4 Comments »

PDF web page capture

Posted by Kevin Ashley on 13th September 2008

During the last JISC PoWR workshop yesterday in Manchester (of which more anon) I made brief mention of a tool from Adobe which allows web pages, or entire sites, to be captured to a PDF file. I mentioned this primarily to illustrate one of the three points at which web capture can take place (behind the server; from the HTTP transaction; or browser-side) but it generated considerable interest, and I promised to blog about the product since I could not remember what it was called.

It turns out that it’s not a separate product, nor a plug-in, but a built-in part of Adobe Acrobat. It was first available as a free add-on for Acrobat 4 in 1998 or 1999 , and I think it was then that I first saw this demonstrated at the PRO (as it then was) – hence my misunderstanding. Tools like this have their place, but (like all web preservation technologies) they also have their drawbacks. PDF’s print-oriented format isn’t a good match to some sites, much as some sites don’t look good when you try to print them. (In fact, I believe that Acrobat Web Capture effectively uses the browser’s print engine combined with PDF writer pseudo-printer to do its work, so there will be a close correlation.) But we’ll be covering this tool, along with others, in the handbook.

Posted in Software, Workshops | 2 Comments »