Moving Beyond the Lone Digital Archivist Model Through Collaboration and Living Documentation

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Below is the text of a presentation Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez, Kelly Bolding, and Faith Charlton gave earlier this month at the 2017 Code4Lib conference in Los Angeles, CA. The talk focused on the Manuscripts Division Team’s efforts to manage born-digital materials and the challenges of doing this work as processing archivists without “digital” in their titles. 

Hello everyone, welcome to the last session of the last day of code4lib. Thank you for sticking around.

What we want to talk about in the next 10 minutes are the numerous challenges traditional processing archivists can face when integrating digital processing into their daily archival labor. Shout out to UCSB, NCSU, and RAC for presenting on similar topics. Knowledge, skills, and institutional culture about who is responsible for the management of born-digital materials can all be barriers for those that do not have the word “digital” in their job titles.

Our talk will discuss steps the Manuscripts Division at Princeton University has taken to manage its born-digital materials through collaboration, horizontal learning, and living documentation.

But first, we’ll introduce ourselves: Hi, I am:

  • Elvia – I am the Processing Archivist for Latin American Collections
  • Kelly – I am a Manuscripts Processor
  • Faith – I am the Lead Processing Archivist for Manuscripts

We, along with two other team members, including Allison Hughes and Chloe Pfendler, who both contributed to efforts we will discuss here, form part of the Manuscripts Division in our department. And though we are all “traditional” processing archivists who do not have the word “digital” in our titles, we’ve increasingly encountered digital assets in the collections we are responsible for processing.

First we wanted to give everyone a breakdown of our department. Princeton’s archival repositories are actually physically split between two libraries with three main divisions. The Manuscripts Division (where we are located) is in Firestone Library; Public Policy and the University Archives are located several blocks away at Mudd Library. The library currently employs one dedicated Digital Archivist for the University Archives and that is Jarrett Drake, whom without his expert guidance and skill sharing, we wouldn’t be giving this presentation. Jarrett has really set the tone for horizontal learning and opening opportunities for skill building and sharing across the divisions of the department to empower his colleagues to take on digital processing work.

With that said, the Manuscripts Division has no digital archivist, so digital processing responsibilities are distributed across the team, which initially left us feeling like [gif of Ghostbusters team at the onset of meeting a ghostbusting challenge].

To dive into this type of work we needed to take some first steps. 

We literally jumped at the chance to begin managing our digital backlog by participating in SAA’s 2015 Jump in 3 initiative, which allowed us to gain intellectual control over legacy media within the division’s 1600 or so manuscript collections. We also began updating pertinent documentation, such as our deed of gift, and drafting new guidelines for donors with born-digital materials. We also began assembling our first digital processing workstation – a dual booting BitCurator and Windows 7 laptop connected to various external drives, including a Kryoflux for imaging problematic floppy disks.

With Jarrett’s assistance we began processing born-digital materials using the workflows he and his predecessors had developed for University Archives. We’ve also experimented with new tools and technologies; for example, setting up and using the KryoFlux and creating bash scripts to reconcile data discrepancies. So far, our work continues to be an ongoing process of trial, error, and, most importantly, open discussion.

Okay, let’s talk about horizontal learning. As an increasing number of archivists in our department were gaining the skills necessary to handle digital processing, the opportunity to share our expertise and experiences across divisions materialized. The following are two examples of how we’ve built this collaborative approach.

Over the last year a group of archivists from the across the department, including the Digital Archivist, came together to form DABDAC, the Description and Access to Born-Digital Archival Collections working group, as a means of maintaining an open forum for discussing born-digital description and access issues.

Members meet biweekly to discuss case studies, fails, potential new tools they are interested in experimenting with, readings, additions to workflows, etc. The workgroup follows a “workshop” model; whoever has a current description or access issue can bring it to the meeting’s agenda and ask the collective for advice.

Creating a horizontal skill-sharing environment has boosted our confidence as nascent digital archivists. Now with a baseline understanding of digital processing and the tools we need to do this type of labor, we sought the advice of our peers within the profession to help inform the development of our very own digital archives workstation. The team developed a survey asking 20 peer institutions about their local setup, which ultimately informed our decision in purchasing a FRED machine. Thanks to those who responded and provided us with in depth and extremely helpful responses.

Another key theme that has emerged from our experiences is the importance of living documentation. By this, we mean workflow documentation that is:

  • collaboratively created;
  • openly accessible and transparent;
  • extensible enough to adapt to frequent changes; and  
  • flexible enough to use across multiple divisions.

Managing living documentation like our Digital Records Processing Guide on Google Drive allows us to maintain tried-and-true guidelines vetted by the Digital Archivist, and supplemented by other archivists who work with digital materials.

We currently use the Comments feature to link from specific steps in the workflow to separate Google Docs, or other online resources that can inform decision-making or provide working alternatives to specific steps. We also write and link to documents we call “reflections.” These reflection documents detail improvised solutions to problems encountered during processing so that others can reuse them. By expanding our workflows this way, we extend the value of time dedicated to experimentation by documenting it for future repurposing.

Digital processing also presents opportunities for archivists to develop workflows collaboratively across institutions, especially since archivists often adopt digital tools developed for other fields like forensics. These tools often come poorly documented or with documentation intended for users with very different goals. One example is the KryoFlux, pictured here, a forensic floppy controller that many archivists have adopted. While our KryoFlux arrived from Germany with a few packages of gummy bears, the setup instructions were not so friendly. Luckily, we have benefitted tremendously from documentation that other repositories have generously shared online, particularly guides created by Alice Prael and others at Yale. UCLA’s Digital Archivist Shira Peltzman also recently asked us to contribute our “Tale of Woe” to a collaborative KryoFlux User Guide currently being drafted.

Before we conclude, we want to acknowledge both the particular institutional privileges that allow us to conduct this work as well as the broader structural challenges that complicate it. We are fortunate that the structure of our department affords processing archivists the time necessary to collaborate and experiment, as well as the material resources to purchase tools.

At the same time, while archivists are shifting functionally into more technical roles, institutional structures do not always acknowledge this shift. In our collective experience as an all-female team, we’ve faced challenges due to gendered divisions of labor. Even though the library and archives profession swings heavily female, technical positions in libraries still remain predominantly male. When these gender-coded realities are not acknowledged or challenged, undue and sometimes stubborn expectations can be placed on those who are expected to do the “digital” work and those who are not. For those in “traditional” processing roles with technical responsibilities that now fall within their domain, their labor can be often underappreciated or unacknowledged.

To wrap up, the realities of contemporary manuscript collections have made it clear that the lone digital archivist model no longer works for some institutions, particularly larger ones. As a team, we have met the challenge of integrating digital processing into our regular work by focusing on collaboration, horizontal learning, and living documentation. Although digital processing is new for us, we’ve been able to apply many skills we’ve already developed through prior work with metadata management, and we encourage our fellow archivists to find confidence in these skills when jumping into this work. We wanted to share with you the work we’ve done locally in hopes that our case study may empower anyone in a “traditional” processing role to take on the work that’s often been confined to that of the “digital archivist,” particularly by reaching out to others, whether they be in a different division, department, or institution.

We look forward to further collaboration with other colleagues at our home base and hope to continue building relationships and collaborating with others in the profession at large.
We leave you with a bibliography of additional resources and our contact information, and some gummy bears. Thank you.