The Born Digital Curation strategic initiative at NC State University Libraries has been developed under the principle that, in order both to treat born digital assets as an important resource in our collection and to exploit the promise of said digital assets, we must treat born digital objects forensically. That is, because “evidence” about digital objects is inherently part of the object, we should use tools that extract that evidence expertly, carefully, and thoroughly, in order for us to offer future researchers the most complete investigative environment we can. Digital forensics techniques have long been used to investigate crimes, and the tools that have been developed for those investigations offer libraries and archives a very powerful resource to enhance the discovery and use of born digital collections.
For example, a digital image often has metadata – data about the image – embedded within it. Depending on the camera that took the image, time, date, geographical location, and even digital evidence of the potential photographer (which can be discovered with embedded usernames or can be linked to other files’ date and time stamp on a hard drive, for example) can be “hidden” inside the ones and zeros that create what we see as a digital representation of a photograph. These bits of “evidence” are most often created without the photographer ever having to think about them, automatically, by the camera’s operating system. On the other hand, while it is not rare to see traditional film prints which have been processed with a time and date stamp on them, that certainly was not a standard. Geographical location, photographer, and other context was up to the person who handled the prints; if they do not arrive as part of a collection – or even if they do – the description of such images can be, at best, contextualized based on human-written clues and, at worst, are interesting – but random – decontextualized parts of collections.
This comparison/contrast is not intended to pit digital and analog objects against one another, but rather to point out that work within the digital realm, while riddled with challenges that are not necessarily part of the analog world, does allow for a degree of automation of information that, if harnessed and used correctly, can make the discovery, retrieval, and use of objects potentially easier. After all, what good is an archive if the stuff can’t be used?
Our born digital workstation has been outfitted with the tools to make this desire a reality. In order to accomplish effective management of born digital objects the Special Collections Research Center relies on an array of software tools that, depending on the needs presented by the curated object, are used in various combinations to produce usable packages of information that we can make more easily available to researchers and other patrons interested in the collections. The primary tool in our current workflow is BitCurator, which was developed primarily by our colleagues at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (SILS) in partnership with the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) and is funded by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In addition to the powerful tools contained within the software, there is a community of practitioners growing up and around the use of the software and born digital curation in general, which adds a whole new level of usefulness and empowerment to those of us tasked with tackling the challenge of born digital curation. Look for more on our workflow and specific born digital tools as we continue to update you on our born digital curation progress!