Monday, December 22, 2014

Everyday Digital Archives Q&A: Erika Farr

After the rich discussions about digital records that were shared at the annual Society of Georgia Archivists meeting in Athens last month, the SGA Outreach Managers are resuming their "Everyday Digital Archives" Q&A blog posts (after a bit of a lull).  In this fourth installment of our Q&A blog posts, we continue the conversation about everyday digital archives with Erika Farr, Head of Digital Archives at Emory’s Manuscript, Archive, and Rare Book Library.

What digital archives-related resources do you read--blogs, social media, articles, journals, listservs, etc.?

There are some really helpful web resources in a range of formats including blogs, reports, white papers, and project websites.  A selection of highlights from each of these categories would include the Library of Congress’s The Signal (http://blogs.loc.gov/digitalpreservation/) and Chris Prom’s Practical E-Records (http://e-records.chrisprom.com/); a number of recent CLIR reports (http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports) and many of the Digital Preservation Coalition Technology Watch Reports (http://www.dpconline.org/advice/technology-watch-reports); and project/institution websites such as BitCurator (http://www.bitcurator.net/) and the Born Digital Archives program at the Hull History Centre (http://www.hullhistorycentre.org.uk/discover/hull_history_centre/about_us/born_digital_archives/work_in_progress.aspx). In addition, I rely on resources such as the AIMS White Paper (http://www.digitalcurationservices.org/aims/white-paper/) and the OCLC publications included in their Demystifying Born Digital (http://oclc.org/research/activities/borndigital.html).

What advice would you give to an archivist who is nervous to start tackling digital archives?  

If you are feeling nervous, find some test floppies, hardware and/or data so you can begin experimenting with new tools and workflows, without the stress of working on collection material. Beginning to understand the tools and practice can simplify the process and make someone new to the field feel more comfortable.

Also, the important exercise of counting what you already have in the collection can be both productive and familiar. Creating an inventory of existing born-digital content is a crucial first step and requires little more than effort and consistent documentation.

Do you actively curate or archive your own personal digital materials? If so, how?
Why is curating or archiving your own personal digital materials important?
Do your personal digital archives exist outside of the virtual/online environment? In what form?

Within my own personal digital archives, I have focused on curating digital photographs more than anything else. I use on online cloud storage service (JustCloud) to back up my personal files, mainly my photo library and my financial documentation. Otherwise, I have not curated my personal email correspondence or social media accounts. I should probably think more about social media curation, especially since there is information in applications like Facebook that probably doesn’t exist anywhere else.

As for importance, I have unconsciously prioritized my own born-digital content, by actively curating the digital photography and financial/tax documentation while largely ignoring all other content. Because I print so few photographs, my photo library is probably the single most important born-digital collection.

“Won't personal digital archiving solve itself as the digital generation comes of age?” Your thoughts?
**To give credit where credit is due, this question is taken from Catherine Marshall’s “Rethinking Personal Digital Archiving, Part 1” (http://www.dlib.org/dlib/march08/marshall/03marshall-pt1.html)

I don’t think all the complications and challenges of personal digital archiving will sort themselves out as engagement with social media and mobile devices becomes a cultural standard, though I do think some basic habits of data back-up will become more pervasive, even if in a passive way. Already, the use of applications on multiple devices via cloud storage allows users to access and synchronize their data in numerous ways and using various devices. These shared applications across devices mean that data is less likely to be lost through device crash or loss, thus, making the data more persistent. Having all of your data managed by a for-profit mobile application developer has its perils, too, of course, and there could be some hard future lessons on data loss when an application is no longer supported or an applications developer goes bust.

Due to the distributed nature of personal digital archives, (i.e. content of an individual all over the web in different arenas: Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.) how should archivists approach the challenge of acquiring these dispersed digital materials? Are there tools to help?

Emerging tools like ArchiveSocial (http://archivesocial.com/) and ePADD (http://library.stanford.edu/spc/more-about-us/projects-and-initiatives/epadd-project) offer us hope for more effective means of identifying, transferring, and managing social media and electronic correspondence. Neither of these services is ready for archives and libraries as they acquire personal digital archives, as of yet, so for now little is immediately helpful other than engaging with the donor.  My preferred approach now is to use survey tools and pre-acquisition efforts to identify relevant material and accounts for transfer then working with the donor to effectively transfer that data.

What can we do as archivists to change the culture of “benign neglect” that people so often have in regards to their personal digital records?

As a profession, we need to find a way to talk about donor’s personal digital archives that doesn’t ratchet up anxiety. In my experience, conversations with donors can be anxious for two different reasons: one, over the course of the conversation the donor gets spooked by the breadth of the data transfer and worries about potential exposure; and/or, two, the technical nature of the conversation overwhelms the donor prompting him or her to shrug off local preservation tactics because they seem out of reach. We need to find easy-to-use tools and applications that our donors can use and then introduce them in understandable, reassuring ways.

How do you see people accessing personal digital records/archives in the future? 10 years? 20 years?

I think it will depend on the records and the institution that holds them. Some records will demand different types of researcher access because of their format or because of the nature of the research questions likely to be brought to bear on the material. Furthermore, I worry that there will be real differences in how institutions can manage and provide access to born-digital records based on available local resources and infrastructure.  Because digital material is so easily disseminated and shared, I hope to see much more web-based access to born-digital records over the next decade or two. There needs to be a real effort made to develop means of virtual access that allows researchers full access to content and the tools they need to leverage that content without violating copyright and intellectual property law. Such advances will require much in the way of technical innovation, policy advancement, and legal advocacy, though, so I don’t expect such tools and access to appear on the scene without considerable consolidated effort.

Thanks to Erika for sharing her insights! Want to volunteer to be interviewed for our Q&A blog posts? Know a digital records steward we should interview? Let us know: outreach [at] soga [dot] org.

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