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May 27 2014

Access and Born Digital Collections

No matter how detailed the setup is for processing born digital collections, no matter what suite of tools one might use, and no matter how much one might discuss with colleagues about the best way to package electronic files to get into local storage, after all is said and done, the purpose of a born digital curation program in an archive is to provide the best possible access to this carefully processed and stored material. Each floppy disk, CD-ROM, flash drive, or external hard drive may present its own unique challenge when it comes to moving the data to a more stable digital environment, but since digital data is all 1s and 0s, packaging it and migrating it can be a lot less complicated than making those files searchable and usable.

When we process born digital collections, we create a series of reports that give us a lot of clues about what might be contained on the object itself. These clues include file names and paths; file types and the applications used to create them; create, access, and modified dates; file sizes; and also wordlists, personal or private information, phone numbers, and more. While these reports will be kept with the package of information we submit to local storage, they can also be used to help provide context and inform “best guesses” about what these files might mean or contain without an archivist having to look at each one of them individually. By summarizing this data and linking to it from the collection’s finding aid, those otherwise unknown and difficult to find files have a better chance to be used by patrons and researchers.

The Reading Room at D.H. Hill Library

This data summary will be especially helpful when it comes to our plans to provide a dedicated MacBook specifically for perusing and using our born digital collections in our Special Collections Reading Room at D. H. Hill Library. A patron will be able to look through the summary before requesting the files or disk image they wish to see when they arrive at the Reading Room. The librarian responsible for providing this access will either copy the files to the laptop, or mount the disk image directly to it, and then using Spotlight (built into every Mac), index those files for easier searching. In other words, while we will ask the patron to follow a traditional archival workflow in terms of requesting materials and coming to the Reading Room to view material, we will use the affordances of a digital index to make searching easier and quicker, and, for example, with mounted disk images, even allow the patron to explore and use the files in an exact replica of the hard drive that the person whose materials they are researching set up themselves.

The landscape of access differs from collection to collection. Donor agreements, sensitive information, and file types dictate how easily a born digital collection can be both presented to and used by a researcher. Using the best possible tools during processing puts the archive in a position to offer the best context to get at accessing these items which have been, prior to processing, harder to get to simply because they have been stored on disconnected media. By adding them to an environment where data integrity can be verified and where it is becoming more and more possible to use even the most obsolete of file types gives the archive a better chance to offer them to patrons and researchers.