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!


  1. This part related to my Digital Stewardship class at Simmons College with Ross Harvey: "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."

    Here's an idea I had while in class last Friday. Imagine if there was a website where you could choose an old operating system from the past and open a simulated machine on the web page. Then you could upload an "obsolete" file (that is currently in an inaccesible format) and download it into whatever kind of file you wanted (PDF, Word, HTML, etc.). It would pretty much solve our problem of obsolete file formats, and I think it's DEFINITELY doable, especially from seeing other simulation software used with application development for the iPhone! Ross Harvey has enlightened us about the problem of obsolete file formats through exercises and theoretical scenarios on the Digital Curriculum Laboratory

  2. Have you taken any of the exams yet? What was your experience?

  3. I have taken and passed the exams for all three of the courses I've blogged about. You have two hours to complete the exam, which is more than enough time, but you have to complete it in one sitting - there's no going back to it if you get interrupted by something else. That makes me nervous each time, but so far I haven't had a problem completing the exams. I think it would be quite hard to cover all of the concepts from a day-long workshop in 10 or 15 multiple choice questions, and sometimes it seems like the goal is to find a very specific phrase hidden somewhere within the presentation slides, but overall I've found the exams relatively easy to pass as long as I was paying attention and taking notes throughout the course.