The five recipients of the inaugural NDSA innovation awards are exemplars of the creativity, diversity, and collaboration essential to supporting the digital preservation community as it works to preserve and make available digital materials. In an effort to learn more and share the work of the individuals, projects and institutions who won these awards I am excited to be able to interview them about their work and projects here on The Signal.
Today I’m thrilled to be able to chat with Bradley Daigle, Director of Digital Curation Services and Digital Strategist for Special Collections at the University of Virginia. Bradley accepted the award on behalf of An Inter-Institutional Model for Stewardship, a partnership between the University of Virginia, Stanford University, the University of Hull, and Yale University which developed practices and processes for working with born digital materials in archival collections. If you haven’t already read it, you can find the project white paper (PDF) online.
Trevor: For those who haven’t followed the AIMS project, could you give us a brief background and explain your role in the work? What problem did the AIMS project set out to address and how did it go about addressing it?
Bradley: The AIMS project grew out of the Hydra Partnership as well as an earlier meeting that The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation hosted. This event focused on digital archiving and there were several of us there using Fedora. It seemed like a good opportunity to collaborate. Several of us approached the Foundation with a proposal that was awarded in September 2009.
Trevor: I would be curious to know if there were any major course changes in approach over the course of the project. Was there anything that required you to adjust your strategy midway through the work?
Bradley: Course changes? Yes, a few mid-air course changes. We had some early turnover in staff on the project as well as conceptual challenges. What sets AIMS apart from other excellent efforts like futureArch, and institutionally-specific solutions is that AIMS was inter institutional. This means that the partners had to have a baseline or shared understanding of what it meant to steward born digital collections. If you know anything about the Special Collections and Archives world, you know that this is no easy feat. Each partner had anywhere from slight to significant differences in their archival practice. We also were an international project, so that added another layer of complexity to our work. Take that starting point and then add the craziness of born digital materials and you have yourself our grant project. We quickly determined that as far as our published product, we would shoot for articulating a methodology rather than a “best practices” guideline. The field of born digital archives moves so quickly that any best practices scenario would be out of date by the end of the grant. Instead we focused on the decisions that went into each step along the way. By highlighting the decision points rather than static practice, we hoped that the document would have both a greater and deeper impact on stewarding born digital materials. In other words, we documented our own shared process of consensus and then tested that work with the identified collections. To me, this demonstrates the best of theory and practice.
Trevor: One of your goals with the project was to spur the creation of a community of digital archivists. Do you feel like the project has helped to do that? How do you see the project helping to convene that community?
Bradley: In many ways, this was the best part of the grant. We convened several gatherings that brought together such amazing individuals from all over the globe. The first event was an unconference held in Charlottesville and was two days of non-stop archival geeking it out. It was fantastic. We brought together as many of those practitioners out there we could find. For AIMS, it was a way to test out our “method” to stewarding born digital archives. It was interactive, dynamic, and enlightening. With such a great group of smart professionals it couldn’t be anything but productive. There were other ways we engaged the digital archivist community: we had guest blog posts, workshops, and presentations, and created a Day of Digital Archives blog for others to contribute their stories.
Trevor: If an archive isn’t currently doing anything with born digital material they are receiving what would you suggest as the best way for them to get started in the area?
Bradley: Well, as a shameless plug, I would recommend that they read the AIMS white paper referenced above. That is a great start to the issues related to born digital archives. I cannot stress enough that anyone dealing (or not dealing) with these materials needs to create a strategy–and not a departmentally specific one. It is highly unlikely that any one archive can do it all by itself. Getting a broader institutional understanding of what needs to be in place (e.g. infrastructure, policies, staffing) has to be a coordinated effort. The results of these discussions will largely dictate your course of action. Even if you are a one person shop, you need to have a strategy for what you will do with born digital materials. It is not a question of if you have them but rather, when you have them.
Trevor: Based on the work in the project, what do you see as the next big steps in this area? What do you see as the most pressing next sets of problems facing the field?
Bradley: There are many potential directions for this content. As always, there are major challenges. The primary challenge for the near and long term is volume. The scale of this content is off the charts. However, I am confident that this can be mitigated with solid archival practice. So, even with some kind of strategy for the volume of born digital materials, we will continue to struggle with intellectual property and copyright. In order for these materials to have a major impact on the way we interact with the historical record, they will need to be accessible as broadly as possible. Given the scale, and scope of born digital materials this will continue to be our major challenge. Each institution will create a local solution for delivery but linking these up to remote users will take significant changes in our rights landscape. Intellectual property and copyright will continue to threaten the availability of born digital archives for years to come. Given the current state of risk aversion for these materials, they will largely exist in locked down environments unless we collectively act to address these impediments. For now, these are the main contenders in my mind for born digital materials. However, I am confident that as more archives (and archivists) enter the born digital fray, the tide could turn in our favor. It should be the goal of everyone managing this content to make is as openly accessible as possible. We need to work together to get there.