Tackling born-digital: First, take baby steps …

On occasion my stepdaughter Sunde hears me fret about a problem that promises to take what seems like an excess of time, energy, or brainpower to solve, and she sagely advises “Baby steps, Jackie, baby steps.” Her simple coaching tip serves me well!

So, what’s the #1 issue that archivists fret about these days that seems to require an excess of just about every resource a human can bring to bear on a problem? Born-digital archival materials, you say? Bingo. And I think Sunde’s advice could serve us well …

The survey data that we gathered in 2009 provides a very interesting picture of what is, and isn’t, going on in research library special collections and archives in the born-digital realm. I’ve given quite a few public presentations about the survey over the past year, and a slide that has gained a lot of traction says this:

Born-digital archival materials: In a nutshell … undercollected, undercounted, undermanaged, unpreserved, inaccessible.

We learned that most research libraries have at least some born-digital special collections materials (79%), but far fewer even know how much they have (35%). Half of the gigabytes reported are held by two (two!) institutions. Most (83%) need education or training. Only half have assigned responsibility to any organizational unit for managing these materials. In sum, we surmised that collecting is generally reactive, sporadic, and limited. Lots of folks feel frozen, not knowing how to get started on such a daunting new area of archival management. An ocean of literature documents a vast body of research and practice on electronic records, but is way too complex for most archivists to navigate.

After pondering all this, Ricky and I have launched a project that we hope will help our colleagues start moving gingerly forward. We’re tackling three issues: identifying the many types of expertise held by special collections curators and archivists that are relevant in the born-digital context; considering the issues that pertain for various types of born-digital formats to warrant involvement of special collections and archives experts in their management; and defining some of those baby steps.

We’ve had some terrific conversations with colleagues who are educating us about initial “do no harm” steps that they take to establish basic control of born-digital files. Just today Merrilee pulled together an informal meeting of colleagues from New York City institutions (all of them members of our OCLC Research Library Partnership) to talk about the challenges they face and solutions they’re starting to put in place. There were archivists, heads of special collections, digital library managers, preservation librarians, and IT experts in the room. The synergy was terrific as everybody recognized the range of professionals that must be at the table to identify and implement solutions to the born-digital dilemma.

What’s your advice? Get in touch and help us think smarter about it. Really. We’d love to hear from you.

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