23 August 2013
During the Society of American Archivist annual meeting Helen Kim tweeted during the session “Road Maps to Success: Strategic Planning in Archives,” “Do you have a mission and vision statement? Everyone laughs.” I presume that few had policies, or the policies were so old they were of limited value. Chatting with several colleagues – including experienced, superb archivists – they told me they didn’t have those policies. Not that I am surprised. As one friend noted, he started off as a lone arranger and knew what needed to be done. Over time, as his shop grew, creating policy documents was not tops on the list. (Nor am I holding myself up as an exemplar. I suspect this shoe would have fit me at different times in the past.)
At the end of the conference, Scott Cline, Rand Jimerson, and John Fleckner presented three amazing, profound papers on the theme of the ideal and the real. Each, in their own way, called for archivists to always remember the ultimate goal of archives. It’s more than eliminating the backlog, ensuring that finding aids are properly encoded, and storage has an appropriate environment and security. Their talks called on us to remember the role that archives play in knowing the truth, to promote social justice, and to preserve our cultural identity.
For me, appraisal is the heart of the archival enterprise, tied to truth, justice, and cultural identity. I believe it should drive everything that we do. Archives may be useless if people have no access to locate and use the records, but before there is arrangement and description to support discovery, before patrons come into the reading room, archives have to have records. Which records should be processed first, which records take precedence for digitization and preservation, all relate to the appraised value of the records.
For me, the ideal of appraisal is that archives should capture and provide access to records that tell a complete, accurate, and authentic story of the past. (Relative to the mission, of course; not every archives must tell the story of everything.) That statement drives one of my post-modernist friends crazy. "Your understanding of what's complete reflect the reality you've constructed. Moreover, you can't collect everything, so the story will necessarily be incomplete." This friend knows a lot about appraisal, so I don't discount his criticism lightly. My question, back to him, was practical: if we don't accept complete, accurate, and authentic as a goal, what are we doing? In the absence of such a goal, what's to say archivists can't collect what they find interesting, what they think is important? Take about a skewed story of the past.
He’s right. No archives has the capacity to acquire records that document every detail, but we can capture a representative sample. And of course archivists have cultural blinders and personal biases that will influence the records they seek out and select for preservation. Well, duh. That's hardly a profound observation -- right up there with "do not put beans up your nose." The challenge for archivists is how to adapt to that reality. Individually, it's difficult -- if not impossible – to overcome their blinders. Rather, I argue that they need to develop a diverse group of advisers, people with a range of perspectives. Perfect? No. Better that indulging in personal fancy? Yes.
My goal may be an impossible ideal, but I’ll stick with it. Moreover, I personally believe archivists are ethically bound to pursue it.
If appraisal is really so important, so essential to the profession, why must we do it so badly? Still – thirty-nine years after Gerald Ham asked the question in his 1974 presidential address. As Cline noted, ideals are necessarily unobtainable. They are not goals or objectives, but guide stars. Even if impossible, they’re essential. They provide a compass to help us ensure we’re doing the right thing. The challenge is to take the time to consider our ideals, to pause the drudgery of the daily grind and reflect on whether the work is truly meaningful.
In part, it’s easy to confuse the urgent with the important. Time is rapidly consumed with patrons at hand, donors to call, and administrators wanting reports and meetings. The immediacy of people demanding things of us seemingly leaves us little time for things that can be easily delayed – things that are often very important, if not urgent. The disaster plan can wait a few days; yes, it’s important, but it’s unlikely a disaster will come along this week. (Noting with some irony that I’m posting this almost exactly eight years after Katrina hit New Orleans a week after SAA met there in 2005.)
A collecting policy is one of those important things that can easily be put off. Most archivists have a good sense of what what’s in and out of scope. That begs the question, is the scope right? Is it outdated? Is it too narrow or too broad? The only way to know is to take the time to review it (or develop one that translates oral tradition to something formal).
Taking a structured approach to a collecting policy also helps us achieve a better policy. Archivists have a number of tools to help identify those records that merit acquisition, including documentation planning, functional analysis, and macro-appraisal. None will likely be a perfect fit, but often they can be tailored to the archives’ particular needs.
