24 December 2010

Breadth and depth of technical knowledge

Frequently I find myself struggling with the balance of breadth and depth of technical knowledge digital archivists need.

For example, I think a digital archivist should be able to mark up web pages. They should know at least enough HTML to be able to edit text within an existing framework. So they'd need to know some basic tags (bold, cite, italic), and they'd need to be able to recognize the text they can edit within a framework of tags they need to avoid changing.

At least, that's sort of the barbarian's approach to web markup and maintenance. Given that I still use a simple text editor, I'm happy. Needless to say, a lot of archivists will have access to tools such as Dreamweaver. They'll be able to do a lot more sophisticated design.

The question is, how much web work do digital archivists need to know? I've been doing web work for fifteen years, and I'm finally beginning to learn cascading style sheets.

There's no clear answer, of course. As always, the more one knows, the better. As I try to figure out how to teach students, I have to remember that they are not likely to be full-time, full-blown web masters. Also, in my personal opinion, less is more. I've seen some exquisitely beautiful websites that are simple and elegant. (McSweeney's, for example; www.mcsweeneys.net.) Fancy tools often lead to excess.

I've gotten by just fine so far with a plain text editor, some simple styles, and rudimentary knowledge of the GIMP (a no cost, open source graphics package).

23 December 2010

Why am I doing this?

Today, I configured password protection for some directories on the virtual LAMP server. I also installed an sftp server daemon. Some of which was confounding, and other aspects of which were easy. I'm still trying to figure out how to set up a static IP for the virtual server and link a host name to it using the hosts file. (You do know that Windows also has a hosts file hidden away that can be configured for just this purpose?)

Which leads me to the basic question: Why am I doing this? Or more important, why do I think digital archivists need to know how to do this?

First, I think moderately sophisticated tech skills can make one more self-sufficient and independent. I don't have to wait for someone else to do something for me. I also like the general sense that I can be responsible for myself.

Second, knowing how to do things means when I need to work with someone else to get the job done, I can talk to them using appropriate language. Not only can I communicate what I want done more effectively, I can understand what they're planning to do. I can approve, disagree, or have an intelligent conversation about the difference of opinion.

Third, in some instances I won't have the skills to do the job. I'm convinced the more I know, the faster I can get my bearing in alien territory. In my experience, being able to talk tech with tech people buys me a lot of credibility, and they're often much more interested in the task at hand. Being able to meet them half way makes a difference.

Finally, combining technical and archival knowledge gives me a richer understanding of the digital materials I'm responsible for and the problems (and potential solutions) for caring for them over time.

22 December 2010

Archon: Learning about a new tool

Archon (www.archon.org) is open source software that archivists can use to create finding aids for their collections.  It appears that it can also be used to store digital content.  It offers similar functionality to the Archivist's Toolkit.  The two projects are now working together.

Built a virtual computer running Ubuntu 10.10 using Oracle's VirtualBox. I always start with the desktop and add packages to make it a LAMP server. Had to install some additional packages for Archon, including pear, MDB2, and some additional php components. Got the program thing running with only minor hiccups.

It takes some moderate technical proficiency to install the software (skills that I think digital archivists should have). The real challenge now is to understand how to use the software intelligently. To do that, you have to have a firm grasp of archival principles and know how to translate them into a technical environment. Given that the software is designed for archives, that should be fairly straight forward. At the same time, that translation is not always straightforward.