Advocacy, capacity, and program building: Stewarding born-digital archival collections in the RLP

A photo of four floppy disks laying on an orange background
Photo by Behnam Norouzi on Unsplash

Nearly every archive is grappling with stewarding born-digital archival collections. Practice and programs supporting born-digital archives continue to evolve as we develop increased understanding of needs and available options to address them. The OCLC Research Library Partnership recently held roundtable discussions with special collections leaders that focused on where our programs are now, how we are leading and resourcing them, and how we hope they might shift and grow in the future.

The discussions were illuminating. Thirty-nine people from 36 RLP institutions in three countries attended one of the sessions. The RLP draws from a unique, international mix of independent, academic, national, and museum libraries, with great variety in size and scale of operations. Even with this range, the consistent story across institutions is that this work is still very much in flux and actively being figured out, often with insufficient resources. Good progress is being made in different areas, but nobody reported satisfaction with their ability to handle all the needs of born-digital collections.

Participants were asked to reflect on the following questions to shape the discussion:  

  • Who has responsibility for born-digital archival collections in your institution? How are you staffing and resourcing support for born-digital collections?   
  • How are you supporting learning and experimentation for the people in these roles? 
  • What are your challenges and where do you need support? 

The rest of this post summarizes key takeaways and points of commonality from our discussions.

Digital Archivists 

Having a role that takes primary responsibility for born-digital collections — whether a digital archivist, digital preservation librarian or archivist, or something similar— was a key indicator, for many participants, of a mature born-digital records program. While many institutions reported having a digital archivist, a significant number of institutions do not. Those that did varied in the length of time the role had existed, ranging from almost a decade to it being a brand-new position. A handful of institutions have a second, more junior role in addition to a digital archivist, either a digital archives technician or a graduate student worker who handled more routine tasks.

Funding and advocacy for such positions was a commonly cited challenge. The stability of funding for such positions varied, with some institutions getting support for a digital archivist through a grant or other time-limited project funding. Several participants described it as a long game: they were slowly but steadily making the case for a permanent role by articulating the need within strategic planning and prioritization discussions. Turnover was an issue, in both leadership and operational roles. This churn in institutional leadership often meant starting advocacy efforts from scratch. And with digital archivist skills in high demand, retention is a challenge as incumbents are lured to a different institution, resulting in slow progress, and necessitating repeatedly advocating for the need to maintain and refill the role.

Participants also spoke of the need for distributed responsibility across the archives for born-digital collections, whether they had a role with primary responsibility for the work or not. For those at institutions with a defined digital archivist role, they did not feel it was scalable to have one person with sole responsibility for stewarding born-digital and expressed concern about employee burnout. One participant described their desired approach: “We need to ramp up teaching the other staff to help them manage more routine materials, saving weird stuff for the specialists.” Others were intentionally working on a model where born-digital was understood as everybody’s job, in the absence of a digital archivist. Those working within a distributed responsibility framework described a need for better understanding of the competencies required for working with born-digital collections across all archival functions and resources for training staff on these competencies.

Matrixed responsibility

In many large institutions, work on born-digital collections spans multiple departments or units. A surprising number of participants described matrixed organizations where this responsibility sits outside of archives and special collections — sometimes in a shared technical services unit, a digitization or reformatting unit, a digital projects or preservation unit, or in an information technology unit.

Discussion participants spoke of the necessity and challenge of working across departments and functions to advocate for needed infrastructure, especially communicating archives-specific requirements that differ from digital materials collected elsewhere in the library. This was especially true when responsibility for born-digital fell in departments more focused on managing faculty or student research outputs, research data, or digitized content.

Digital preservation

An area where almost all participants seemed to be trying to figure things out was addressing digital preservation needs, from tools for initial identification and ingest to ongoing storage. The resources and/or responsibility for this often fell outside special collections. Several participants were using systems initially funded by grants and now needed to find sustainable support. Others described trying to shoehorn born-digital collections into DAMS or other storage systems that weren’t designed to address the needs of archival collections. Those who have been able to implement digital preservation systems talked about what a positive impact it had on their programs. One participant said, “our lives changed when we were able to move to [System].”