For many working in archives, what to do is not the problem. It’s how to manage time to do that. At the meeting, it occurred to me that the appraisal class in Clayton State’s Master of Archival Studies program could help. It provides a structure to consider the entire process, from mission statements, collecting criteria, and strategies. At the end of the semester, students should have a complete, thoughtful collecting policy. Like all courses, it considers how appraisal has changed in the digital era.
As important, using the course to review or develop a policy means that you have others who can give you input. Because the class meets weekly for two hours, over sixteen weeks, you have time to reflect on each step in the process. Because the courses are live, online lectures, you can take them regardless of where you live. As a result, you can consult with colleagues and your collections readily accessible.
Individuals working in archives and with archival collections are welcome to take selected courses they’re interested in. Currently, tuition and fees for a course is approximately $1350, with no differential for out-of-state students. Please contact me if you’re interested.
 @hlnkim, 2:47 p.m. 15 Aug 2013. Session 211, including panelists Mark Greene, Judy Ruttenberg, and Jordon Steele. I did not attend, so apologies if this is entirely out of context.
 “Ideal and Real: Striving for Archival Perfection in an Imperfect World.”
 “The Archival Edge,” American Archivist (January 1975). Delivered in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on 3 October 1974, at the thirty-eighth annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists.
 Students must be admitted to the graduate school, which requires a bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, the program cannot accept students who live in Alabama, Alaska, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, or Wyoming at this time due to federal regulations.
15 August 2013
Presented at "Training in Place: Upgrading Staff Capabilities to Manage and Preserve Electronic Records,"
SAA Annual Meeting (New Orleans 2013)
Clayton State’s archival studies program is relatively new. It started its fourth year this week, and we have nearly forty students in three cohorts. The program is designed to give students a broad education in archival theory and practice, with a strong emphasis on digital archives and electronic records. The program reflects my beliefs that working archivists need strong technical skills to succeed in the digital era. The program also reflects my belief that many practicing archivists need a way to retool their knowledge and skills, and they that education without having to leave their jobs and families if they don’t live near a school that offers coursework.
The first question – before questions of pedagogy and online delivery – is, what do archivists need to know to work with electronic records? That question has no easy answer. Given the wide range of archives and the various jobs archivists do, the skills any given archivists need depend heavily on context. In a large repository with a strong IT staff, archivists may need “soft skills” (in the word of The New Skills colloquium) -- the knowledge and skills to clearly articulate a technical problem to CS/IT professionals for them to implement in code. Those archivists may need project and contract management skills more than “hard” technical skills. But at a small archives, an archivist may have few technical resources. If they want to capture a Twitter feed, install Archivists Toolkit or Archon, or build a digital repository using LOCKSS, Dspace, or something else, they may need to know everything from operating systems, to networking, to scripting.
I’d like to step back from the question of specific knowledge and ask why archivists need technical knowledge in general. First, archivists need fluency. They need to understand and be able to talk about technical concepts as they apply to digital archives. Two years ago, I asked students in the Archives and Technology class if they knew what ASCII was. I was amazed that so few had heard of the term, that only one or two could actually define the concept. In many ways, that they didn’t know ‘ASCII’ is analogous to being able to read and write, but not know the word ‘alphabet’.
These students -- like many archivists -- were all sophisticated consumers of technology. They could use technology to do complicated, useful things -- word processing, spreadsheets, email, browsing. But they didn’t understand how it worked. The CS/IT industry has done a masterful and admirable job of making technology easier to use. They’ve done that by hiding complexity. The students, as consumers of technology, don’t need to know ASCII, any more than they needed to know EBCDIC, the ISO 8859 standards, or Unicode. But as digital archivists, they have to understand the nature of the records in their collections. The need to understand the materiality of records is not new, but it’s often something that archivists learned indirectly. They grew up with paper documents. They appreciate that pencil can be erased, but ink is fixed -- hence, ink is used in records because it resists change. They know that a staple holds a document together, but they’ve probably never considered it to be metadata that describes a document’s boundaries and sequence. And handwriting, the equivalent of character encoding. They don’t think twice about records that are handwritten or printed, but they may be stumped when faced with text in frakture.
