Monday, January 30, 2012

Class No. 3: Digital Curation: Creating an Environment for Success

Earlier this month I attended "Digital Curation: Creating an Environment for Success" taught by Jackie Esposito, University Archivist and Head of Records Management Services at Penn State University. The workshop was held at the Harvard Business School which, with its beautiful campus and fancy cafeteria, isn't a bad place to spend a day. After my last course, which discussed the basics of digitizing analog archival material, the content of this course represented a return to the concerns surrounding born-digital material.

The recurring theme for the day was that doing digital curation is like eating an elephant; you have to break it into pieces in order to manage it successfully. I think the other main theme of the class could be used to extend the metaphor: an elephant, once broken apart, is best eaten with friends, meaning that digital curation cannot be managed by one archivist alone. Partnering with the right people within your organization, including records creators, budget writers, and IT experts, is key to your success.

As I've done for my two previous classes, I'll list the points that stood out most for me in this course:
  • The format may change, but the function does not , meaning a record is still a record regardless of its format. This reinforces the idea that our archival skills are still applicable in the digital world.
  • Though the same archival processes apply to electronic records, the window of time in which we must gain intellectual control over them is smaller. Whereas a box of paper can sit on the shelf for decades, a born-digital accession may only last a short time - something like 5 years - before the media becomes obsolete and inaccessible.
  • As the permanent caretaker of the records, you can define the formats you are willing to accept. 
  • When forging relationships with others in your institution, don't scare them by talking about all of the horrible things that will happen to your institution's records if they aren't managed correctly. Scaring people does not work. Instead, make them feel comfortable and work to convince them of the benefits of what you are trying to achieve. 
  • Know what your priorities are, and make them manageable and measurable. Also, have frequent parties to celebrate your victories, no matter how small. If you have students on staff, feed them often.
  • NEVER use the word "project." Instead, use the word "program," which implies permanence.
  • If your public access interface doesn't look and act like Google, nobody is going to like it or use it.
  • Don't reinvent the wheel - other archivists have done these things already, so borrow from them, collaborate with them, and generally draw on the experience and expertise of your colleagues.
Though the material in this course was mostly theoretical to me, I really enjoyed it, mainly because I found Jackie to be an extremely engaging instructor. One note, though: this is classified as a Foundational DAS course, whereas to me it seems more suited to the Tactical and Strategic tier. Foundational courses focus mainly on "the needs of practitioners—archivists who are or will be working directly with electronic records," while Tactical and Strategic courses are meant to focus on "the skills that archivists need to make significant changes in their organizations so that they can develop a digital archives and work seriously on managing electronic records." As the course title indicates, this was geared towards archivists who actually have the power to change the environment at their institution and who are responsible for implementing an electronic records management program rather than (or perhaps in addition to) working hands-on with the actual records.

I welcome any and all comments on this course or the DAS program in general, and as always, thanks for reading!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Class No. 2: Thinking Digital: A Practical Session to Help You Get Started

On Tuesday I began the new year by taking my first DAS course presented as an on-demand webinar: "Thinking Digital...A Practical Session to Help You Get Started," taught by Jessica Branco Colati and Greg Colati. This is one of the Foundational DAS courses, and it serves as a good overview of the decisions we make as creators and stewards of digital content. Unlike the first course I took, this was more focused on the digitization of traditional archives than on born-digital records.

The course was organized by the kinds of choices digital archivists must make about quality, metadata, management, storage, preservation, and delivery. Without repeating all of the information in the course, I'll just list the highlights as I saw them:
  • High quality digital objects adhere to five established principles: interoperability, reusability, sustainability, authenticity, and scalability. Better quality requires more time, more storage, and better equipment, but it also allows for a wider variety of uses. We should create the best quality digital objects we can afford now so that we have greater flexibility later.
  • Metadata allows for the identification, management, access, use, and preservation of a digital object. There are several different types of metadata: administrative, descriptive, preservation (including technical), and structural. Metadata should support local needs, but should also be standardized in order to enable interoperability. Controlled vocabularies should be supported. Keep in mind that metadata is never truly finished - there will always be changes or updates to make, or new information to capture.
  • The management of digital files must include all derivatives of the original object (and there could be hundreds) as well as the metadata about that object. Management must be built into your digitization workflow; it should not be a separate activity. There is no one digital asset management system (DAMS) that will solve all of your problems - you will most likely need an array of systems to accomplish all of your goals. In any DAMS, web delivery is only a small piece of the puzzle despite how important it is to users and probably to your management.
  • Storage choices will depend on the choices about quality you made earlier - the higher quality files you have, the more storage you will need. While storage may be getting cheaper, back up and preservation services are getting more expensive. It might be best to consult an expert when it comes to storage.
  • Preservation starts at the point of creation of a digital object, which is also the point at which the creators of digital content probably don't want to be bothered with questions about preservation, so it's on us as archivists to maintain the focus on preservation concerns. The first stage in a successful preservation plan is simply to acknowledge that digital preservation is important (much like the first step in overcoming addiction is to acknowledge that you have a problem, I suppose).This is as far as we've gotten, to be honest, but we hope to move onto the next stage soon, which is to take action.
  • Delivery involves both discovery and access. Discovery is based on the indexing of your metadata and/or the full text of your scanned documents. Access is how users interact with your digital objects once they are discovered - are the objects simply viewed, or are they able to be manipulated or extracted by the user?
The first point the instructors made before delving into what I described above was that the skills we already have as archivists can be easily adapted to the digital environment. I find that this is particularly true when it comes to the following: 

  • Planning and prioritizing digitization workflow. This is no different from planning and prioritizing our processing workflow, and should be done in the same systematic way.
  • Creating descriptive metadata. Descriptive metadata is archival description, which means that we already know how to create it, and also that our finding aids are full of preexisting descriptive metadata.
  • Managing and preserving digital assets. We manage our physical holdings, whether through the use of a database or a paper shelf list, and we are responsible for their long term preservation. This is true of digital files as well, whether they are born-digital records or digital surrogates of physical objects. Though digital files do present some specific challenges that will require more technical knowledge than we may start out with, the fundamental responsibility is the same.
One final comment: the on-demand courses are available for two months once you register for them, which is very convenient, but it turns out that this flexibility actually made it difficult for me to find the time for it when there are so many other things that require immediate attention. I registered for this webinar back in November, and I was lucky to complete it just before the two months expired. I do plan to take additional on-demand courses, but in order to thwart my inner procrastinator I will try to schedule a specific day for them as if I were taking them live.

I will be taking another Foundational DAS course, "Digital Curation: Creating an Environment for Success" on January 18th in Boston, so I'll be posting again in a few weeks. Until then, thanks for reading!