Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Class No. 9: Accessioning and Ingest of Electronic Records

At the end of October I took my ninth (and final!) DAS course, Accessioning and Ingest of Electronic Records taught by Erin Faulder, Digital Archivist at Tufts University. This was an in-person workshop from the Tactical and Strategic tier of the DAS curriculum, held on the Radcliffe campus in Cambridge, MA. The goals of the course were to introduce accessioning and ingest as they apply to digital materials, to go over some current practices and resources, and to provide students with a foundation that could be used to develop policies and workflows for our own institutions.

I thought the course provided a good overview of the issues we face as we start to accession and ingest electronic records. Some of the steps we talked about were definitely specific to born-digital accessions: talking to donors about how to handle previously-deleted files that are recovered by the archive, performing virus scans on incoming media, and performing checksums on files as they are received are some examples of tasks we may never have attempted before. However, I kept thinking that most of what we discussed could also be applied to the analog world. Archivists already understand the importance of having both overarching institutional policies and explicit agreements with individual donors to govern things like what your institution will and won't accept, how material should be transferred from the donor to the institution, and how your institution will verify that the material it received is the material the donor intended and agreed to send. We have processes in place to determine the level of description necessary at the point of accession, we consider storage requirements when accepting new material (physical space can be just as limited as storage space for digital files), and we sometimes take steps to quarantine new material (mold can be just as damaging to our existing holdings as a computer virus if it is allowed to spread). The specifics will be different - and probably more challenging, at least at first - when the material being sent is born digital, but the concepts are the same. While it is incredibly useful to have workshops like this that focus on born-digital records, it is equally as important to emphasize the fact that much of what we already know about how to be archivists still applies in the digital world.

Just a few notes about what stood out for me in a positive way about this course:
  • The OAIS Reference Model diagram is referenced in almost every DAS course, but here it seemed more concrete and accessible than before, probably because we were focusing specifically on the actions taken during the first two phases of the workflow.
  • In response to a late day question about a specific tool a student had tried to use but didn't quite understand, the instructor made an excellent point that I think should be made in every DAS course: don't let the tools guide your decisions. Rather, figure out what you want to accomplish and then pick a tool which will do exactly that. Starting with the tool will frustrate you, and if it's an expensive tool that doesn't work out it will frustrate your administration as well, making future expenditures less likely.
I've now completed all of the required courses for the DAS certificate, and I'm registered to take the comprehensive exam next week here at the JFK Library. Maybe I'll see some of you there. I don't think I'll be allowed to say much about the exam itself, but after it's over I will write a final blog entry to reflect on this whole experience. Thank you, as always, for reading, and please don't hesitate to comment if you have any questions or feedback for me.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Class No. 8: Inreach and Outreach for Digital Archives

This week I attended my eighth DAS course, Inreach and Outreach for Digital Archives, taught by Fynnette Eaton. The course is part of the Tactical and Strategic tier of the DAS curriculum, and was an all day, in person event held at the Radcliffe campus in Cambridge. The objectives of the course were to identify the relevant stakeholders surrounding digital archives at our institutions; to learn how to articulate the importance of digital preservation to those stakeholders; to effectively communicate with donors about their born-digital material; and to think about ways to build a digital archives program within the context of our specific institutions. I thought the workshop successfully achieved these objectives.

Though the slides and the discussion focused on managing born-digital material, the general themes of this course would probably be applicable to any collaborative project in virtually any setting. Given the relative lack of born-digital material in my particular institution, I appreciated that; it meant that the discussions were relevant to me, and I was able to participate without feeling like I was thinking only in the abstract. The broad themes as I saw them were these:
  • It is imperative to understand the political and social culture of your particular environment before undertaking any project that will require participation and buy-in from staff and management;
  • Think carefully about who will need to be involved, whether directly or indirectly, and communicate with them early and often. In the context of a digital archives initiative potential stakeholders include management, IT staff, donors, fellow staff, and end users;
  • a collaborative project must provide a clear benefit to every party involved, and the expectations and goals of the project must be well understood;
  • It is a good idea to have a “champion,” somebody who is well-connected, well-liked, and trusted in your institution who can promote your idea;
  • It is important to develop and manage the image you want your stakeholders to have of your project. The instructor referred to this as “branding,” which sounded a little foreign to my ears, but I understood the point and agreed with it. For example, if as a University Archivist you want the professors at your institution to think of the Archives as the natural place to transfer their born-digital files, it’s up to you to give them that idea by promoting the Archives as a safe repository for electronic records, and also by educating them about what files might be suitable for eventual transfer. 
More than any other DAS course I’ve taken thus far, this was a true workshop. We spent a considerable amount of time thinking and talking about the challenges we face at each of our institutions, and worked individually, with partners, and in small groups to brainstorm potential strategies for moving forward with a digital archives program. I thought the instructor did a great job of listening to our ideas and concerns, asking thoughtful questions, and offering useful suggestions. 

