Collections As Data

The purpose of digital projects has changed over time.

A lot of the talk here at Digital Directions is about thinking of your digital collections as data. One definition  I like is “information that has been translated into a form that is efficient for movement or processing.” This idea that the purpose of building digital collections  is no longer to create a faithful representation of a physical object, but to provide a resource that transcends the original purpose of form of the object is becoming more common.  I used a new slide in my management presentation this year to show how I believe the original purpose of digital projects has been upended.

It used to be that the primary purpose of digitization projects was to provide a digital representation or copy of the original analog object, with as much fidelity to the original as possible.  At the time, that was something of a tall order. Nowadays, while we still do that, we also make it possible, through both technology and creative commons licensing, for people to manipulate the content in ways not part of the original purpose of the digital original.

We have stood the old model on its head and are getting closer to the envisioned future of the potential of digital archives.

A Question of Scale

Two days at CNI in Washington, DC. The city is freaking out about the weather–typical– but the meeting is its usual fascinating and inspiring event. Like the Web Wise meetings CNI tends to be a group of people who are doing things talking about the things they do to other people who are doing things or who want to do them.

Clifford Lynch, the archetype of the digital library world gives the keynote summary of what is new, news, and newsworthy, and we all listen intently to see if we are on the right track. It isn’t that he invents new things for us to do, but that he always has his finger on the pulse of the profession, and knows where things are going. So he simultaneously reports what is happening, and by choosing to emphasize one thing over another, gently pushes the profession in one or another direction.

My first takeaway from the keynote was Cliff’s idea that we are moving past the era of building small systems and federating them–a common approach in the earlier days–and that we need to think about how to interconnect systems automatically.

Interchange and re-use continues to come to the fore. Open data, linked data, linked open data–whatever–embedded in metadata, served up by open APIs, available through CC0 licenses, that is the message of CNI so far.

This was echoed again and again in Monday’s sessions, from the people at GWU collecting tweets, to Dan Cohen talking about how the DPLA is both a portal for discovery and a platform for building new services upon.

More to come …

Forum Forum

Yesterday, I had the pleasure and privilege to attend the Connecticut Forum on Digital Initiatives. The second installment of what I hope will be an annual event brought together more than 100 people interested in digital preservation and presentation from across the state and even beyond. We were treated to an engaging and challenging opening keynote from Trevor Owens from the Library of Congress. My big takeaway from that talk was the idea that we should not “confuse tools with content.”

In an era where we want to use, reuse, and manipulate our digital content the display or presentation means change quickly. It is the content (or what I might call the “data”) that we want to preserve. We can also preserve the story that is told with the data through the presentation platform, but that is a completely different activity, and separate from the tools.

Trevor was followed by a number of breakout presentations on a host of topics. You can look at the Google doc to see the schedule and links to presentations and examples.

I  had two chances to speak at the Forum. One was to introduce our latest project, the Connecticut Digital Archive (more on that later) a state-wide collaborative preservation repository for cultural heritage organizations based in Connecticut. You can see the slides below:

My second chance to talk came at the end of the day when an interested and perhaps somewhat information overloaded group convened for the closing plenary.

My point in the closing was to encourage people to join the digital archive effort, and to think about the current challenges facing archivists in the digital age.

Anyone who has read this blog in the past will know what comes next. I wanted to convey my idea that the current challenges we face are part of a long evolution of record keeping that goes back as far as clay tablets and will extend far beyond our lifetimes. To meet today’s challenges, I said that we should respect the traditions of our profession and embrace the potential of our technology.

You can read the text of my remarks and see the slides:

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

No, not the Roman Forum, but the Connecticut Forum on Digital Initiatives  (,

The Connecticut Forum on Digital Initiatives, October 22, 2012 in Hartford

the second installment of a program sponsored by the Connecticut State Library and begun in 2011. Paraphrasing from their website:  The Forum brings together people from libraries, archives, museums, and cultural heritage institutions from around Connecticut and beyond to talk about the digital initiatives  and how collaboration can enhance a project and create communities from across the cultural heritage spectrum. The Forum is a chance for the diverse voices within the cultural heritage sector to talk about ideas, projects and tools with which they are engaged.

And it is true. I attended last year, just after I moved to UConn, and was happily surprised by the spirit of collaboration I found at the Forum. Lots of places and groups talk about collaboration, but in Connecticut it appears to be a reality.

This year, I am honored to be on the program, talking about the importance of digital preservation and how a collaborative approach to digital preservation can make it possible to preserve the cultural record of both large and small organizations.  I’m sharing the podium with folks from Connecticut (Yale, UConn, CT State Library) and beyond (Library of Congress, George Mason Univ., NYPL Labs) who are sharing their stories, plans and dreams about the digital present and future

If you can make it to Hartford on October 22, it will be worth the trip. Registration is free. So come and join the conversation!

Jon Voss Electrifies Crowd- Archivists Return to Knitting

I have a love/hate relationship with my profession. There are many times when I believe that archivists not only hold the key to preserving our cultural heritage but that they will actually use that key in imaginative and innovative ways.

Today is not one of those days. Jon Voss of Historypin gave a stirring and inspiring-I thought- keynote about LODLAM (linked open data in libraries and museums) that encouraged archivists to connect their data to the larger world through technology. Using still images, maps, audio, and moving image examples, he showed how cultural heritage material could be used re-used and recontextualized by the general public and enthusiasts.

The woman two seats down from me barely looked up from her knitting.

COME ON PEOPLE!  I know we can be better than this, but I don’t usually see it at the SAA annual meeting where I am for the next couple of days. I have to go to digital library conferences to see archivists really engaged in the digital age.  How can we inspire the larger profession to become engaged in things that are vital to our survival as a profession?

I’ll need to think about this…

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.

Copyright and Risk

It is hard to believe that it has been almost a month since Digital Directions. (I guess being involved in two NEH grant applications and some strategic planning activities can just consume time otherwise spent thinking about archives and digital libraries). My two biggest takeaways from DD2012 were about copyright and delivery. I’ve heard Peter Hirtle give his copyright talk a number of times over the years and was struck this time by how the landscape around copyright and digital libraries has shifted over the years, much to the benefit of open access to information.

Peter summed up the shift in a couple of bullet points:

  • Don’t just ask “Is it legal”?
  • Ask “Who is going to be angry if I do this? Who will benefit?”
  • Look for ways to minimize potential harm while maximizing access and use.

Citing  the recently published ARL Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries, Principle 4 that supports the idea of fair use in archival collections that are comprehensively digitized, Peter emphasized the idea of risk assessment in addition to, and perhaps before, legal precedent in determining whether or not to provide digital access to primary source materials.

And finally, he said that it was important to be honest and open about your own decisions, to inform users about all you know about the rights that relate to your content so that they can be responsible as well.

This seems to me to bring us back to the common sense approach that was prevalent in the pre-digital but post-photocopier age, when we informed people of the potential of copyright issues relating to the material we were making available but trusted the users to be responsible researchers.

After some years of worrying that the specter of copyright would choke off most of the innovation in delivering digitized Special Collections, I see these developments as a positive step forward.

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.