Physical versus digital

An interesting thread that ran through the conversations was the difference between digital and physical collections, and the ways the relative invisibility of digital collections impacted work with them. Much of this centered around advocacy and fundraising. When working with donors who are swayed by interesting and engaging collections, it can be hard to entice them to support something they can’t see. Many talked about the challenge of advocating for digital preservation, storage, and other infrastructural needs. As one participant put it, “You can show administration a physical location. You can show them the boxes…and it looks like something to them. They can conceptualize how much is there and what it is. When you’re in a digital environment, and you’re advocating for your collections, it’s harder. … You [can tell them] the terabyte counts, you can tell them about the collection materials, but it’s harder to conceptualize what those collections look like, or how they’re used or what they are. It takes a more advocacy.”

Participants continue to have difficulty estimating the time needed to appraise, accession, and process born-digital collections, something that is relatively well established with physical collections. The lack of reliable metrics for this work makes advocacy even more challenging.

Access and use

Providing access to born-digital collections was another challenge articulated by many participants. Some institutions provide access via a dedicated workstation or laptop in the reading room. A few are providing online access, including authenticated access to materials that can’t be made available on the open web. But most recounted infrastructure limitations that impacted their ability to provide easy access to digital collections. Several institutions manage access requests on a case-by-case basis, which participants recognize as inefficient and inequitable. Other institutions offer separate delivery tools for born-digital and digitized collections, which they characterize as clunky, bifurcated, and not aligned with how researchers understand and want to discover resources.

Participants also discussed the challenge of incorporating born-digital materials into teaching. One observed that students – who lead digital-first lives — don’t connect with electronic material in the same way they do with physical items.

Curatorial challenges

Participants described multiple ways in which born-digital records impact curatorial work. The most common concern was the volume of records coming in and the challenge of performing appraisal on digital materials. With ever-increasing scale of born-digital collections, the high cost and environmental impacts of storage for those collections, and the front-loaded work required to secure and stabilize them, there is an growing realization that more appraisal work is required before collections are brought in. This challenge is two-fold — the learning curve of working with electronic records coupled with a paradigm shift from appraising physical collections. There is a recognized need to build born-digital appraisal skills among those charged with collection building and to integrate appraisal tools into the pre-acquisition process. Along similar lines, one participant voiced the concern that we are not having enough conversations about how born-digital records are being used, which is leading to uninformed collecting. They went on to say, “it feels like we’re headed for [a] conversation in 20 years about corrective appraisal.”

Several institutions described a lot of investment in born-digital collecting “before we really knew what we were doing,” leading to a significant backlog of collections that need baseline control.  That stewardship debt continues to accumulate as they continue to collect. Some archives are declining offers of born-digital collections because of lack of stewardship capacity, describing this as a case-by-case decision. There is anxiety that a “great collection is going to come along, and we’re not going to be in a position to handle it.” Some participants were trying to mitigate past missteps by addressing born-digital in their collection development policy, in some cases putting limitations on what they collect. Others had updated acquisitions procedures and deeds of gift to obtain the permissions they need to serve born-digital to researchers.

Conversely, a move to digital formats is also making it harder to acquire materials that previously arrived in physical form. This was especially true for archives charged with collecting university records or administrative records of their parent organization. Participants explained that senior administrators don’t want to transfer their email; things like electronic newsletters must now be sought out, and in general people don’t seek out transfers to the archives now because they haven’t run out of physical space.  “It used to be that people would run out of space in their filing cabinets and call the archives, but those days are over.”


All in all, these were interesting and illuminating conversations that illustrated both how much progress archives have made in working with born-digital collections, and how much work remains. Our evaluations indicated that participants found comfort in learning that they weren’t the only ones struggling to do this work responsibly and to address all the various needs of born-digital. This is a great outcome, as our goal with these roundtables is to bring together library leaders to facilitate peer learning, benchmarking of services, and community building among RLP members. My hope is that the roundtables will continue to provide a space to build community, offer support, and share knowledge.

If you are a member of the RLP and don’t have someone participating in our leadership roundtables, either this one focused on archives and special collections and the other on research support, you can find more information here. Please reach out, we’d love to have you join us.

One Comment on “Advocacy, capacity, and program building: Stewarding born-digital archival collections in the RLP”

  1. Very impressive!!! In a nutshell, I’ll hang on to my old ones I haven’t tossed & presume they will be rescued by you my lovely niece, (since way too much info for me to read, absorb and digest! )!!!

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