Analyzing the Lifecycle in Practical Terms: Part I: Definitions

Continuing our research in thinking about all collections objects as sets of data, we are applying some theoretical constructs to the real world, both to understand the nature and needs of data objects, and the capabilities of management, presentation and discovery systems.

Today we start by looking at a set of characteristics of data that will eventually become criteria for determining how and where to manage and deliver our data collections. These characteristics are sometimes inherent in the objects themselves, applied by the holding institution to the objects, or created when the objects are ingested into a repository or other management or presentation system.

Characteristics of Integrity

These characteristics are inherent in the data no matter how the institution is seeking to use or manage them.  They are core to the definition of a preservable digital object, and were defined at the very beginning of the digital library age. See: “Preserving Digital Information” (1996)

  • Content: Stuctured bits
  • Fixity: frozen as discrete objects
  • Reference: having a predictable location
  • Provenance: with a documented chain of custody
  • Context: linked to related objects

If a digital object lacks a particular characteristic of integrity, it is not preservable, but that does not mean that we don’t manage it in some system or another.

Characteristics of the Curation Lifecycle

The digital curation lifecycle models how institutions mange their data over time. Rather than being inherent in the data itself, these characteristics are dependent upon the collection development goals of the institution,  and subject to review and alteration. The characteristics below are related to digital preservation activities. This is exhaustively explained in the “Reference Model for and Open Archival Information System”

  • Review
  • Bitstream maintenance
  • Backup/Disaster recovery
  • Format normalization
  • Format migration
  • Redundancy
  • Audit trail
  • Error checking

Characteristics of Usability

Some of the characteristics of usability are effectively inherent, others are definable by the institution. The characteristics of Intellectual Openness, while not inherent in the data itself, are typically externally determined. The institution does not generally have the ability to alter this characteristic unilaterally. The characteristics of Interoperability and Reusability are inherent in the data when it is acquired, but may be changed by creating derivatives or though normalization, based on level of Intellectual Openness. The ideas of Interoperabilty and Reusability in digital libraries come from: A Framework of Guidance for Building Good Digital Collections, 3rd ed.

  • Intellectual Openness
    • Open
    • Restricted-by license or intellectual property
  • Interoperability-the ability of one standards-based object to be used in another standards based system
  • Reusability-The ability to re-use, alter, or modify the object, or any part of that object to create new information or knowledge. Reusability makes scholarship possible.

Next time we will examine how these characteristics relate to digital objects, and then after that, how those characteristics, along with institutional mission,  help determine the systems and platforms that we could use to manage, preserve,  and make available digital content from our repositories.


Digital Directions, 2017

Digital Directions comes to Seattle, Washington.

I’ve been a part of Digital Directions for more than 10 years.  Digital Directions is a workshop, conference, training event for beginning digital repository managers and administrators run by the Northeast Document Conservation Center since 1995. For the next few days, I’ll be talking about some of the things that I’m hearing, seeing and talking about here in Seattle during the 2017 edition of Digital Directions.

Visualizing Data, If I Can Do it So Can You

A data driven relationship map that I made myself!

I always thought that data visualization took more or different brain power than I possessed.  I was never very good with ARC GIS or other georeferencing tools. I tried Tableau with very limited success. This is not to say that these tools are bad, on the contrary, they are very good. But somehow they didn’t click with me. As part of a project I mentioned in an earlier post, I started using a relationship mapping tool called Kumu. Kumu is a web based product that was originally designed to map social networks. You can create relationship maps in a number of ways. The first way I tried was visually, by clicking on the map and adding balloons, and then connecting them by hand. Once I understood how that worked, I created my content and their relationships using a spreadsheet, and then imported it into the system. Finally, I created a relationship map using a Google spreadsheet that allows live updating of content, and I’ve set the system to automatically generate connections based on the data elements I enter.

All told this learning curve lasted about two weeks, I made and discarded about 10 projects as I learned what to do and in what order to do it. The help documents are pretty good too. But the thing that helped me the most was that I could start by creating things right in the visualization map. Anything you did on the map was translated into a spreadsheet data source within the application.  Once I could see how what I did on the map affected the stored data on the spreadsheet I was able to reverse engineer my way to starting from a spreadsheet and a more sophisticated use of the application.

