Born digital, from zero to sixty

Last month, several of us attended the Society of American Archivists meeting in Chicago. I was struck by how many sessions focused on or were related to dealing with born digital materials.

As Jackie has reported, OCLC Research is working in this area. As part of gaining perspective and gathering input, I convened a small group of New York City based OCLC Research Library Partners to share information about where they were on the born digital continuum. Here are some brief notes from this meeting, which was held in May of this year.

Meeting participants shared where they were on a continuum that ranged from “we haven’t done anything” to “we’ve done one project with an intern” to “we’ve been at the beginning for what seems like 8 years” to “we are prepared to invest major time and resources in building an environment to store and manage materials.”

Participants underscored the need for a broad and shared understanding of “do no harm” steps that can be taken to deal with media in a way that won’t compromise it (with the understanding that sometimes it will arrive already having been been compromised). [Note that in fact this is one of the goals of the OCLC Research project in this area.]

Institutions dealing with records management (either material from the partner institution, as in university archives or from a donor institution) face significant challenges in being able to influence record creation practice. Records retention practices has shifted significantly, particularly given the influence of Sarbaines-Oxley, FERPA, and other compliance measures that the records that remain may not be worth much, in terms of informing future researchers.

There was a tension between doing a more fine grained “digital appraisal” of materials in the short term (while curators still have a good idea of what’s in custody), versus an approach where we take it all in, stabilize, and bank on the future helping us to deal with on-the-fly conversion.

Many institutions have surveyed (or are interested in surveying) collections already in custody in order to see what’s there and to make a plan for future work. Often collections are a mix of paper with the occasional box or folder with a hard drive or floppy disk. Finding aids may or may not take account of these materials.

There was an interesting observation, that we are coming out of a time of what will most likely be viewed as unusual stability – we are now shifting away from an era where most stuff was created on a Windows PC on Microsoft produced software into an era marked by an increasing proliferation of devices, storage media, proprietary formats, apps, and the cloud. Designing an approach limiting ourselves to the materials we are taking in now (mostly produced in the 1980s and 1990s) would be a mistake. And yet, we need to start somewhere.

One institution has a collection of “stuff” previously used in media production that may soon or someday come in handy in converting or reading materials. Each institution doesn’t need this setup – it could be cooperatively owned and operated. Or we should identify regional vendors who can do this work, rather than developing expertise in libraries. After all, the advanced skills in the field of digital forensics are far beyond what’s needed by cultural institutions.

It’s become clear that from a resources standpoint, managing digital materials can be resource intensive. Partnering with other institutions will be key in making progress and minimizing costs. Also highlighted, a need for case studies: how often do researchers report that needed information is lost (whether in digital form or not)?

Thanks to the participants in this useful discussion, which included representatives from Columbia University, Museum of Modern Art, New-York Historical Society, New York Public Library, New York University, and Weill Cornell Medical Library.

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