Second, many archivists -- those who are working directly with the records, but less so for administrators and manager -- need basic competency to work with records. They need basic skills to do tasks similar to working with non-digital records. They need to be able to transfer records from the creator’s office to the archives, but they won’t be using boxes. They’ll be using tools like BagIt to be able to demonstrate the authenticity and integrity of the records. They’ll want to arrange the records, but they won’t be physically reorganizing files by using commands to sort the records. I continue to believe that what we do remains the same, but how we do it changes.
I’ve often heard archivists say, “I’ll just hire that done.” If that’s an option, great. But for archivists in small archives with limited resources, that may not be possible. Moreover, I think it’s an untenable position. Can you imagine a processing archivist say, “I don’t need to know how to alphabetize. I’ll just contract that out.” If arrangement and description are core to the profession, we must be able to do that work ourselves. Certainly, we may need help. Arranging electronic records is challenging, and some argue that the notion of original order is irrelevant for electronic records. (An opinion I don’t share.) We may need to work with a CS/IT professional to build tools to help us sort complex records in some fashion, but archivists must be masters of those tasks that we’ve identified as core to the profession.
Finally, I hope that at least a few -- ideally many -- archivists will become proficient with technology. I believe the profession needs archivists who are also masters of technology. Only they can fully understand the implication of the tectonic shift triggered by electronic records. As important, we need people who can imagine creative applications of technology. These are the people who will take us beyond “What we do remains the same” to truly innovative approaches and new ways of working.
§ § § § §
Clayton State’s program includes fifteen courses. They cover all aspects of archives: general principles, appraisal and records management, arrangement and description, preservation – with a separate course in digital preservation, reference and access, management, law and ethics. All of those courses incorporate discussion of digital archives and technology. For example, the course on appraisal and acquisition discusses the use of BagIt, a tool to ensure the authenticity and integrity of records being transferred to the archives. That course also looks at harvesting websites and capturing Twitter feeds. The processing course uses Archivist’s Toolkit, and the digital preservation course will be incorporating Archivmatica. We’re constantly looking for new ways to give students practical experience with a wide range of tools.
At Clayton, students take several courses that focus on technology. They build a virtual Linux server, install software, explore the network configuration, and -- as important as anything -- learn how to navigate the file system. When the graduates do field work, they’ll be able to survey the digital terrain and have a sense of the lay of the land. The students also take a course in web work. They’ll be able to create a modest website with dynamic webpages using PHP to query a MySQL database, but -- more importantly -- they’ll understand the structure of web content so that they can do a better job capturing it for their collections. The students also take a course in database design so they understand data models.
We’re developing a capstone course that students will take in their last semester. They’re given a collection of electronic records and are expected to demonstrate that they know what to do, starting with developing a collecting policy and applying it to identify permanent records, process the records and produce a finding aid, develop a preservation plan, and more. (That’s more than can be done in a semester; we’re trying to figure out how to scale the course.)
The goal of this technical education is not to make the students system administrators, programmers, or database designers. It is to ensure that they have a firm understanding of the digital ecosystem, so they can communicate with CS/IT folk, and -- I hope -- are sufficiently proficient to be able to continue experimenting through life-long learning.
All that is well and good, but how can archivists in the trenches get that knowledge? How can they overcome three significant barriers: time, place, and money? We are fortunate to have some really amazing graduate programs with great courses in digital archives -- Texas, North Carolina, Michigan immediately come to mind. Unfortunately, not everyone lives near those schools. It’s unrealistic to think that people with jobs in archives, not to mention families and houses, can up and move so they can take courses there.
SAA offers a series of short workshops around the country, but I suspect many of the attendees are from out of town. Traveling to a workshop is easier than a full course (or a full degree) because it’s concentrated into a few days. At the same time, it’s hard to absorb all the information in an intensive workshop. One of the things I value about formal coursework for practicing archivists is that the information is delivered over fifteen weeks. That gives the students time to really think about the material. They may be able to try to apply it at work, then raise real world examples that support in-depth exploration in follow up questions and discussion.
