2014 SGA Annual Meeting Breakout Sessions Recap: Let’s talk about processing digital records!

In an effort to engage the rich discussions that were had as part of the “Everyday Digital Archives” breakout sessions at the 2014 SGA Annual Meeting, here is the third of four posts highlighting topics that arose during the third breakout session discussing the processing of digital records. Hopefully these posts will be thought provoking to the SGA membership and will help to contribute to the ongoing conversation about the many issues that come part and parcel with managing digital archives.
Breakout Session 3: Processing Digital Records
In beginning to think about processing digital records, it may be helpful to keep in mind this quote from Richard Pearce-Moses from his article “The Perfect and the Possible: Becoming a Digital Archivist”: ““…what we do remains the same; it’s only how we do it that will change.”  Many interesting articles and case studies about processing digital records can be found in the archival literature.  One of the most cited articles is Carroll, et al.’s, “A Comprehensive Approach to Born-Digital Archives,” about processing and providing access to Salman Rushdie’s digital files at Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.  There are way too many articles to mention in this post, but two other thought provoking ones worthy of mention are Jefferson Bailey’s “Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives” and Jane Zhang’s “Original Order in Digital Archives”. 
The importance of reading articles and case studies about processing digital records was one of the many topics discussed during the breakout session.  Various challenges, observations, tools and resources were discussed and many, many questions were asked.  Here is a sampling of what was talked about:
·        Dealing with all sorts of different formats, including proprietary formats
·        Security and integrity
·        Keeping the files associated with the description
·        Hybrid collections
·        Metadata
·        Getting a grasp of what you have – the way digital files are organized can be more chaotic – can’t guarantee that people are good custodians of their digital files
Observations / Thoughts
·       Having flexibility within your processing approach is important
o   need to determine how the repository wants to provide access, and from there create policies for processing; figure out steps to make it happen; set a goal
·       Hands-on experience a must – but also a daunting thought – does the fear of making a mistake keep us from making the needed initial effort?
·       Processing of digital records needs to start with administration – getting everyone on board
·       Map already known archival knowledge to what is coming with digital archives (i.e. “…what we do remains the same; it’s only how we do it that will change”)
·       Know what is critical
o   Look at the low-hanging fruit: if you’re given a body of electronic records, look at the ones that you could easily provide access to (PDFs, etc.) — > establish your processing workflow that way – this could help with tackling the harder modes
What do we need?
·       More cross-training of staff is needed – everyone needs to know how to handle digital
·       Need to have established policies and procedures for processing
·       Examples of successes and failures, in different sized shops (case studies!)
·       Best practices with a place to start, basic steps, and resources to support implementing them
·       Advocacy for the importance of digital archives jobs – either getting new positions or training for current staff
·       Technical skills to do archival processes on digital records
It was indicated in a couple of the breakout groups that several repositories have only gotten to the stage of collecting and inventorying digital records, thus not many tools have been put in practice.  Another issue that was raised is that we as archivists hear the names of many tools that would prove helpful in working with digital records, but we don’t know what or when to use the tools (i.e. what tools will help in acquisition, processing, digital preservation?).  Further compounding the issue, archivists may be afraid to ask about digital archiving tools because they feel like they should already know (the “I don’t want to be the person to admit I don’t know about this” syndrome.).  Some tools that were mentioned include:
·       Archive-It (for web archiving)
·       Archivematica (https://www.archivematica.org/en/)
·       BitCurator (http://www.bitcurator.net/)
·       Managing digital content in CMSs (ArchivesSpace, Archon, QuadraStar, Archivists’ Toolkit, etc.)
Questions asked
·       Where do we start?
o   Survey what we have and where it is stored
o   Look for ways to collaborate with other staff
o   What formats are we receiving records in?
o   What equipment do I need to process, preserve, and provide access for particular digital formats?
·       Can processing digital records model analog processing?
·       Where to start in processing hybrid collections?
·       How can we find out about tools that can be used?
·        What is realistic, when you have a small staff?
·        What infrastructure is feasible in a small archives or with a small budget?
Resources mentioned
·       Chris Prom’s Practical E-records blog – http://e-records.chrisprom.com/
·       Q&A Digital Preservation – http://qanda.digipres.org/; www.digipres.org
        Case studies
        Atlanta Historical Computing Society – http://atlhcs.org/
Hopefully the ideas/issues/thoughts shared here have been useful.  Feel free to leave your thoughts in a comment!  Coming up next is a post on Breakout Session 4: Preservation of Digital Records.

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