Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Day of Digital Archives: Confidentiality and Collaboration

Hi--my name is Gabby Redwine, and I'm an archivist at the Harry Ransom Center, which is a literary collecting archives, humanities research library, and museum at the University of Texas at Austin. My job has three components: developing the Ransom Center’s digital preservation program; reviewing and managing xml finding aids; and processing paper and hybrid holdings. I also find ways to participate in the intellectual life of the University (particularly the English and History departments), facilitate research related to the Center’s African Studies materials, and am involved with projects that fall under the digital humanities umbrella. On a typical day, these different activities merge in ways that I find productive and inspiring. I had intended to write a “day in the life” post on October 6 to share some of my excitement about what I do.

Instead, I spent that whole week working on digital projects that I couldn't discuss outside of the walls of my institution. Some of these were genuinely confidential – for example, research related to the digital media in a prospective acquisition. Other work, like drafting policy documents or planning for an ongoing collaborative project with colleagues from other institutions, simply wasn’t far enough along to discuss in a public forum.

Collaboration is a necessity for digital archivists. None of us alone has the skills or time to become a master of every media type, format and tool, particularly since the technological terrain keeps shifting beneath our feet. Pooling expertise is the only way many of us can move forward. Since so much of my work is collaborative and involves scholars as well as archivists, curators, and librarians at other institutions, I often struggle with how to maintain an appropriate level of confidentiality, while also sharing enough information to make a given collaborative effort worthwhile--or contribute to an outreach effort like the Day of Digital Archives.

I find this a particularly hard line to toe when working with scholars and doctoral students. These two parties come to the table with research agendas that are sometimes at odds with the responsibility I feel to the authors whose personal papers and digital media I process, to my institution, and to my profession. Respecting an author’s privacy, building trust with current and future depositors, and abiding by professional ethics and in-house policies regarding confidentiality are of paramount importance. These priorities limit the amount of information I can share with researchers who want to study digital archivists, digital preservation programs, and born-digital collections.

But one of the great benefits of cross-disciplinary work is being forced to re-examine existing policies and practices and re-articulate them to a diverse audience. Collaborative projects encourage archivists, curators, and librarians to theorize our hands-on work; give us the opportunity to ask faculty and student researchers how they want to engage with born-digital materials; and help us build a multidisciplinary community of colleagues with a range of skill sets, agendas, and institutional powers. These and other benefits make it worth our while to figure out how to share information in a way that furthers collaborative work, while also respecting a depositor’s privacy and upholding professional ethics and internal policies.

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