I’m not saying that this will work for everyone, but it worked for me. What I will say is that online-based tools are getting much more accessible to the novice, and with a little work and experimentation, you can make things that look really good.

Out of the Bubble

Sometimes there is a positive value in being a “trophy spouse,” in the same industry, as your partner. Jessica was invited to be a presenter this week at the NDIIP/NDSA Digital Preservation conference in Washington, DC. I knew about NDIIP (the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program) but I was not familiar with NDSA, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance. The NDSA is a volunteer membership organization whose mission is “to establish, maintain, and advance the capacity to preserve our nation’s digital resources for the benefit of present and future generations.”  Since she was going, I thought I’d go along for the ride.
The volunteers participate in working groups serving the public good, and the annual meeting is a chance for everyone to get together and talk about digital stewardship. This group is different from but overlaps with the digital librarians, and seems to be a far cry from the traditional librarians, but, as I was pleased to find out,  not that far from the archivists. It has been a few days of big thoughts and ideas, as well as making connections with people trying to solve practical problems.  The biggest takeaway so far has been that it is essential to think about how our individual efforts connect with the larger world, and that cross-disciplinary collaboration is essential for success in preserving and making available our digital heritage.
So, let’s all remember to get out of our individual bubbles when we have the opportunity and connect with people doing similar things in different areas.

Digital Directions and the Direction of the Digital

Digital Directions comes to Boston

Starting tomorrow I’ll be in Boston for three days at NEDCC’s Digital Directions, where I’ll be on the “faculty” talking about Digital Repositories and Managing Digital Content. [Full disclosure here: my wife, Jessica Branco Colati is the Director of Preservation Services at NEDCC and the organizer of the conference. However, let me just say that I participated in Digital Directions BEFORE Jess went to the NEDCC so I guess that gives me some amount of credibility.]

Back when Digital Directions began in 1995 it was called “School for Scanning” because the idea was that rather than a conference where you might learn something, this was seen as a purposefully educational experience. The faculty as they were (and still are) called, were drawn from what was then a very small group of people actively involved in creating the discipline of digital curation (althogh no one called it that at the time) and were there to teach people to THINK in this new, digitally directed way. They generally stayed for the entire conference and were available to participate in discussions and mingle with the students.  I attended the School as a student in 1998 and can tell you that I was in awe of the people who I felt were actually bona-fide digital gurus.  I don’t know if any of them thought of themselves as digital gurus at the time, but they seemed to me the people who held the keys to some mystic brother- and sisterhood that was creating a new world for archives, museums and libraries. It was only later, when I had the good fortune to get to know some of them, did I learn that they were much like me, only with a bit more experience and opportunity, that is, they were navigating a new and uncharted territory with their imagination and intelligence, and their constant collaboration and discussion with their peers as guides.

From the beginning School for Scanning/Digital Directions focused on how to make decisions rather than prescriptions for how to do this or that task. It was never a training session or a software or hardware review (although goodness knows that there are always a number of people who just wanted to be given the “answers” to those questions).  But in the true educational spirit, we were urged to find those answers for ourselves, based on how we were taught to think about our own situations,

Eight years after attending School for Scanning as a student, I shared the stage as a faculty member with some of the same people who had taught me how to think like a digital archivist, and told the student audience that I was in NO WAY a digital guru, and that if I could go from student to faculty, they could too, because, after all, it was all about learning to think and learning your profession and being willing to share that knowledge.

So, I’m tremendously grateful to have the opportunity over the next few days to share my thoughts and to learn from others both on the podium and in the audience, not as one who knows the “answers” but as one who is also on the journey, because that’s what keeps us all moving forward toward whatever future we can imagine.

