Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Taking the Long View: Surveying Collections for Preservation and Digitization Priorities: As Un-Sexy as It Seems, a Survey Is the First Step to Building a Digital Archive

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Taking the Long View: Surveying Collections for Preservation and Digitization Priorities: As Un-Sexy as It Seems, a Survey Is the First Step to Building a Digital Archive

Article excerpt

Everybody's talking about "archiving" these days, and building digital archives are all the rage. In a 2010 report, two of the top three most challenging issues in special collections and archives were cited as managing born-digital materials and the implicit mandate to "digitize everything" (Dooley and Luce, 2010). So it's not surprising to learn that curating digital materials--their identification, appraisal, access, preservation, and even staff training--is uppermost in the minds of most, if not all, cultural heritage professionals. I've seen questionnaires asking archivists to rate their ability to manage digital records ranging from "supremely confident" to "completely terrified," and I'm guessing the scale leans toward the latter.

Unless you're in the enviable position of starting fresh with all digital collections, the first step for most of us in building a digital archive is to survey what kinds of computer-readable files are already hiding in our collections. Think of the collections in your library where such files may be found; researcher datasets immediately jump into my mind, as do the harvested files of institutional websites.

Why Survey?

But why bother with a time-consuming, painstaking collections survey project when so many other tasks vie for our attention every day? As un-sexy as it seems, a survey is the first step to building a digital archive. And here are three more good reasons: preservation, planning, and funding.

Preservation. Unlike analog stuff--books, letters, photographs, memorabilia, and other physical materials--older digital files and media are the most fragile from a preservation perspective. You can't just put them on a shelf and expect to be able to "read" them a decade later as you could with paper. Without the precise hardware, software, viewers, and even peripherals, many will be lost for good.

Planning. We need to be able to make decisions about (and substantiate) how to prioritize migration for digital preservation needs. Yes, those floppy discs donated by a professor emeritus in the 1990s are at risk, but maybe they take a backseat to the World War II-era Voice of America recordings.

Funding. Grant agencies like to see how you're going to use their money. Acquiring and preserving digital records are the topic du jour. However, without a clear road map and preservation plan for your digital archive--call it a needs assessment--it's going to be difficult to create a work plan or to justify X dollars. And some groups, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), are now requiring data management plans for the grants they give to make sure data is preserved and accessible.

The Precursor--A Media Preservation Survey

When I was at the University of Hawaii-Manoa's library, we conducted a media preservation survey in the Archives & Manuscripts department back in 2007. It was a hard sell to convince staff why we needed to do it, but it still serves as a useful tool today. We included both computer-readable and audiovisual formats in our survey in order to prioritize migration and/or digitization of all at-risk formats.

Initially, we examined our donor files and acquisition records and realized there was no explicit field for such a category (there is now). Then we had to open every box, identify different types of media, and record them in a spreadsheet on a laptop in very chilly archival conditions (lots of hot chocolate was consumed on breaks). Yes, it was a pain ... and yes, it took a long time. But we discovered more than 5,600 individual items hidden in 3,700 linear feet of records--that's a very large room full of a few thousand boxes. We found everything from videotapes in VHS and Betamax formats, audio discs, audiotape on reels, and audio cassettes to filmstrips, microfilms, microfiche, CDs, DVDs, U-matic tapes, and more.

Back then, we hadn't yet acquired many thumb drives, servers, or email archives; the inventory would certainly include those and more today. …

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