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.