Thursday, March 29, 2012

Class No. 4: Electronic Records: The Next Step

I recently completed my fourth DAS course, an on-demand webinar titled "Electronic Records: The Next Step" taught by Geoffrey Huth, Director of Government Records Services at the New York State Archives. One of my classmates had very recently taken Huth's full day, in-person course on Basic Electronic Records, which is part of the Foundational tier of DAS courses. Though this webinar is part of the Tactical and Strategic tier - the next tier up - it apparently didn't contain much new information that was not already covered in the basic course. Given this, the two courses might be best presented as an either/or choice: the basic course for true beginners, and this webinar for those who already have some familiarity with the issues surrounding electronic records.

The structure of the course mirrored the archival lifecycle, which - as I have learned in all of my DAS courses - is consistent regardless of format: Appraisal, Ingest, Processing and Preservation, Maintenance, Access, and Planning. Though much of the material was familiar, I find that I need to hear this kind of information over and over again before it truly sinks in. I took away the following main points:
  • Appraise ruthlessly. It will cost approximately five times more to store a digital file than it does to store a physical object. We cannot and should not keep everything, in the physical world or in the digital world. If you cannot manage or even access the files, if you cannot maintain their original functionality, or if you do not have sufficient metadata to make sense of them, consider whether they are worth keeping. 
  • Define acceptable file formats (uncompressed, unencrypted) and external media devices, as well as acceptable methods of transfer for your institution. This way you will have processes in place to handle any electronic records that you receive.
  • Make sure that the donor retains a second copy of all electronic files until your copy is verified.
  • Always accession electronic records on a quarantined (i.e. non-networked) computer. Run your virus software, wait a month, and then run it again. 
  • Preservation options for electronic records include migration, normalization, emulation, and output to some sort of hard copy, generally paper or microfilm. 
    • Normalization, which involves converting files to a "normal" format that is open and persistent (PDF/A, for example) the most likely solution. 
    • Emulation, wherein the file is never converted to another format, is a less practical choice, as the original environment of each file would need to be perpetually maintained. I see how this is completely impractical, but if you had the resources and the know-how it might be interesting to have a fleet of computers running defunct operating systems and software programs so that records could be accessed as they were originally created.
    • Output to paper or microfilm might be an acceptable solution if you've got just one or two electronic files, and if those files are simple word processing documents. If retaining the functionality of a record is important (links in a website or formulas in a spreadsheet, for example), obviously a hard copy is not going to be sufficient.  
  • One thing that I found slightly alarming was Huth's assertion that the world, with the exception of the archival community, is turning away from TIFF and toward JPEG 2000 as a standard. Is this true, and if so, what will that mean for digital archives (like JFK's) that are full of TIFF images?
  • Access seems like the trickiest piece of this puzzle. Is access provided online, or just in the reference room? If electronic records are closely related to physical records, how do you provide meaningful access to both at once?  
  • Just as we should define the formats we will accept when accessioning records, we should define the formats we are willing to provide to our users. It should be up to the user to convert our normalized file into whatever format he or she may require.
  • Though our inclination may be to ignore electronic records and digitization, the truth is that if you're not working with the digital world, you're not working in the real world. 
  • You can't do everything at once, but do something, and do it now.
In the spirit of that last point, I am going to try to do something with the electronic records that are stored on this device, which was found by my colleague in an unexpected place in our stacks:

Floppy disk

First I'll need a quarantined computer with a disk drive that will fit this floppy disk, and then I'll need to figure out what program was used to create whatever documents are stored on it. In this case my guess is that they'll be word processing documents that most likely exist in hard copy in the collection already, in which case this disk probably won't be of much importance to the collection.  However, rather than just sticking it somewhere in the stacks and pretending it doesn't exist (as we did originally), I'm going to use what I've learned in my DAS courses to deal with it properly.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Changes to DAS Course Examination Policies

SAA recently made some changes to the DAS course examination policies, and I thought it might be useful to highlight them here.

The exams, and the rules governing them, now differ depending on the length of the course. Until now students were given two hours to complete each exam, regardless of length, and some exams had as few as five questions. Now for a web seminar, which is the shortest type of course, the exam will consist of ten questions, and participants will be given just one hour to complete them. In contrast, the exam for a two-day course - the longest type of course currently offered - will now consist of 30 questions, but participants will have up to four hours to complete them.

This seems like a sensible way to acknowledge the disparate amount of material that can be covered in a 90 minute webinar versus a one- or two-day, in-person course. I wonder if the next step might be to weight these courses differently, given this disparity, or perhaps to offer significantly longer webinars to increase the complexity of remote courses for the benefit of those who are not able, for whatever reason, to travel.

The revised Course Examinations page also provides some details about the comprehensive exam, though I'm not sure whether it's new information. It explains that the comprehensive exam covers the seven Core Competencies of the DAS Curriculum, and that each DAS course addresses at least two of these competencies. Any combination of the required number of courses from the four tiers of study should theoretically provide students with the knowledge necessary to pass the exam. The seven Core Competencies are:
  1. Understand the nature of records in electronic form, including the functions of various storage media, the nature of system dependence, and the effect on integrity of records over time.
  2. Communicate and define requirements, roles, and responsibilities related to digital archives to a variety of partners and audiences.
  3. Formulate strategies and tactics for appraising, describing, managing, organizing, and preserving digital archives.
  4. Integrate technologies, tools, software, and media within existing functions for appraising, capturing, preserving, and providing access to digital collections.
  5. Plan for the integration of new tools or successive generations of emerging technologies, software, and media.
  6. Curate, store, and retrieve original masters and access copies of digital archives.
  7. Provide dependable organization and service to designated communities across networks.
More information about the DAS Curriculum can be found here.