I’m a firm believer in online, distance education. Not only do I think it can be effective and engaging, I think it can address the barriers of time, place, and money. In my instance, I wanted to get a library degree, but -- as I described -- I was one of those who didn’t live near a library school. (The University of Arizona was only a hundred miles, but impractically distant.) Nor could I leave a good job or my partner. Fortunately, I learned about a program offered by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was a great program, and I learned a lot. Since then, several library programs have come online, including Clayton State’s. UIUC’s program addressed time and place. I didn’t have to take time off from a job to pursue a course elsewhere, nor did I spent lots of time commuting to an on-campus class. The amount of time spent on classwork was spread over a semester, so I could give it appropriate attention. Still money would remain a barrier for many as UIUC charged out-of-state tuition.
Many people are skeptical about the quality of online education. For some, distance education connotes for-profit diploma mills that give students a piece of paper without the benefit of a good education. Many others find it hard to imagine a graduate program without the interaction of face-to-face seminars. Now, MOOCs challenge traditional models of education and the need for interaction with students and professors -- just take a test that demonstrates you know the information, regardless of how you learned it.
To step back, my concern is that students get a good education. How can we help students engage with the material and each other so that they master the content? There’s no one approach that works with all students. Some students need the immediacy of face to face instruction. Some students thrive in asynchronous courses, where others need a sense of community.
To be effective, online faculty need to consider three factors: technology, methodology, and socialization.
At Clayton State, we rely primarily on video conferencing for live lectures and small group discussions. Students see and hear the instructor in real time. They can ask questions, but likewise the instructor can ask the students questions. We use the Desire to Learn (D2L) course management system, although minimally -- access to readings, submitting assignments, and -- in a very limited way -- discussion.
The more interesting question is methodology: how can we use that technology effectively? Realistically, what’s the difference between a live lecture and a recording if students sit and watch both passively? Early classes were primarily lectures, far from an ideal seminar based on Socratic dialog. Students might ask an occasional question via chat, but there was little participation. Without queues from body language, it was impossible for instructors to see students’ epiphanies or confusion to know who to call on. Instructors had to learn to be comfortable with silence, to give students an obvious opening to ask questions or offer comments. And, isolated from each other, they didn’t feel any social pressure from the group, motivating someone to respond.
The final factor, socialization, is intimately tied to technology and methodology. How can we make students comfortable enough with the technology and the methodology so that they become active, engaged participants? Many students have not participated in live, online courses, so they have to learn how to be online students. Students that have been in asynchronous courses find they have to come to terms with live participation. (I’ll add that the instructors also have to go through a similar process to become comfortable.)
Over time, and with a bit of serendipity, we’ve found a few ways to engage the students more effectively.
First, we use video conferencing for small group discussion. In some cases, the students meet for about an hour separate from class, although we’re not moving towards small group discussions during class time as a break from lecture. Students may talk about the week’s readings or a case study. The success of these discussions is largely a result of social aspects. In addition to the assigned tasks, students spend time talking about what students talk about -- the instructor, the amount of work. In the process, they get to know each other and become more comfortable with each other. Because the instructor isn’t present, there’s less intimidation: students are less afraid to say something “stupid” and be embarrassed. Finally, the students are responsible for the success of the group.
Second, we’ve discovered that the students need help being prepared to participate. In part, this echoes the notion that students have to learn to learn online. Students often didn’t know what to say when discussing the readings. To get them engaged with the readings, students have to respond to an assigned question: What is the author’s thesis? What is the exposition? What is the conclusion, and how does it relate to the thesis? How can context help us better understand the article? How does the article related to other archival domains? Students must write up their response and post it to the shared discussion boards the day before class. Students have let me know that they tend to read the article they’ve been assigned very closely and skim the others. (Something no instructor should find surprising.) However, reading the other students’ reports on the articles gives them different perspectives that didn’t occur to them.
Third, to help them explore ideas in greater depth, we have begun using writers groups based on Tara Gray’s Publish and Flourish. Students are expected to write at least fifteen minutes a day, to report the time they spent writing, and to share their writing with the group. We hope that students will continue these groups in all their courses, helping each other learn to write better – but more importantly building a community that explores the ideas in depth.
Fourth, we’re using more case studies. Giving students a real world scenario helps them see the practical implications of abstract theory. During class, students break into small groups during class, then report back. The groups come up with different approaches, which prompts discussion. As important, because the reporter is speaking for the group there’s less risk.
