Australia's history archived in OpenOffice.org

Australia's history will be viewed digitally in the OpenOffice.org office suite as part of plans to preserve the quality and accessibility of government documents.

The National Archives of Australia (NAA) is using the open source software to help store and display archived documents from government agencies.

The decision to use OpenOffice.org came last November, at the beginning of a project to develop methods for preserving digital records, said Perth-based assistant director of digital preservation Simon Davis.

The Agency to Researcher Digital Preservation Project arose from a policy change in 2000 which gave the NAA full custody of to-be-retained digital records from government agencies.

The project team decided that using proprietary data formats for archiving would not ensure files could be opened and replicated on the computer systems of the future.

The NAA must archive some documents for 30 years, and the licensing costs and IP issues associated with proprietary software were deemed too costly.

"Open source is really, really important to us because over time it means we can retain data presentation," said Davis.

"Cross platform development is really important, because we can't say you must have a Windows machine to access this file [in the archives]. Who knows what platform most people will be using in 30 years time? So if you have a Linux machine, for example, you should have equal access."

The introduction of OpenOffice.org was helped by the NAA's decision to use XML as the format to which digital documents are converted for preservation.

Davis said the project team then developed an XML tool for converting and viewing archived documents, XENA (XML Electronic Normalising of Archives).

Based on open source code libraries, the Java-based GUI tool converts documents to XML form.

"It can also render any XML schema it supports, and supports plug-ins to help it work with more file types," he said.

Development of XENA has involved writing viewers for many file types, including obsolete ones, but OpenOffice.org reduced some of this work.

"We don't use XENA for viewing word [processing, spreadsheet, drawing and presentation] documents because we haven't written a viewer that can show documents as well as OpenOffice.org," said Davis.

For these documents, XENA creates a basic XML document and adds metadata. XENA then sends content to OpenOffice.org, which converts the binary data and sends XENA back the XML markup. XENA then "calls" OpenOffice.org to display the document, said Davis.

The NAA will soon convert legacy archives via OpenOffice.org's XML format, which will be "a significant amount of work", said Davis.

However, while this is the best way to preserve documents at present, the NAA was not obliged to use OpenOffice.org forever, he said.

The NAA was "some way off" using OpenOffice.org on their desktop PCs, for instance, he said.

"When the next version of [Microsoft] Office is released, the question will be how well is XML support documented. Can they say there are the 300 tags and if you want to manipulate, this is how you do it," he said.

"If Microsoft's XML is fully documented, then great, we might keep them and OpenOffice.org both in the digital repository," he said.

The Mitchell, ACT-based secure digital repository houses master copies of archived digital documents. The smallest of the four servers in the two purpose-built rooms can hold three quarters of a terabyte, according to Davis.

To help the NAA's XML strategy, Davis joined the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards' Open Office XML Format Technical Committee last year. The Committee consists of companies and individuals around the world that communicate via a weekly teleconference to further OpenOffice.org's XML capabilities.

"Sun [Microsystems] asked us to get involved. Basically my role is to make sure it [the technical developments] suits the NAA, and help archival purposes," said Davis.

"We'd hope many software vendors will use OpenOffice.org's XML in the future, it's really good being fully documented," he said.

Davis said that before the Agency-to-Researcher project ends "around June", the NAA will continue adding to XENA before making it available for download under the GPL "sometime before Christmas". The application would be of benefit to archival institutions, as well as private companies, around the world, he said.

Davis estimated the general public would have to wait about five years until archives in OpenOffice.org format would be available via the NAA's Web site.

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