H-Net: Preserving and Improving Access to Specialized Electronic Mailing List Archives
H-Net Digital Preservation Policies and Procedures
Digital Preservation Policy Framework for the H-Net Electronic Mailing Lists
Developed by Lisa M. Schmidt, Electronic Records Archivist, MATRIX, June 2009
H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online includes more than 180 academic networks hosted by MATRIX: Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online at Michigan State University. In addition to these public electronic mailing lists, or discussion logs, H-Net includes more than 230 "private" lists used by administrators. Compilations of years of academic discourse, the H-Net lists are considered a valuable scholarly resource that requires a long-term preservation plan.
This digital preservation policy framework for the H-Net e-mail lists is modeled on version 2.0 of an outline developed by Nancy Y. McGovern, digital preservation officer at the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR). The organization of the framework reflects the seven attributes of a trusted digital repository from the Trusted Digital Repositories: Attributes and Responsibilities report, a de facto standard of the digital preservation community. These include:
- 1 OAIS Compliance
- 2 Administrative Responsibility
- 3 Organizational Viability
- 4 Financial Sustainability
- 5 Technological and Procedural Suitability
- 6 System Security
- 7 Procedural Accountability
1. OAIS Compliance
In the interests of best preserving the scholarly content of the H-Net e-mail lists, MATRIX recognizes the need to comply with the standards of the digital preservation community. To that end, MATRIX has committed to developing its digital preservation policies and strategies for the lists in accordance with the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) model (ISO 14721:2003). MATRIX follows and responds to related OAIS initiatives, including developments in digital archives certification. The mapping of H-Net's preservation system to the OAIS model is described in H-Net E-Mail List Conformance to OAIS: Information Packages and H-Net Message Ingest, Storage, and Retrieval Processes.
2. Administrative Responsibility
As documented in its Constitution (Article II), H-Net is an international consortium of humanities and social sciences scholars that creates and coordinates electronic networks with the objective of advancing humanities and social science teaching, research, and outreach. In keeping with this mission, MATRIX and H-Net are committed to ensuring long-term access to the H-Net e-mail lists and the scholarly communication that they represent.
In H-Net's Strategic Plan (2005), a strategy supporting the goal of Content Development includes a provision for the permanent archiving of the H-Net discussion logs. As the highest level H-Net e-mail list preservation policy, the Digital Preservation Policy Framework supports this strategy. It recognizes that "permanent archiving" of digital content requires preservation planning and makes explicit the commitment of MATRIX and H-Net to preserving the H-Net e-mail lists through a comprehensive and evolving digital preservation plan. The audience includes H-Net editors, council members, subscribers, staff, researchers, and public users, as well as H-Net and MATRIX staff.
H-Net's mandate for preservation of its e-mail lists includes the following:
- Scholarly commitment: The digital preservation program for the H-Net e-mail lists supports H-Net's mission of enhancing scholarly communication by ensuring continued access to the academic discourse contained in H-Net messages. To this end, H-Net also supports the broader scholarly missions of MATRIX, the Michigan State University College of Social Science, and the university itself.
- Subscriber and user services: H-Net archives its e-mail lists and provides subscribers, users, and administrators with ongoing access to them.
- Grant: In 2007, MATRIX received grant funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for a two-year project to assess and improve upon the preservation practices for H-Net.
The digital preservation function of the H-Net e-mail list archive addresses the following objectives:
- Maintain a comprehensive digital preservation program for the growing list archive.
- Ensure accessibility and availability of H-Net messages into the future.
- Demonstrate auditable compliance with the standards and practices of the digital preservation community.
- Adapt preservation strategies to incorporate the capabilities of new and emerging technologies and standards.
3 Organizational Viability
The digital preservation function for the e-mail lists is integrated into the operations of MATRIX and H-Net and throughout every stage of list management.