In all these methods, we pay attention to socialization, to the human factor. In addition to learning the disciplinary knowledge, students need to learn to be online learners. Lessons they learned starting in primary school through their undergraduate degrees – how to sit in class and pay attention, how to ask questions, how to interact with our students – are all different in an online environment.
Because the students are physically separate, they certainly feel some level of isolation. Unlike students in face-to-face program, they have little chance to get to know each other and bond hanging out before class, during breaks, or other social functions. In some ways, the students remain strangers to each other, with an understandable measure of restraint. (Although, many students have built relationships over a couple of semesters.)
The program seeks to find ways to make students more comfortable and to take risks. Small group discussions are less intimidating because the instructor is not present, so students may be more willing to venture ideas. And, when reporting back to the class, students are speaking as a representative of a group, further reducing personal risk. At the same time, because students take the lead, they have greater responsibility – to themselves and to others in their groups.
To conclude, briefly, I mentioned one other barrier that practitioners face: money. I’m very happy that we’ve been able to move Clayton’s program to an e-Tuition rate. All students – in-state and out – are charged the same rate. Course cost about $1300 for tuition and fees. When developing the program, the needs of practitioners who couldn’t leave their jobs were forefront in my mind. We welcome those who want a master’s, but we also welcome those who would like to take select courses that address specific needs.
I firmly believe that Clayton’s program fills an important gap in archival education by addressing the barriers of time, place, and money. If you’re interested – in pursuing a degree or in taking specific courses to refresh your knowledge – please contact me.
18 July 2013
What does it take to build a digital archives? To incorporate electronic records into an existing archives?
Those questions don’t have trivial answers. At the same time, I would hope a digital archivist should be able to sketch out a high-level plan rather quickly. As much as anything, a rough plan will identify questions that need to be answered. Students in Clayton State University’s Masterof Archival Studies program begin their capstone project by creating such as plan, based on what they've learned throughout the program. Their response structures the work they need to do the rest of the semester -- find answers and explain the process.
The essence of a plan can be found in three questions that professional archivists should be able to answer (at a high level) rather quickly.
What is an archives? In a nutshell, ‘archives’ may refer to the repository (as a space), to the program (as purpose and activities), or to the collections.
The plan must clearly define a space, distinct from folders, boxes, and shelves. This high-level outline might describe that space as “digital storage,” setting the stage for future discussions of local and cloud storage, backup, and specific technologies designed for digital archives. The plan must consider the purpose of the digital archives, either establishing, revising, or revisiting the vision, mission, and goals to consider. Finally, the plan must consider the collections, at a broad level: what records should the archives acquire to accomplish its purpose?
What does an archivist do? The Academy of Certified Archivists’ Handbook identifies several broad functions that should be addressed in the plan. The Handbook also includes professional, ethical, and legal responsibilities, which touch on the archival functions noted below.
Selection, appraisal, and acquisition. At a more detailed level, what approaches will be used to identify records for consideration, what criteria will be used to include them, and how will the records be transferred? Existing records retention schedules and collecting policies may need little modification to appraise records based on content. Other factors, such acceptable formats, condition, and preservation costs may need to be addressed more specifically. Procedures (including identifying specific tools) to transfer the records will almost certainly have to be developed for digital records.
Arrangement and description. Rumors of original order’s death may -- or may not -- be exaggerated. At the same time, the plan must address approaches to organizing the records in storage (the virtual equivalent of folders and boxes). The plan should also consider approaches to automate description through automated extraction of metadata and generating file lists.
Reference and access. Making electronic records available online can be a great boon for access. At the same time, publishing records online raises questions about copyright, privacy, and other issues.
Preservation and protection. Even a high-level outline of digital preservation needs to identify a broad range of questions, ranging from backup and system security, demonstrating authenticity and integrity, format migration, preferred formats, and audits. As important, who on staff will be responsible for the technical aspects of preservation?
Outreach, advocacy, and promotion. These activities may not be urgent. Given the impact and costs of incorporating digital archives into the program, they are important and can't be delayed long.
Managing archival programs. Beyond those activities specific to archivy, archivists must identify who will do the work and money to support both people, hardware, and software.
