18 July 2013

Planning a Digital Archives

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? 

1 comment:

  1. Elizabeth Dow (Louisiana State) sent me a note, commenting that this task doesn't address the soft skills necessary to do the work -- project management, contract negotiation, schmoozing with the reluctant or hostile client/collaborator. I agree! Those are essential skills for a digital archivist (well, just about anybody who works). The assignment is to get people thinking about the pieces and the sequence. Later in the semester, as they flesh out begin to implement the plan, they'll learn more about those soft skills. Thanks, Wiz!