MATRIX and H-Net accept responsibility for approving, ingesting, creating metadata for, preserving, and providing access to all messages submitted by list members and posted by editors in accordance with the H-Net By-Laws (Section 2.03). Digital Asset Policies for the H-Net E-Mail Lists, H-Net Message Ingest, Storage, and Retrieval Processes, and Digital Preservation Strategies for the H-Net E-Mail Lists describe these processes and strategies.
3.2 Operating Principles
The digital preservation function for the H-Net e-mail lists operates in accordance with a set of principles. MATRIX and H-Net will strive to:
- Comply with OAIS and other digital preservation standards and practices.
- Ensure that archived H-Net messages can be made accessible to users while remaining readable, meaningful, and understandable.
- Participate in digital preservation community standards and practices.
- Maintain a reliable, sustainable, and auditable digital preservation repository.
- Manage the hardware, software, and storage media components for the digital preservation function in accordance with environmental standards, quality control specifications, and security requirements.
3.3 Roles and Responsibilities
As an organization acting on behalf of H-Net's members, subscribers, contributors, researchers, and other users, MATRIX has accepted responsibility for preserving the H-Net e-mail lists. Within H-Net, the Director, Associate Director, Systems Administrator, and e-mail list editors all contribute to the management of the digital preservation function, along with the Electronic Records Archivist and Directors at MATRIX. The H-Net Council, an elected advisory board, reviews and must approve digital preservation plans and policy documents, as put forth in the H-Net Constitution (Article V). Roles and Responsibilities for Digital Preservation of the H-Net E-Mail Lists provides descriptions of the roles and current assignments.
3.4 Selection and Acquisition
TheH-Net By-Laws (Section 2.03) describe the submission guidelines for the H-Net e-mail lists. In most cases, only subscribers may submit to a list. Once approved by the list editor as appropriate to the discourse represented by that list, the message is posted and becomes part of the H-Net archive. Digital Asset Policies for the H-Net E-Mail Lists provides more information on selection and acquisition policies.
3.5 Access and Use
The designated community of H-Net e-mail public list users, as described by OAIS, includes list subscribers, researchers, and other users interested in H-Net academic subject areas. For the private lists, the designated community includes administrators and editors with subscription and access permissions. Users may access list archives through a browser interface or LISTSERV commands. The H-Net Constitution (Article VIII) and By-Laws (Section 2.04) describe use policies. While authors retain copyright of posted messages, submitting a message for approval grants H-Net the right to distribute it. Users who wish to cite information in a posted message must include an attribution to the original author.
Digital Asset Policies for the H-Net E-Mail Lists provides more information on access and use policies. "H-Net Policy on Copyright and Intellectual Property" provides a thorough explanation of this copyright policy.
3.6 Challenges and Risks
MATRIX and H-Net face the following digital preservation challenges:
- Technological change: MATRIX and H-Net must be responsive to continually changing technology. As information technology evolves, new digital content types, capabilities, and preservation challenges emerge and existing digital content faces the risk of obsolescence.
- Application to preservation of other digital content: While the H-Net e-mail lists consist primarily of plain text files, MATRIX is responsible for a variety of more complex digital content, including document, image, audio, and video files. Digital preservation policies, procedures, and practices developed for the H-Net e-mail lists may be used as models for the preservation of other MATRIX digital content.
- Training and awareness: Nearly all MATRIX and H-Net staff members contribute directly and indirectly to the digital preservation function, although it is not an explicit or significant area of responsibility for most. MATRIX and H-Net are committed to providing appropriate training for and raising awareness of digital preservation issues and developments for internal staff as well as the broader community of H-Net Council members, list editors, partner organizations, and users.
4 Financial Sustainability
MATRIX has identified resources to support and enhance it digital preservation function, including ongoing digital preservation support for the H-Net e-mail lists.