I'll be writing again in July, when I'm scheduled to take my ninth and final DAS course. I don't know when or where I will be able to take the comprehensive exam, but as I know more about that I will share it here. Thanks for reading, and as always please share any comments or questions.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Class No. 7: A Beginner's Guide to Metadata

I recently took my seventh DAS course: A Beginner's Guide to Metadata, taught by Greg Colati and Jessica Branco Colati. This was another webinar course, recorded live back in 2008. I was a little concerned that the information would be too basic and, after five years, slightly out of date, but overall I felt that it was a well-organized, informative presentation. The goals were to provide a basic overview of metadata - what it is, where it comes from, what its components are, and how to choose the "right" schema(s) for one's own organization.

Metadata has of course existed for thousands of years in the form of analog inventories and cataloging systems, but the word "metadata" comes to us from the IT world (incidentally, the capitalized term "Metadata" is actually a registered trademark of the Metadata Company - who knew?). Metadata was originally considered "cataloging for geeks," "cataloging for guys," or just "cataloging for non-librarians," but over time it has become firmly entrenched in the lexicon of archivists and librarians. Simply defined, it is a tool for the identification, management,and use of information resources. It must be structured according to a schema, it must describe an information resource, and it should be useable by both machines and humans. Once created, it is never perfect or truly complete; it must be continually improved upon and eternally maintained. Put another way, metadata is language, made up of syntax, structure, and semantics. As archivists we should aim to be "multilingual metadata speakers."

Having defined metadata, the instructors described the various "typologies" of metadata, such as primary, secondary, or tertiary; descriptive, administrative, technical, or structural; global, community, or local; and embedded or associated. They then explored the idea of metadata as language by picking apart a few lines of an EAD finding aid. The syntax for this particular piece of code was XML, which governed the fact that some information was in brackets while other information was not. The structure was EAD (Encoded Archival Description), which governed the specific elements that could be used, and the hierarchical order in which they appeared. The semantics were governed by DACS (Describing Archives: A Content Standard), which informed the content of the finding aid - the way the name of the creator was formed, for example, or the format of the collection title. The instructors noted that the syntax and structure of our metadata will likely change over time, but hopefully the semantics will remain relatively stable. I thought this was a helpful exercise, in the same way that the basic rules and components of grammar must be understood more explicitly when we attempt to learn a foreign language.

The last part of the course covered general things to consider when choosing a metadata schema (or schemas) for your own institution. This decision requires four steps:
  1. Identify your needs. What kinds of objects do you have, and what kind of information do you need to collect about them? What do you want to be able to do with your metadata? How does your audience expect to be able to find and interact with your holdings?
  2. Identify your resources. Creating quality metadata is costly, but keep in mind that tasks left for sometime in the distant future will likely never get done. Do you want to spend your resources providing a high level of access to a few things, or a low level of access to a lot of things? If your institution follows MPLP, can you justify item level metadata for digital objects? And how do you define an "item"? Does user-created metadata have a place in our catalogs? It may be free to obtain, but there are costs involved in monitoring it for quality control and accuracy.
  3. Test your vernacular. Is the schema applicable? Is it useful? Does it meet the needs of your primary audience? Can you successfully communicate with it?
  4. Optimize your efforts. Look at the interoperability, shareability, reusability, and "archivability" of the schema. Remember that when moving from one metadata language to another some pieces of information will translate directly, some will be aggregated with others into a broader term, and some will be lost altogether.
For archivists with a good understanding of traditional archival practice but with limited experience creating or interacting with encoded metadata, or for those who might like to revisit the basics, I think this webinar is a great starting point. As always, please feel free to comment if you have questions or feedback, and thank you for reading!