Thursday, October 6, 2011

Digital archives are having their day!

WOW. This DoDA thing has really taken off. Tons of terrific posts, people, projects, progress. Zipping through everything that has come in so far today, I've felt like a bit of a kid in a candy store (nerd alert! but I guess I'm in good company today). Unlike everybody else who is weighing in, however, I have no experience whatsoever managing or preserving any digital archival stuff. (That's assuming you don't count my stuff at home that's backed up on Icloud. Nope, I didn't think you would want to count that.)

Regardless, as an archivist, I've been obsessed with the born-digital deluge for a couple of decades--out of necessity rather than ability or innate interest. When I was a University Archivist, I had the embarrassing stack of physical media sitting on my desk waiting for the day when we would "have time." At least we were clever enough to check off "digital media" on our accession forms, so when survey day comes, it'll all be easy to find.

In my current role in OCLC Research, where we undertake projects that will press research libraries forward in addressing today's Big Challenges, we work actively with members of our OCLC Research Libraries Partnership to identify appropriate topics and do good work that will help. A year ago we published Taking Our Pulse, the report of a survey of special collections and archives in more than 150 research libraries (universities, colleges, museums ...) across the U.S. and Canada, the data from which demonstrated how little is going on in management of born-digital in research libraries. Though 80% of respondents said they have at least some born-digital materials, less than one-third could say how much. Fewer than half have assigned responsibility for addressing the born-digital realm. Publicly-accessible metadata is rare. More than 80% admitted that they need education and training. And--no surprise--born-digital is one of the three most often-named "most challenging issues" that special collections and archives must address.

In the wake of the survey report, my colleague Ricky Erway and I are now in the midst of what we like to call our "born-digital baby steps" project, the objective of which is to help research libraries that have yet to take any action get off the dime. In addition to outlining the briefest possible (so as not to intimidate) list of basic (really basic) steps that should be taken to get a handle on what you have (survey!) and bring materials under initial control (server space! bit imaging! simple accessioning!), we want to demonstrate that getting started truly is feasible, including for those who don't have special resources (or staff) and for geezer archivists like me who have spent years being frozen in place like deer in the headlights.

In our research reports we're inclined to consider library directors a core audience, since they ultimately set the priorities and control the purse strings. Some of those directors are counting on their archivists to deal with born-digital (particularly for content that's beyond the scope of an institutional repository), but they don't know what that means, or why it's so hard, or the extent to which their IT people are going to be key players. At the other end of the spectrum, however, some directors think that born-digital has nothing whatsoever to do with special collections and archives (um, that's just the "rare" and the "artifacts," isn't it?).

So in the baby-steps report we're also going to talk about how "born-digital" fits into research libraries in general, and how it intersects with special collections and archives. We'll outline the wealth of skills and expertise that archivists have to contribute to the mix. We'll discuss how the range of born-digital content and media dovetails with the types of material that special collections and archives have traditionally collected. Remember, library directors and other higher administrators are a key audience: even though many archivists already know these things, few directors know how to think about them. So, we hope we'll be able to help them get a grip so that they'll understand what their archivists are up against.

We have a small army of colleagues in the wings (including some of you), all of whom have various sorts of expertise in the born-digital realm, standing by to give us feedback on drafts, answer our baby-steps questions, and in general keep us from embarrassing ourselves by saying things that aren't quite true. And all these DoDA postings are suggesting some other people with whom we might want to talk at some point.

Speaking of which, if you have any reactions to our project, please comment! Brickbats, tomatoes, garlands of flowers are all welcome. Or get in touch with Ricky or me to chat.

Congratulations to everybody who has weighed in today, as well as those listening in, for being part of the community of born-digital archives and archivists. Hey, Gretchen, you better be planning to preserve this blog! It's going to be a fantastic resource.

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