What’s in a digital archivist’s skill set?

A fully assembled Apple I computer, with a homemade wooden computer case [Ed Uthman / Flickr]

A fully assembled Apple I computer, with a homemade wooden computer case [Ed Uthman / Flickr]

This post follows on my previous two that described 1) the overall landscape of current job ads for digital archivist positions, many of which are still open as of today, and 2) the range of duties and responsibilities that I’m seeing in these ads. Today’s post describes the skill sets being required by hiring institutions.

As recently as a year ago, I was disheartened by ads that were vague about what the position would entail and, perhaps worse, specified wildly inadequate skill sets such as “adept at learning new technologies” or “experience updating web pages” (I’m exaggerating only slightly). In sharp contrast, most current ads are loaded with specific technical requirements. (Only one is of the earlier ilk: its only semi- technical requirements are knowledge of Microsoft Office and “computers, databases and HTML.”

Please note that the statements of required skills listed below are taken directly from current job ads; they shouldn’t be taken to define the full array of skills that may be needed in some environments. For example, Cal Lee (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) developed a detailed skills inventory in 2009, and Kim et al.  did their own survey of academic library job ads in 2012.  In addition, the Digital Archives Specialist curriculum offered by the Society of American Archivists provides a good sense of the range of skills needed. Archivists who have earned the DAS certification by taking nine courses and passing a comprehensive exam should be well qualified for this job market.

Here are well-worded statements of non-technical skills needed by digital archivists:

  • Strong command of archival theory and best practices, especially as they relate to the particular issues posed by born-digital content.
  • Familiarity with trends in arrangement, description & management of born-digital materials.
  • Experience planning and managing a digital archives program with knowledge of current trends, tools, best practices, policy development, and issues associated with electronic records.
  • Experience with or coursework in digital media and born-digital files in archival collections.
  • Familiarity with metadata standards relevant to the archival control of digital collection materials such as EAD, Dublin Core, METS, MODS, and PREMIS.
  • Knowledge of copyright, donor restrictions, and permissions issues related to processing digitized and born-digital material.
  • Ability to articulate highly technical concepts and requirements to a variety of audiences.

The range of technical requirements being required is becoming both long and very specific, reflecting both the rising sophistication of the field and institutions’ growing understanding of needs. Note that the level of sophistication in each skill ranges from high (e.g., thorough, excellent, strong, in-depth) to basic (e.g., knowledge, experience, familiarity, ability):

  • A thorough and up-to-date understanding of digital file formats, electronic records management, and digital persistence practice and theory.
  • Knowledge of electronic records issues, systems analysis, systems development concepts and data storage methods, media, and security.
  • Excellent knowledge of the technical requirements for digital preservation, including hardware, software, metadata schema and file formats.
  • Strong knowledge of forensic technologies utilized by the archival or cultural heritage communities for harvesting, managing, and preserving born-digital archival and manuscript material.
  • Strong technical skills: format validation and conversion methods, data integrity techniques and technologies, long term storage planning, and digital asset management systems.
  • Experience with a wide range of computing operating systems, storage systems, and file formats.
  • Working knowledge of software systems related to library digital imaging, management, access and preservation such as Drupal, Fedora, Islandora, Hydra, Archivists’ Toolkit, ArchivesSpace, Archivematica, and MetaArchive.
  • In-depth knowledge of digital preservation standards: PREMIS, OAIS, TDR.
  • Familiarity with OAIS standards, TRAC principles, and best practices in assessment of needs and development of workflows in digital preservation strategies.
  • Familiarity with disk imaging techniques using Kryoflux and FRED, digital forensics software (Forensic ToolKit, BitCurator), digital preservation management software (Archivematica), and archival description software (ArchivesSpace).
  • Knowledge of XML, HTML, databases, XSLT, Perl, Python. Experience with XML and related technologies, TEI, EAD, Perl, Unix shell scripting, Ruby on Rails; knowledge of linked open data issues and the semantic web. Experience with Solaris and Linux systems administration, especially Apache configuration and MySQL.
  • Ability to code in XS and scripting languages such as Perl, Python, and PHP.

Is your sense of the current job market for digital archivists significantly different from what I’ve seen in, and taken away from, the current spate of ads? Are big things missing from these lists? Let me know what you know.

Above all, hire a digital archivist!

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About Jackie Dooley

Jackie Dooley leads OCLC Research projects to inform and improve archives and special collections practice. Activities have included in-depth surveys of special collections libraries in the U.S./Canada and the U.K./Ireland; leading the Demystifying Born Digital work agenda; a detailed analysis of the 3 million MARC records in ArchiveGrid; and studying the needs of archival repositories for specialized tools and services. Her professional research interests have centered on the development of standards for cataloging and archival description. She is a past president of the Society of American Archivists and a Fellow of the Society.

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