Thursday, October 27, 2011

Some thoughts after last night's SCoSAA panel

Last night I participated in a panel about emerging standards in archival description sponsored by the Student Chapter of the Society of American Archivists (SCoSAA) at Simmons College. Kate Bowers, one of the other panelists, gave a great talk about integrating physical and born-digital archival records at the Harvard University Archives that reminded me of the Managing Electronic Records workshop I took a few weeks ago. She talked about maintaining the continuity of records, regardless of format, explaining that the web pages and tweets of today serve the same fundamental purpose as the broadsides and other ephemera of past centuries, just as the course catalog that exists today as a complex database is still the same basic vital record of the University that the simple print version used to be. I found that idea somewhat comforting; electronic records seem less mysterious when viewed as continuations of existing records series that can be described using the archival knowledge we already have at our disposal.

It struck me that we all touched on how our work as archivists - particularly where access to digitized or born-digital material is concerned - now involves other professionals, particularly from the IT field. Though we may not be IT experts ourselves, we need to understand their world enough to be able to communicate our needs effectively. Our role as archivists is to help design the tools we need by articulating the functionality we want, and by continually coming up with new ideas to make our metadata do more for us and for our users.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Class No. 1: Managing Electronic Records in Archives and Special Collections

I traveled up to Dartmouth College last week to take my first DAS course, Managing Electronic Records in Archives and Special Collections. This is a two-day "Transformational" workshop from the fourth tier of courses in the DAS curriculum (the other tiers are "Foundational," "Tactical and Strategic," and "Tools and Services"). Only one Transformational course is required for the DAS Certificate.

The course was taught by Tim Pyatt from Penn State and Michael Shallcross from the University of Michigan, both of whom have a great deal of real world experience with electronic records. It was very well-attended, mainly by archivists working in college and university settings, though there were several NARA representatives as well. The participants included lone arrangers who have been tasked with starting an electronic records management program from scratch, managers who wanted to know how to support their staff in such an endeavor, a vendor who works to create software that will manage electronic records, and curious archivists who have little to do with electronic records in their current positions but were interested in learning about managing them nonetheless. I fell into this latter category, and thus remained more of an observer than an active participant in the workshop. 

The majority of the first day was dedicated to learning the basic components of an electronic records program and the issues that we face as we try to manage these records, followed by some group discussion of three case studies that we had been assigned to read prior to the workshop. The second day was more hands-on; we got to play with some open source programs used for things like creating and verifying checksums, archiving web sites, creating disk images, and discovering and managing file formats. The instructors shared a lot of great information, but the major points that I came away with were these:
  • When preserving an electronic record, consider what you are trying to preserve - the appearance of the record, or just its intellectual content. This may vary based on the nature of the record and the resources you have available.
  • Implementing a comprehensive electronic records management system all at once is unrealistic; it is better to take it on piece by piece, keeping in mind that doing something is better than doing nothing.
  • Though storage is indeed getting cheaper, it is very important to stress to your institution that storage is a perpetual, ongoing cost, not a one-time expense. Electronic records must be preserved forever, just like our physical holdings.
  • Without proper management, electronic records are a preservation nightmare; the lifespan of acidic paper is an eternity compared to the lifespan of most electronic records. Though it may be more exciting to digitize analog records, the more pressing need is to preserve information that exists only in electronic form.
  • Donated hard drives will often contain files that the donor thought were deleted, but are actually recoverable. What to do with those files is an interesting question.
  • Whenever possible, provide guidance related to file naming and organization practices to members of your institution. If they follow your advice, your job will be infinitely easier when their records end up deposited in your archives.
  • Take a digital photo of original physical storage media and store it with the metadata about the records they contained.  
  • Make friends with your IT staff, if you have one.
  • A delivery system is not the same thing as a preservation system. No single program takes care of the entire electronic records lifecycle, but for now Archivematica comes the closest.
  • Providing public access to electronic records presents some major challenges, and it will be very interesting to see what creative solutions archivists come up with in the next few years.
I'm not sure how much of this knowledge I can apply right away, but I do feel like I have a better understanding of the challenges involved in dealing with the born-digital records in our collections, and of some of the software solutions that currently exist. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

First things first...

When the Society of American Archivists announced the creation of its Digital Archives Specialist (DAS) Curriculum and Certificate Program earlier this year, I couldn't wait to learn more about it. As a Digital Archivist who has learned most of my technological skills on the job rather than in a classroom, it sounded like the perfect way to continue my professional education. When the SAA Education Committee came up with the idea to find an archivist who would take the required DAS courses, (hopefully) pass the quizzes and comprehensive exam, and blog about the whole experience, I happily volunteered.

Though the Digitization Unit at the JFK Library is focused primarily on the digitization of analog archival material, I believe that the preservation and management of born-digital records is something with which all archivists should concern themselves. And though our collections date mainly to the mid-twentieth century, our backlog does contain materials generated more recently, most notably within the voluminous papers of Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Just today I learned of a mysterious circular piece of computer hardware (I'm told it resembles a container used to transport a cake) that was sent to us with one of the Senator's accessions. What is it? What information does it contain, and how will we access it? How can we move the information somewhere else, and how will we preserve it? And finally, how will researchers access it? Hopefully by the time I've completed the DAS program, I'll be ready to answer questions like these. Until then, the mysterious circular object, along with many others like it, will remain on a shelf in our stacks, its nature and contents hidden, edging closer and closer to irretrievable obsolescence.