The More Things Remain the Same

Digital Repositories, 2012 edition

I just finished teaching a workshop for SAA, with my wife Jessica,  on building and maintaining digital repositories.  We’ve been teaching this workshop in some form or another for more than 10 years. When we were creating the latest version we noticed, not surprisingly, that a lot had changed since we started doing this. In fact, there were only a few slides that persisted in essentially their original form from the beginning. One of them introduces the “Framework of Guidance for Building Good Digital Collections.” Although the slide has not changed the Framework itself is now in its third edition.  That leaves just the slide that quotes from Paul Conway’s 2000 article in the NEDCC’s “Handbook for Digital Projects” where he says that “preservation is the creation of digital products worth maintaining over time.” We use that slide to illustrate how digital objects, even ones that are surrogates of analog documents, are information objects themselves and have a value that need to be understood and appraised. I also see this slide as the precursor to the field of digital curation and the idea of the digital curation lifecycle, that requires us to continually appraise and reappraise digital content.

So much else about digital object creation, management, and preservation has changed tsince the beginning that the details of workshop would probably be incomprehensible to the average archivist of 2001 (cloud storage? data visualization?), except for the basic fundamentals of the profession: collect, maintain, preserve, make available. There is some amount of comfort in knowing that, at least for us, the more things change, the more they remain the same.


Humanizing the Past, Imagining the Future

Digital Pioneers web site

A few months ago I posted a bit about Digital Pioneers, a project I was involved with that has as it’s aim a project to document a period of time (c.1994 – 2005) and a type of project (i.e. one that transformed analog cultural materials into digital form) that explored the possibilities of digitization of material that was commonly held by libraries, museums, archives, and historical societies in the words of the people who were present at the creation. The original project was organized around a class project at the University of Denver’s Library and Information Science Program. After the class ended, responsibility for Digital Pioneers was transferred to the Digital Initiatives office here at the Penrose Library, where we will continue to develop the project and interview more subjects as time and resources permit.

Our goal is to put a human face on the development of cultural heritage digitization. The story of the content and the technology development is told in the peer-reviewed publications and white papers, but we want to find out what people were actually thinking and attempting to do when they embarked on building the digital future; the challenges they faced, and the insights they developed as agents of change.

For now, there is a somewhat eclectic (but based on specific criteria) gathering of reminiscences, observations, and visions from a small group of people we were able to contact and interview in the time that we had. More interviews are in the pipeline, and many more people have already been identified as potential interview subjects. If you have a suggestion for someone who should be interviewed, please fill out the Suggestion Form on the Digital Pioneers web site. And for now, enjoy hearing the stories from a time and place that is fast becoming only a memory.

The Quick Start Guide to Becoming a Professional Archivist

When we were first developing a productivity-based  processing workflow system for the Digital Collections and Archives at Tufts University, we had a whiteboard on which we wrote motivational phrases that reminded us of the things that were important for us to remember. These guiding principles were later codified into what we called the “Quickstart Guide to Becoming a Professional Archivist.”   It had two sections, one on archival principles and one on attitudes about processing. We used the Quickstart Guide as a introductory and training tool for new staff members.

The Guide introduced concepts like “lumpers vs. splitters” and “ruthless efficiency and dogged persistence.” as ideas related to archival processing as well as asking more philosophical questions about the role of the archivist in creating knowledge.

Back then the Quickstart Guide was mostly focused on processing paper records. As time went on and I began to use the Quickstart Guide as a teaching tool, I realized that in the born digital age, processing had changed significantly and that the old Guide was a bit out of touch. For example, the original Guide emphasized that good archival description proceeded from the General to the Specific and moved down that continuum as time and resources allowed. Quantum Archival theory turns that idea on its head, and says that good archival description focuses on specifics first and moves to generalities as time allows.

So I went back and revised it for the digital world. The result is the Quick Start Guide 2.1.

The Quick Start Guide, 2.1

The key change was to emphasize that “management is not access.” That is, the way we manage our collections is not necessarily (or even desirably) the way we want users to access our collections. The ability to separate management from access is one of the key values of digitized and born digital archival content.

The Quick Start Guide remains a central statement of what I consider to be “good” archival attitudes. It is the first thing I teach in my classes.