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.


WebWise Begins With Preconferences

The 2010 edition of the IMLS WebWise conference kicks off tomorrow in Denver with two pre-conferences. I’ve been the steward for the half-day workshop called “Digital Repositories Uncovered” run by Sarah Shreeves, Coordinator of IDEALS at UIUC, and Jessica Colati, Director of the Alliance Digital Repository here in Colorado (and yes, we are related). As I mentioned in a previous post, Sarah and Jessica have what I think is a difficult job of selling people something they need but don’t think they want. But that is only one part of the story. Managing digital repositories means more than just convincing content owners that they want to deposit. It involves understanding copyright and fair use, intellectual property law, hardware and server specifications, software applications, and how to talk to programmers. If digital repository managers were soccer players, they would be center midfielders, able to direct the flow of the game, and understand and coordinate how all the parts work.

The half-day workshop covers a range of issues repository managers have to face (I’ve seen the previews) but most importantly, I think the workshop helps repository mangers think about who they are, and their central role in the collection, management, preservation and use of digital content.