Archivists should be key players in managing born-digital library materials

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 1.57.25 PMAs an archivist, I’m acutely aware of the broad applicability of archivists’ skills and expertise to the challenges facing research libraries—challenges in areas beyond those traditionally seen as within the archivist’s purview. This has become increasingly true as we become more deeply enmeshed in the complexities of the digital age. In recent years I’ve observed many situations in which teams of expert librarians and technologists have experienced setbacks in managing born-digital materials due to issues that an archivist could have recognized and addressed at the outset. How so, you might ask?

For the long answer, read The Archival Advantage: Integrating Archival Expertise into Management of Born-digital Library Materials, hot off the press today from OCLC Research. For a quick overview, read on.

In this essay I argue for involving archivists in managing digital materials that may be neither acquired by nor in the custody of the archives; examples include research data, websites, and email. These three types of material have analog equivalents (lab notebooks, university newsletters, and correspondence), while others are in digital formats that do not (blogs, Twitter, wikis, and software). All of these types of material are within the scope of what research libraries should consider acquiring and preserving, particularly as our concept of the scholarly record evolves.

Archivists specialize in issues crucial for managing unique materials—i.e., those for which the original exists in a single location, multiple copies aren’t published and distributed, and a particular owner (whether an individual or an organization) owns and controls the content. Consider the extent to which the digital formats named above match these characteristics.

The essay focuses on ten areas of archival expertise, describing some of the complexities of each and posing sample questions that can arise in the digital context. Other research library staff may have skills that intersect, but these ten are part of an archivist’s daily routine.

  • Ownership
  • Donor relations
  • Intellectual property
  • Appraisal
  • Context of creation and use
  • Authenticity
  • Restrictions on access and use
  • Transfer of ownership
  • Permanence
  • Collection-level metadata

For instance, let’s look at some of the issues associated with donor relations.

The decision to donate one’s papers, or those of a loved one, can be an emotional experience. Archivists therefore carefully establish and build upon relationships of trust, negotiate terms of the donation, raise any pertinent legal issues, and discuss possible restrictions on sensitive material. Some donors ask pointed questions about how the institution will manage the materials. Relationships may continue for years and must be nurtured to ensure the institution’s reputation as a desirable home for others’ materials. Institutional archivists often must educate administrators and staff about the importance and benefits of transferring material to the repository. Large organizations usually have records retention schedules that stipulate which types of office records have permanent value and should be transferred to the archives when no longer actively in use. In working with donors of all types, archivists discuss the scope of materials that have sufficient value to be placed in the archives. Typically, only a small percentage of materials created are declared permanent and designated for transfer to the archives.

Any or all of these issues may pertain with a digital donation: Some sample questions: Should the deed of gift cover any special issues because of the digital format? Does it matter if the donor or anyone else has copies of all or significant portions of the digital material? Do we have to consult the donor before we recover deleted files? Do the digital records contain any personal information we should redact? What happens if we choose not to retain some material after acquiring it? With whom do we discuss these issues if the creator is deceased?

The descriptions and sample questions for each of the ten areas reveal the tip of the iceberg of an archivist’s expertise. Research libraries should take full advantage of archivists’ array of skills so that unpublished digital resources can be managed efficiently, effectively, and responsibly.

Jackie Dooley leads OCLC Research projects to inform and improve archives and special collections practice.

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