Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Class No. 5: Standards for Digital Archives

Last week I took a Foundational DAS webinar, "Standards for Digital Archives" taught by Mahnaz Ghaznavi. As its name suggests, this course provided an overview of the many standards that are available for use with digital archives. The underlying theme was that standards are good, and that you should adopt the ones that fit the needs of your institution. The course began with an example of an electronic record that could have benefited from the use of standards: a word processing file created in an obsolete, proprietary format that displayed as a nonsensical mishmash of special characters. Had the file been converted to an open, standard, more persistent format, the information contained in the document could have been retained.

Though sometimes we create our own standards - a local set of topical subject headings, for example -  the best standards are those that are published and maintained by a standards setting body (such as ISO, W3C, NISO, ANSI, or NIST). There are standards to guide us in almost any activity that we engage in as archivists:
  • records retention and appraisal (ISO 15489); 
  • the ingestion, management, preservation, and access of digital or physical archives (ISO 14721, better known as OAIS); 
  • linking objects with their associated metadata (METS);
  • capturing preservation data about our objects (PREMIS); 
  • capturing descriptive metadata about our objects (Dublin Core);
  • migrating our objects into more stable formats (JPEG 2000, PDF/A)
  • and making sure our digital objects are stored in a secure manner (TRAC)
Given that it would have been impossible to delve into these standards in any detail within the confines of a ninety minute webinar, I think the instructor was able to convey some useful information about the options that are available to help manage digitized or born-digital archival assets. She advised us to learn from what other institutions have done and are doing, whether successfully or not, and to recognize that digital preservation is a moving target. To implement any of these standards one would need significantly more guidance, but this course can serve as the first step to becoming aware of what is possible.

Because SAA generously allows multiple people to view their webinars for the cost of one registration (though each attendee must pay for his or her examination fee), we had a good-sized audience of full time staff and interns in a conference room at the Library. For our interns, most of whom are current graduate students in Library Science at Simmons College, it seemed like much of the information presented echoed what they've already learned in class. I took that as a positive sign that graduate programs are adapting to our increasingly digital world. Archives students graduating now will start their careers already armed with skills and knowledge that more established professionals must actively seek out (by pursuing the DAS certificate, for instance). Of course it has always been thus, everywhere and in every profession, but my perspective until recently has been that of the recent graduate; now that I have been out of school for almost ten years, I find that I am suddenly among those who must rush to catch up or be left behind.


  1. Erica- I see that you have taken both Standards for Digital Archives and Thinking Digital: Practical Session to Help You Get Started. I am looking at my 4th course for the DAS Certificate and am trying to decide between the two. Which did you think was more beneficial to you as a digital archivist?

  2. That's hard to say. I think it depends on how much you already know; if you aren't at all familiar with the various metadata and file format standards that are being used to handle digitized and born digital material, the Standards course might be a good introduction for you. If you're already aware of what's out there (OAIS, Dublin Core, METS, PREMIS, etc.), even if you're not an expert, it may leave you wanting more. It looks like they updated the Thinking Digital course sometime after I took it, so my experience may no longer be relevant, but it provided a very broad overview of working with digital content in general.

    Overall, if you're looking for a high level perspective and you're already familiar with most of the commonly used standards, I'd say go with Thinking Digital. If you think a basic introduction to current metadata standards would be helpful, take the Standards for Digital Archives course.

    I hope that was somewhat helpful. Let me know if I can answer any more questions!