Photo by Tobias Steinhoff, CC Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Photo by Tobias Steinhoff, CC Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

In my role as an institutional archivist, embracing digital preservation is necessity. An archivist serves as a steward of the past; we preserve and make accessible unique resources, winnowing out masses of material to bring to light amazing narratives. I love the prospect of building and developing the collection of the future, expanding successful strategic alliances, forging effective courses of action to get my program out there, and aligning my cataloging and acquisition priorities to the current community needs. However, and I am being absolutely real, I don’t especially love the learning curve.

What’s an archivist to do?


What are digital records?

“Digital records is a broad term encompassing digital surrogates created as a result of converting analog materials to digital form; born – digital, for which there has never been and is never intending to be an analog equivalent; and electronic records.” – Digital Preservation Coalition

Wait, born – digital?! What does that mean?

Think: Anything that you create on social media sites for example, or on your smartphone perhaps.

” Digital materials which are not intended to have an analog equivalent, either as the originating source or as a result of conversion to analog form. This term is used to differentiate from 1) digital materials which have been created as a result of converting analog originals; and 2) digital materials which may have originated from a digital source but have been printed to paper, e.g. some electronic records.” – Digital Preservation Coalition

And electronic records…how are they different exactly?

” Records created digitally in the day-to-day business of the organization and assigned formal status by the organization. They may include, for example, word processing documents, emails, databases, or web pages.” – Digital Preservation Coalition

For those of us interested in continuing our mission to document, preserve, develop and present archival collections into the future, embracing digital records is a matter of survival.

Digital records are better than paper, yeah?

Digital records are extremely fragile. One wouldn’t think that something so intangible could be so fragile. Although we can’t tear or shred digital records, files can become destroyed, corrupted or obsolete. Because they are so intangible, it is easy to create so many files. Plus, creating digital files is cost-deferred, meaning that it’s often cheaper for people and organizations to create and store digital files instead of analog. Without the physical limitations of space, the world is ours to document.

How do I get started?

“Many people like to treat electronic records as they do the weather: by, as Mark Twain said, complaining about it but doing nothing about it. We are now decades from the point at which that was an excusable way for archivists to address the issue of electronic records.” – Geof Huth, New York State Archives

Much of my archival training was strongly influenced by the seminal article published by Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner back in 2005. “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing” was such an influential work that MPLP is probably the one acronym universally recognized by archivists. Being my organization’s resident millennial and recent graduate, it’s expected of me to adhere to the MPLP model as it is ostensibly the archival theory du jour. Of course I have read the study, along with OCLC’s “Taking Our Pulse: The OCLC Survey of Special Collections and Archives” [2010]. I’ve worked in a variety of settings where MPLP has been successfully integrated into a processing workflow, but I have also worked in settings in which MPLP was not implemented. The pushback is understandable, and realistically the model doesn’t suit everyone’s needs. Daniel Santamaria’s recent publication Extensible Processing for Archives and Special Collections provides an excellent, and in my opinion, more flexible and practical framework for reducing processing backlogs. (I never did shake my dislike of the term ‘minimal’ – ‘flexible’ and ‘extensible’ are far more appealing, wouldn’t you agree?)

cropped-cropped-13054155255145889732.jpgI digress. I began archives life in metadata and picked up some habits that are proving difficult to shake, like item-level processing and rigorously well-formed access points. My student workers shake their heads in dismay over my love of Excel spreadsheets. The scholarly humanist in me loves the material, marveling over every detail – correspondence is the bane of my project managing existence. I expect abstracts and content notes to be written with personality and care, necessitating additional research. I value the work my colleagues do, and with linked data in mind, off I go through OPACs searching for relational material. For me, processing collections can be personal and…intense. Obviously I’m not alone given that Greene-Meissner reported that the “modal average—the most frequent value in the range—was 33 hours per foot and, indeed, there was a large clustering of projects (7) in the 25–40 hours per foot range”.

This past week I decided to take advantage of January break and exercise a little physical control over my frequently used stacks. Weeding and benchmarking are tools every library has in common. But the Processing Archivist in me waffles in indecision. On one hand, I have a huge amount of immediate backlog that needs to be accessioned and housed. There are several small collections begging to be housed, described and encoded. On the other hand, where am I putting this stuff? As I was working on housing a variety of recently accessioned materials, I realized that many document boxes needed to be replaced or expanded which meant that our shelf list needed to be updated, boxes physically moved over, labels reaffixed and finding aids brought up to speed. Ah!

How did I justify a week of schlepping boxes over a shelf space or two? Knowing that college and university archives face a challenge many collections don’t actually helped a lot. Our commitment to serving as the institutional memory means that our collections are constantly in flux piecemeal style. A scrapbook here, a program there, a USB or a byte via electronic submission. It’s very organic, very unique, and very time consuming. The Association of Research Libraries published a white paper in 2003 identified thirteen (13) problems resulting in backlog. Of immediate concern to me:

  • Access to unprocessed collections is staff-dependent, to the detriment of the institution and the patron. Long-time staff become the source of expertise for these collections; when they move on or retire, that undocumented “institutional memory” is lost.
  • Unprocessed collections are totally inaccessible because they are likely to be in closed stacks, eliminating the possibility of discovery by browsing.
  • Space constraints at the core campus are leading some institutions to build high-density storage facilities in which ONLY processed collections that can be readily retrieved can be housed.

It is fundamentally important to me to keep the collections as together as I can and to utilize all the space that I have. Smith College is gorgeous and beautifully maintained but like many archives, our space is limited. We have use of storage space elsewhere on campus as well as off, but we keep the bulk of our frequently used materials on-site. Many times when I need assistance finding something, I can approach my boss. Bless her amazing heart she knows her collection inside and out. What would happen if she left? What about all of our student workers and pages who have trouble enough navigating through locator cards, aisle markers, record groups and abbreviations who haven’t had the chance to acquire the knowledge we have?

Was my foray into the stacks worth the time and muscle aches? Absolutely. As we inch closer and closer to the big Library Renovation we’ll need to think critically about the collections we want made immediately accessible and not just conserved and preserved. These unique items have a better chance to be accessed and used if they are added immediately and on-site to their home collections.

Besides, somebody had to do it eventually. “To the left, to the left, everything you own in a box to the left…”


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