4.1 Institutional Commitment
To sustain the digital preservation function for the H-Net e-mail lists and other initiatives, MATRIX and H-Net have allocated funding to digital preservation services. This includes support for positions held by staff committed to and trained in digital preservation as well as the ongoing systems administration function. MATRIX also continually seeks external research funding to extend its digital preservation scope and capabilities and has secured contracts to fund initiatives that include digital preservation. In the event that MATRIX must cede responsibility of H-Net to another hosting organization, only a succession partner that can ensure ongoing digital preservation support will be considered.
4.2 Cooperation and Collaboration
MATRIX acknowledges digital preservation as a shared community responsibility, and as such has long-standing and emerging partnerships with similarly committed units at Michigan State University as well as museums, libraries, and archives worldwide that hold collections of humanities teaching and learning materials. The MATRIX website includes a list of these partner organizations.
5 Technological and Procedural Suitability
The digital content of the H-Net e-mail list archive consists of a growing body of text-based e-mail messages and supporting databases and documentation. The archive files and all LISTSERV application software components are hosted on servers kept on the MATRIX premises running the Debian distribution of Linux. On an annual basis, an archive is made to tape of the past year's messages. Archival Copies of H-Net provides information on the contents, creation, and maintenance of these archival tapes.
All messages sent to a list first route to that list's editor. On receipt of a message, the editor reviews it to determine its appropriateness for posting. Once posted, the message receives checksum hashes for fixity and message discovery purposes. Seven days worth of messages are stored in the order they were posted in files known as "notebooks." Message metadata is written to a database cache to aid in expedited message retrieval. Users retrieve screen views of messages through a browser interface or LISTSERV commands. H-Net Message Ingest, Storage, and Retrieval Processes provides a detailed explanation of how messages are submitted, maintained, and accessed.
H-Net messages are in ASCII, UTF-8, and other text formats, and attachments are not allowed on the public lists. There are no format migration or normalization plans for attachments to messages on the private lists. Attachments are rare--found with less than 0.01 percent of all H-Net messages--and the majority are in common formats that can be opened and read in viewers, other versions of the application, or other applications. Digital Preservation Strategies for the H-Net E-Mail Lists describes this and other preservation strategies for the H-Net lists in more detail.
6 System Security
MATRIX is committed to the security of all data and applications hosted on its servers, including H-Net data and related files. Incremental backups of the MATRIX servers are performed daily and full backups performed weekly to archival-quality tapes stored at the Cyclotron building across campus at Michigan State University. MATRIX also has two offsite storage plans: a reciprocal storage arrangement with the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and storage of additional sets of full backup tapes at a facility located a few miles away from the Michigan State campus. Information Security for Digital Assets at MATRIX provides detailed information on backup and security practices.
MATRIX and H-Net ensure the authenticity and integrity of the content of the H-Net messages through the active and ongoing use of cryptographic hash functions. In addition, MATRIX will conduct periodic audits of the H-Net e-mail lists in archival storage. Ensuring the Integrity of the H-Net E-Mail Lists provides more detailed information about how MATRIX ensures list integrity.
7 Procedural Accountability
MATRIX and H-Net are committed to developing, promulgating, and maintaining a comprehensive set of policies and procedures that support best practices in digital preservation.
7.1 Audit and Transparency
As part of an NHPRC digital preservation grant, MATRIX conducted test audits of the H-Net e-mail lists using the Center for Research Libraries (CRL)/Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) Trusted Repositories Audit & Certification (TRAC): Criteria and Checklist in February 2008 and again in July 2009. H-Net is committed to running a self-assessment every two years to evaluate and adjust the policies, procedures, preservation approaches, and practices of the digital preservation function for the H-Net lists. A complete set of current policies will be available on the H-Net website, pending the approval of the H-Net Council.
7.2 Digital Preservation Policy Framework Administration
The digital preservation policy framework was completed in June 2009 and is awaiting the approval of the H-Net Council as of July 2009. MATRIX and H-Net will review the framework every two years to ensure that it remains current and comprehensive.
Citations provides a list of H-Net, MATRIX, digital preservation community, and other documents that have informed the development and maintenance of this framework.