Jumping In to born digital

Our report, You’ve Got to Walk Before You Can Run: First Steps for Managing Born-Digital Content inspired the SAA Manuscript Repositories Section’s Jump In Initiative, which challenged archivists who hadn’t yet started to deal with the born digital content on physical media in their collections to start by conducting the inventory recommended in First Steps.

box of mixed media from Jump In participant Boise State University, Special Collections and Archivesfrom Jump In participant Boise State University, Special Collections and Archives.

34 people stepped up to the challenge and 23 completed it — and five of the most intrepid came to the SAA meeting in New Orleans to talk about their experiences. Others in the audience joined in (others who had completed the challenge; some who had started, but not completed; some who weren’t yet ready to start; and still others who were barreling far ahead). I had the honor of moderating the session.

Krystal Thomas, Strozier Library, Florida State University; Tim Binkley, Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University; Pamela Nye, Director of Archives, The Westminster Schools; Ashley Todd-Diaz, Emporia State University; and Gloria Gonzalez, UCLA Library Special Collections each summarized why they Jumped In and what they learned through the process.

The reports and discussions were wide-ranging. Different people approached the inventory in different ways, some attempting to find all the media in their collections, others inventorying only one collections, some starting with the backlogs, and still another starting with descriptions of processed collections. In some cases the surprise was how much was identified — and the variety of different media encountered. In others the surprise was how much wasn’t found, causing some of the archivists to realize they needed to be more proactive in ensuring they are keeping their collecting policy and practice current.

We talked about the disconnect between the inventory step and the steps to come. How do you even know if you want to keep something, before you go through the process of transferring it? But having completed the inventory and beginning to talk about what comes next (keep multiple copies of files? retain components or just end products? rehousing media? disk image or file copy?) made everyone feel that the challenges are surrmountable.

One of the things that we talked about was the need to deal with several different streams of born-digital media: unknown media in the backlog, known media in processed collections, media that is coming in now, and media that will come in the future. Each has its own priorities and needs. 2001 was identified as the time when the born digital content really started showing up, but all acknowledged that the rate is picking up with each passing year. And of course we didn’t even touch on the born-digital content not on physical media, which will likely be the bulk of future born-digital content for many archives.

Courtney Bailey, a recent UNC SLIS grad, interviewed seven Jump In participants for her outstanding master’s paper, Bridging the Gap: Handling Born-Digital Records in Manuscript Repositories. One said, “now that I’ve said I’ll do this and I am part of this group, I feel obligated to finish.” Courtney reports that a motivation was “the importance of knowing this is a community of other archivists working through the same issues at the same time who can be looked to for guidance and support.”

Chris Burns, chair of the SAA Manuscript Repository Section, and his Steering Committee received many kudos (before, during, and after SAA) for fostering staff development and forward movement in an innovative way, exactly the sort of thing a professional organization should be doing. Based on the experiences of those who took part, I heartily agree. In fact one of the participants that Courtney interviewed said that having SAA sponsor this activity gave an aura of credibility and authority that helped her sell the project to her superiors.

It was delightful to me to get so much positive feedback on the impact that the First Steps report had made. But even more useful was hearing the requests for topics to be covered in future born digital reports. Jackie and I will be busy!