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Aug 25 2014

Getting Things Done with Born Digital at SAA 2014

The Society of American Archivists’ 2014 Annual Meeting just wrapped up in Washington, DC, and the NCSU Libraries Born Digital Strategic Initiative was represented through a panel, proposed by NCSU’s born digital team Brian Dietz and Jason Evans Groth, called “Getting Things Done with Born-Digital.” Brian and Jason were joined by colleagues Gloria Gonzalez (Digital Archivist, UCLA Special Collections), Ashley Howdeshell (Associate Archivist, University Archives and Special Collections, Loyola University, Chicago), Daniel Noonan (e-Records/Digital Resources Archivist, University Archives, The Ohio State University), and Lauren Sorensen (Digital Conversion Specialist, American Archive of Public Broadcasting, Library of Congress). Despite the wide diversity of institutions and background of the six participants, one thing was clear from each of their presentations: Now is the time to begin a comprehensive digital archives program that works in the context of one’s institution, and it can be done using widely available tools and an even more valuable asset – other librarians and archivists who have, themselves, started programs, encountered and overcome obstacles, and are ready to share their knowledge and experience with everyone else.

The premise of the panel, overall, was that reports like the OCLC’s Demystifying Born Digital and others are excellent foundations on which to begin a born digital program. The problem, however, is that every institution is, by nature, unique, with its own unique context and needs. The panel explored the details and case studies of the various institutions, hoping to connect more easily through these contextual clues rather than making a big problem seem bigger by speaking vaguely about tools and equipment that already pose barriers – both in terms of vocabulary and perceived difficulty – to those who are in the beginning stages of planning a born digital program.

Prior to the session, the online scheduling tool for SAA 2014 said that over 360 people would attend. While all of the panelists understand that this is important work, the number was still a surprise. At 9:59am, a minute before the session began, the panelists were told to ignore the sounds of the hotel facilities staff opening the airwall at the back of the room – it was Standing Room Only, and, at the session’s peak, an estimated 500 attendees listened to six very different practitioners discuss their successes, failures, and excitement regarding digital archives. The session itself generated much in-person discussion as well as hundreds of tweets.

The panelists touched on such topics as utilizing a committee that includes stakeholders and IT to maintain transparency with others in one’s institution while such a program is getting put into place; being unafraid to tackle technical needs by relying on the transparency of others and one’s own ability to search for help with processes with which librarians and archivists are already familiar but maybe have never used themselves (like the command line); accepting that flexibility in both tools and workflow is not only OK but also desirable, understanding that there is not one, single, “silver bullet” tool or service that can answer all of your questions or needs; that problems and challenges, which will arise without a doubt, are actually quite educational and necessary; and even the “Top 10 Things I Don’t Let Stop Me From Getting Things Done (With Digital Archives),” which included lack of practical experience and assuming equipment is, by nature, inadequate, in addition to the Litany Against Fear from Dune.

The audience asked questions like “what can we not do in order to process digital objects more quickly,” “how do we establish good relationships with IT,” and “what about metadata.” In all cases, the panelists assured them that these answers existed – perhaps not in one, single location, and definitely in the minds of those who had moved through them already – and could be discovered through both understanding the context of the institution and the real, required needs established by the institution. In other words, the answers amount to careful planning for the future based on the understanding of an institution’s priorities and requirements for both collecting and access. Librarians and archivists are familiar with such planning already: Collection policies, donor agreements, and gathering data to predict access usage are things we are taught from the beginning of our careers, and they are exactly the kinds of skills needed to figure out requirements for born digital collections. What do we collect? What can we make accessible? How will this be used? A call for shared documentation and more open questions and answers was made, and the audience was reminded that the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) has recently implemented Digital Preservation Q&A a site which allows members of the digital preservation community to share their challenges and successes in order to facilitate both progress and community building.

In addition to the incredible attendance at this session, many – if not all – of the other digital focused sessions were at capacity or very close to it – a heartening sign that professionals are taking very seriously this seemingly overwhelming challenge. SAA 2014 made it clear that those of us who fight the good digital preservation fight are not only not alone but are in very good company.