Friday, October 12, 2012

A Day in the (Digital) Life

Last year I chose to use my DoDA post to broadcast my former institution’s ideas about communicating what digital archives are to the public. This year, I have a new job at Penn State as Digital Records Archivist. This job didn’t exist before, and we’re still trying to figure out what it’s going to be. But we have a lot of irons in the fire here, so I’ll stick to the theme of talking about what my ‘day of digital archives’ looks like.

I think it surprises some people to hear that I find my average day to be distinctly non-technical, but it shouldn’t. And I’m okay with that. I’ve found that what interests me most about the work is the challenge of figuring out how it all fits together, how it blends with the other work of archives, and how the overall work of the institution can be reimagined and modernized.

A lot of what I am doing at my current institution is capacity building: forming policy, trying to locate and implement best practices (which can and should be institution-specific), researching and reading work being done by others, experimenting with free tools, and just dialoguing with other staff about challenges and issues. A significant and persistent challenge is trying to align a developing electronic/born-digital records practice with our institution’s established practices, which includes trying to both mold digital practice to legacy practice and recommending ways in which legacy practice might be modified to suit new digital realities.

For example, this morning I have spent a little time working on my long-fermenting ingest workflow for electronic records. This workflow needs to address not only the particulars of what we might call ‘digital processing’—how we transfer material from some kind of external digital media to network ‘dark archive’ storage, how we store that transfer (discreet files or disk images or both), what metadata/manifest information we attempt to extract, and how we document this activity—but also how the media flows to the digital archivist in the first place, and what becomes of it afterward. We have to setup policies and practices that govern the separation of media from collections, how the media and the work we do with it is documented in Archivists Toolkit (as well as how it is documented there after ingest), and ultimately how it is incorporated into arrangement and description activities. Perhaps the biggest challenge I face right now is figuring out just how to provide access to the material should a researcher stumble across some record of it in the library catalog or finding aid platform. Actually, this thing is pretty much done, but I keep tinkering.

A lot of what I am doing is just traditional archival work cast in a different light. The next task on my list this morning is, well, appraisal. Penn State recently contracted the services of Archive-IT, and we’ll soon be using their crawling services to strategically capture university websites. Despite being published and disseminated through web technologies and platforms, Penn State University websites are subject to the same considerations as other university records. They exist within record groups and are potentially subject to retention schedules.

In preparation for this project, we secured a list of sub-domains on from central IT, and have been visiting the websites on this list to determine an originating department (provenance), look for sites from departments that fit the collecting priorities of the university archivist, try to determine how frequently the site updates (an ongoing process), and record some descriptive information about the sites in advance. Our initial collecting priorities will focus on sites related to the administrative units, colleges, and commonwealth campuses, but future phases of collecting will seek broader documentation of university work, culture, and life. As Mike Shallcross stated in his excellent case study on archiving the University of Michigan’s websites:

While reviewing Michigan‘s online resources, archivists were keenly aware of the extent to which websites help confer credentials (from the recruitment of students through their graduation), convey knowledge, foster socialization, conduct research, sustain the institution, provide public services, and promote a distinctive culture.

Increasingly, the kind of content Mike refers to above is being delivered through multimedia (primarily video), social websites, and cloud-based services (universities are increasingly using YouTube, Flickr, etc. to host content). Future appraisal and planning won’t necessarily be more complex; we’ll just have a larger landscape of material to examine. It won’t necessarily require special training or technical skills; it just requires an awareness of institutional uses of technology and methods for delivering content that should be collected by the repository.

Finally, I’ll take a little time later today to start preparing for a talk I’ll be giving at this year’s Digital Library Federation Forum in Denver. My position as Digital Records Archivist was written into a Mellon personal scholarly archiving grant that was awarded before I started at Penn State this past May.  The project is “an ethnographic study of faculty behaviors and articulated needs central to robust scholarly creation and successful navigation of the personal archiving and information management process.” From an archival point of view, the study should provide some insight into the personal digital habits of faculty and the technologies used to support and share their research. We’ll be collecting data through surveys, interviews, an on-site observation, and hopefully, for my part, I’ll be able to identify patterns that can help inform acquisition and management approaches to born-digital material (see the post earlier today, "What's in a File Name?"). This has been an interesting collaboration between various information professionals—I will be presenting with the lead investigator, an Educational and Behavioral Services Librarian, as well as an ethnographic researcher—and I think it speaks to the ways in which archival work in the digital age is inevitably going to be cross-disciplinary.

And by the way, thank you, Gretchen, for putting this together again!

-- Ben Goldman, Penn State University


  1. with the cause researcher, an Academic and Behavior Solutions Librarian, as well as an ethnographic researcher—and I think it talks to the methods in which archival perform in the electronic age is certainly going to be cross-disciplinary.

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