Case Study II: A National Archive Moves to ODF

Last week I reported on the decision by the City of Bristol, England, to convert its 5,500 desktops from Microsoft Office to Sun Microsystems' StarOffice 8.0, which supports OpenDocument Format (ODF). In the process of making its decision, the City Council of Bristol performed a detailed analysis of total costs of ownership, and posted what it learned on a public Website, providing a useful case study for other govenment entities that might wish to go in the same direction. Today, I'll describe another case study in process: the decision by the National Archives of Australia (NAA) to move its digital archives program to software that supports ODF. The significance of this example is that the NAA gathers in materials from many sources, in many different formats, which will need to be converted to ODF compliance for long term archival storage. It will be instructive to follow the NAA's experience to learn how easy (or difficult) this mode of operation proves to be

Each of these case studies provides an essential dimension that was absent in the move by the Massachusetts ITD to adopt ODF. In the ITD's case, the motivation was primarily towards efficiency and document accessibility and against lock-in. As a result, to use a legal analogy, the Massachusetts example "stands for" the proposition that governments should make use of ODF a priority for long-term accessibility reasons. The Bristol example, in contrast, "stands for" the principle that a government should consider ODF compliant office productivity software for economic reasons. Unlike Massachusetts or the City of Bristol, the NAA will deal almost exclusively with documents created elsewhere. As a result, it provides a "worst possible case" to test whether operating an ODF environment in a world that uses mulitple formats (many of which do not support ODF) is practical. If successful, the NAA example would therefore "stand for" the fact that the use of ODF is reasonable and feasible regardless of the amount of document exchange the adopter must manage with the outside world.

As it happens (and it should come as no surprise), the NAA has deep expertise with ODF, as it was a contributing member of the OASIS Technical Committee that created the standard. In consequence, it is able to understand the magnitude of the task that lies ahead.

As reported in the ComputerWorld article by Howard Dahdah I linked to above:

Michael Carden, preservation software manager at the National Archives of Australia, said NAA is in the process of migrating its office file preservation format to use the OpenOffice 2.0 suite which by default uses OpenDocument.

Carden said his team at NAA was testing code at this minute and has been submitting changes to the CVS repository on Sourceforge regularly.

“Testing is massive. We need to account for every permutation of any file format. It is time-consuming,” he said.

The NAA is interested in ODF because the nature of its work involves receiving information in disparate file types from all over the country.

“We can’t tell people ‘we only accept this file format’. We have to deal with whatever comes our way.”

Unlike some that have looked at this aspect of converting to ODF, Carden sees the glass half full rather than half empty. True, there will be a significant level of effort needed to transition to ODF. But that will be a one-time only exercise, as compared to maintaining the capability of accessing all of those documents in all of those formats indefinitely. Instead, post conversion, the NAA will only need to deal with one software suite (in this case they have selected OpenOffice 2.0).  But even if OOo is eventually discontinued, the ODF compliant documents will remain accessible, so long as any ODF supporting software remains available.

The ComputerWorld article puts it this way:

Because the bulk of the material received by NAA deals with office productivity suites, converting it to an open format ensures the longevity of the information. Carden said its paper documents, if kept in perfect conditions should last well over 100 years. Digital information should also be afforded that luxury, he said.

Hopefully the NAA, like the City of Bristol, will share its experiences with others that are contemplating similar decisions.

I’ll continue to report on other examples of ODF implementations in other settings as I learn of them. And, to the extent the information becomes available, I’ll pass along any news of how these early adopters are faring in their efforts.

For further blog entries on ODF, click here

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