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Jul 28 2014

Bit by Bit: Flexibly and Collaboratively Making Sense of Born Digital Materials

Students and staff in the Department of Computer Science, College of Engineering, in the 1970s, potentially creating media for modern digital archivists to curate.

When the NCSU Libraries’ Born Digital initiative began back in August of 2013, helpful colleagues from institutions seasoned in such work mentioned over and over that, no matter how solidly planned out the workflow for digital collections might be, it is inevitable that an object or group of objects will present themselves as the kinds of roadblocks that keep institutions from instituting born digital programs in the first place. These roadblocks come in many forms: Disks that are unreadable by local equipment, giant hard drives that take forever to image, file systems that are not understood by the CPU, etc., etc. This is not a surprise – the Demystifying Born Digital Reports, created by OCLC, list multiple tools and pointers for the digital archivist to carefully consider while they are crafting their projects. However, the multitude of ideas presented in these reports may lead the digital archivist to believe that they need to pick one tool or suggestion over another and limit themselves to those decisions, especially since the word “flexible” never appears in the reports. At NCSU Libraries we have discovered that familiarizing ourselves with a range of softwares, documenting their strengths and weaknesses, and creating a flexible workflow that relies on many free tools rather than limiting ourselves to one set and one set only has helped us make sense of how to deal with our born digital materials proactively to get as close as we can to robust access of the materials.

Just down the road from NCSU Libraries, at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, a group of people who believe the same thing are working hard to prepare a suite of tools that answers the needs of the digital archivist. The BitCurator project, “a joint effort led by the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (SILS) and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) to develop a system for collecting professionals that incorporates the functionality of many digital forensics tools,” recognizes that many of the existing options to begin born digital programs are “not very approachable to library/archives professionals in terms of interface and documentation.” At NCSU Libraries, documentation is imperative for both understandability and repeatability of the born digital curation process. The folks at BitCurator feel the same way, and are striving to provide a suite of tools, packaged easily as a virtual machine or a standalone system (whatever works better for a given institution), that not only comes as a singular piece with multiple tools but also comes with easy to follow documentation.

Recently, the team hosted a “BitCurator clinic” in Chapel Hill, an event which brought together digital archivists from NC State, UNC, and Duke University to explore BitCurator together, to talk amongst ourselves about our challenges with born digital materials, and most importantly, to share how we felt BitCurator was working for us and how it could improve. This kind of collaboration is a necessity to keep tools in scope for librarians and archivists to ensure their proper and effective usage. Flexibility was on everyone’s mind at the clinic, considering that groups brought everything from floppy disks to external hard drives from real collections to work on in front of the developers. And the developers were quick to remind us that BitCurator is built to be flexible, encompassing many disparate tools in both GUI and command line forms (you can read all about it on their wiki). Even with all of this built in flexibility, one may need to dip outside of the BitCurator environment depending on the roadblock they encounter with a particular collection – and that’s OK! Flexibility (which is absolutely necessary and even encouraged if it is all documented and leads to pre-determined requirements) and collaboration (particularly the willingness to ask questions of colleagues and to report problems with tools, for example) are two of the most important tenets of getting a digital curation program off the ground.