By: Jason Evans Groth
Throughout our born digital strategic initiative here at NC State Libraries we have debated over the last year just how we will make digital items discoverable to our patrons. Archival discovery begins with the finding aid or collection guide. These guides provide the context of the collection for researchers, and also present the description of the content of the collection. So how does one represent, say, a 16gb USB flash drive as a usable list or, even more challenging, a 2TB external drive, inside one of those lists? And, inside that list, how do you arrange those files/folders/hidden files/trashed files/all of the other stuff that each of us manages on our own digital landscape in one way versus the way we manage our physical landscapes (real desktops, book shelves, and on and on)? The thing is, digital objects are, in some way, already arranged when they are donated, and they are arranged in a way that made sense to the person who donated them.
It is no secret that researchers are interested in the process that goes into creating the subject of their research, so the arrangement of files on a laptop, for example, also gives clues as to what the person who arranged them might have been thinking. We decided, therefore, to give our patrons the chance to experience the arrangement of files and folders in the way they were given to us. In other words, we would not rearrange them in any way since it is assumed that the person who did the arrangement had a reason and that this kind of archival practice – digital, that is – gives us the chance to actually retain original order. But, again, how do we show this to a patron? If it’s just a list then there is no context for the files, outside of knowing who created them or what collection they come from.
An NCSU reference librarian circa 1985 possibly demonstrating an older style of arrangement and description of digital objects.
Working with our Digital Library Initiatives department (DLI) we have developed a plan to not only give patrons easy access to this list, but to also allow them to ascertain context and description easily without us spending hours at the item level trying to decipher a donor’s file scheme. We call this idea “Archivision,” and it is really just a way to allow the bits of a digital object to describe itself by generating a visual browsing environment of the object.
But how? Well, in the course of our workflow we run several tools over digital objects. These tools extract metadata, and included in this metadata are paths to where the files exist inside the disk structure, as well as metadata about these files that tell us what they are, what they contain (at least technically), when they were created, by whom, etc., etc. If they happen to be text files or contain text we can run tools that tell us what words are in those files. If they are media files we can decipher video CODECs, sample rates, and more. By drawing information from these reports we can create a virtual disk browser that looks similar to a Mac finder window or a Windows explorer window, and by simply providing a link to this virtual disk browser inside of our finding aid (next to the description of the object itself, for example – like “USB Flash Drive”) the researcher can move through the digital object as they would if they had it loaded on their own CPU. An even simpler addition – a sortable spreadsheet that contains all of the file information from the disk – will be provided as a download, too, so the researcher will not have to rely on an internet connection to look through the digital objects we have in our collection. In this way the researcher is not relying on a description that we force upon them that may not lead them to what they need for their work, but rather can contextualize the information in the way that best suits their needs.
This saves time for us and for the researcher, and is an affordance that is specific to digital information. We could not allow a box of papers to “describe itself,” but by using the archival practice of original order, we can leave the disks the way we find them and, rather than looking over each file at the item level, use tools that allow the bits to tell their own story. In this way we hope to increase the amount of digital information we can get to our patrons, make it easier for them to sort through, and save time on our end by taking advantage of the benefits of digital environments while retaining original order and getting closer to a more genuine representation of archival objects.