What is a record? Although archivists and records professionals may debate the nuances, the heart of the definition -- in my mind -- focuses on information in a fixed format used as evidence of the past. Geoffrey Yeo poses a similarly broad definition, “persistent representations of activities, created by participants or observers or their authorized proxies.” (In “Concepts of Records (1):Evidence, Information, and Persistent Representation.” American Archivist 70 (Fall/Winter 2007), p. 515-543.
The plan needs to raise discussion about what will be preserved, of what constitutes the digital record to be preserved. Are digital records necessarily preserved in native formats? Is it significant that formulas in an Excel spreadsheet are lost when converted to PDF? Is it possible to keep databases accessible indefinitely? If not, how can that information be captured? How do these decisions affect the trustworthiness of the archives?
02 July 2013
Posted on Archives & Archivists, 1 July 2013, in response to a thread with Bruce Montgomery and Frederic Grevin, later joined by Fynnette Eaton.
I worked with digital archives for several years before coming to Clayton State to begin master's program in archival studies that emphasizes digital archives. (And, with Susan Davis, I published the proceedings of New Skills for a Digital Era, a colloquium designed to know what technical skills archivists needs to work with electronic records. http://www.archivists.org/publications/proceedings/NewSkillsForADigitalEra.pdf)
IMHO, the more archivists know about technology, the better. Consider what archivists know about traditional record formats. While they may not have studied paper documents as a medium, they understand the material nature of the records because they grew up with them. They may never have considered a staple to be metadata, but in fact it enforces the document's boundaries (pages included) and sequence. Archivists who work with photographs have to learn about the materiality of those materials and what could be learned from format and process, and how to preserve them.
Today, many people are sophisticated consumers of technology. They can browse, send email, write documents, do spreadsheets, and more. One reason they can do that is because the software vendors have made so many advances in hiding the complexity of the process. (Ancient history: when using WordStar in the early 1980s, I had to edit the binary software to insert the printer codes if I wanted to take advantage of such advanced features as bold and italic. <g>) The flipside is that many people who've grown up with computers don't know what's going on "under the hood." The materiality of e-records is largely hidden from them -- all they see is what's on the screen.
By comparison, many people are sophisticated consumers of automobiles. They can use maps, turn on the ignition, and get from point A to point B with little problem. But when something goes wrong, when they have to do anything more technically complex than put gas in the tank, they're stuck.
Digital archivists need to understand the materiality of e-records to be successful. A year ago, I asked my students what ASCII was. I was shocked to discover only a handful knew. (If you're one of them: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ASCII). In some ways, that's like being able to read and write, but not knowing what the word "alphabet" means. How can archivists work with or preserve electronic records without such basic knowledge? Would the concept of bitrot make any sense without an appreciation that the records are binary? How will they be able to plan for format migration without knowledge of software versions?
At Clayton, all courses include a technology component. For example, the course on appraisal and acquisition looks at tools like BagIt to ensure the integrity of transfers. The program offers two courses to ensure that graduates have background in technology. At a minimum, they'll know the concepts so they can have intelligent discussions with CS/IT folk. They'll also have basic competency so they can do many basic tasks on their own. (We expect processing archivists to be able to arrange records. In the digital era, they'll need to be able to sort them -- which involves queries and software tools.) Students will also have a foundation for proficiency -- they'll know enough to be able to continue learning new tools on their own. Clayton also teaches a course in database design to ensure that students can properly manage information about the records. I hope to offer an intensive course in digital curation and preservation tools very soon.
All courses are live, online lectures. Students meet in a WebEx "classroom" weekly in the evenings (6:30p Eastern). I believe coursework has significant advantages over intensive workshops. Spread out over a semester, there's more time to cover more content. Even more important, students can experiment at work during the week with what was covered in class. Applying the information in a real world setting makes it practical and often raises great questions for class discussion.
When you factor in transportation, housing and per diem, and workshop registration, Clayton's courses are competitively priced: about $1300 per course. Courses are the same rate, regardless of where the student lives. (At this time, the program cannot accept students who live in Alabama, Alaska, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, or Wyoming. The University System of Georgia is negotiating agreements with these states to allow residents to enroll in the online MAS program.)
Clayton welcomes individuals working in archives to take courses, either working towards a Master's or as a part-time, non-degree student.
For more information, see http://www.clayton.edu/mas/ . Or, give me a call. We still have space for fall admissions. (Classes start 12 August.)