Digital Preservation Pioneer: Lisa Weber

Lisa Weber, NARA

Lisa Weber is in the home stretch, heading toward her retirement from the National Archives and from a lifetime of facilitating change for the public good. One striking aspect of her long career is that she began as a traditional archivist and morphed into a hybrid of archivist, librarian and information technologist — a species of professional that is becoming common in the 21st century but is still new enough that a proper title has not yet been invented for it. Whatever you call it, Weber is the text book example.

Weber, director for NARA’s information technology policy, planning and administration staff, always had a keen vision about the possibilities of technology for accessing archival materials, even in her early career back in the days of punch cards and mainframe computers. She always embraced and kept pace with new technology, never coasting or clinging to traditional archival practice. She helped enable sweeping changes in electronic records within archives, trained others in new metadata standards as quickly as those standards emerged, helped people get funding for their own work with electronic records and eventually immersed herself in the information technology side of digital archives to help usher the National Archives into the digital age.

Still, when you unravel the knotty complexity of all that Weber has done, it’s clear that she built her career on simply helping people — through several rapidly changing eras of technology– to find information.

Weber went to library school to become an archivist in the late 1970s, at a time when careers in computer science were rapidly expanding and there was a gold-rush fervor toward computer technology. Something was in the air, a “computers are changing the world” zeitgeist, though personal computers were still a few years off. Programming did not interest her but the possibilities of technology did and she understood the need for technology in archiving. She was lured by the potential of electronic records. “The professional approach to things like cataloging and using automation was not as mature in archives as it was in the library community,” said Weber. “And I knew I could be part of that development.”

Weber’s first professional job was with the Wisconsin Historical Society, where she was fortunate enough to work with technologically savvy archivists who were devising automated methods of creating catalogs in MARC format —  using technology to help provide access to archival material, what archivists call archival descriptionbasically, metadata.

It was here that Weber helped promote US MARC-AMC, a data structure standard based on MARC but geared toward cataloging for archives. She explained to me that MARC itself took library catalog card information — such as author, title, number of pages, etc. — and structured that metadata for a database. The archival community took that same structure and used it for archival description. So US MARC-AMC (Archival and Manuscripts Control) applied MARC structure to cover not just books but the content of archives.

Weber eventually went to work for the Society of American Archivists where she directed the Automated Archival Information Program. She became an advocate of US MARC-AMC, conducting workshops and teaching others how to use it to create better access to archival materials. In identifying metadata standards, she collaborated with the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Smithsonian, Research Libraries Group, OCLC and others.

Her next job got her in the door at the National Archives,  specifically with the grant-funding arm of the National Archives,  the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. Weber was the program officer for automated records and techniques and she established the Commission’s first electronic records research program.  When archives and manuscript repositories were looking for funding for things that had to do with automated techniques — like building a catalog, creating standard structure records and putting them into a database, building a database to help manage collections — she was their grant facilitator.  And whereas her previous position at SAA was funded by grant money, now she used her expertise and personal experience to evaluate grant applicants’ qualifications and help guide them through the grant-acquisition process. She was on the other side of the desk.

She said, “There was a lot happening professionally around using the MARC format…people interested in doing different collaborative projects. So, in some ways, strategic funding organizations helped shape here the profession was going.”

Around this time Weber’s interest in — and the Commission’s awareness of — the preservation of electronics records grew. Her assignment was to facilitate the development of an electronic records research agenda. The result, “Research Issues in Electronic Records: Report of the Working Meeting,” came out of a 1991 workshop that she organized to help the NHRPC commission figure out how to approach funding electronic records preservation issues. (NDIIPP Pioneer, Margaret Hedstrom, was a key member.) The topic was so new they didn’t know how to talk about it. She is still proud of that report. “It holds up today as a solid piece of work and asks some fundamental questions with which we are still grappling,” she said. From the early 1990s on, she concentrated on the challenge of digital preservation.

After a stint working on the Government Information Locator Service and another working on NARA’s first automated catalog, in 1997 she had a transformative experience. “I had an opportunity to ‘switch sides’ and leave what I consider now to be the business-related people — those with archival and library backgrounds – to work with the information technology people and the chief information officer and to understand how systems are built. What intrigued me was understanding systems well enough to fully comprehend the issues around preserving digital content.”

Weber took to IT right away. She also came to realize that how much she had to learn. “I thought I knew IT when I was an archivist,” she said. “But now I realize I knew maybe 10% of what I needed to know. I knew enough to be dangerous, but not enough to really solve the problem. Now, I understand both sides of the digital-preservation issues. Ultimately you have to understand both business and IT to do this stuff right…not only preserve but also provide access, well into the future.” She has spent the last 16 years working for the Chief Information Officer at NARA and has learned how to develop IT systems from the ground up.

Though Weber immersed herself in information architecture, she maintained an active role in emerging metadata standards. For example, she represented NARA on the Preservation Metadata Implementation Strategies group.

When pressed to predict the future of digital preservation, Weber’s answer is practical and surprising. She says that benign neglect is inevitable and will continue on in digital archives, that — despite our best efforts — the quantity of items to digitize and the quantity of data born digital every second is so overwhelming we probably won’t get to it all. We will, of course, attempt to save what we judge to be important first  — institutional and personal — but some stuff may just get accidentally saved and other stuff will just slip past us and disappear.

She also said that archivists and librarians will not solve this problem alone. Weber said, “I think, along with academia, commercial companies are going to be significant participants in solving the problem, those who are now facing their own digital preservation issues for business reasons.” So, since most companies rely on electronic records now, if a company intends to be around for a long time it needs to solve its approach to digital preservation and access. It is purely a matter of commercial business efficiency, preservation and access of electronic records. Companies will be forced to resolve the same issues that cultural and government institutions have been grappling with, such as emulation/migration, formats, storage, data replication and so on.

“We will end up sharing what we’ve discovered with different segments of society and in the end we’ll all come up with some sort of solution that applies to all digital data,” said Weber. “And that’s actually good. The more people working on this problem, the faster it can get solved. The different entities will learn from each other.”

That future is not too far off. And people like Lisa Weber will help enable it, people who evolve professionally as quickly as the technology does, who imagine and embrace new “knowledge worker” skills, who are quick to see new possibilities. Weber said, “I have always combined expertise in both archives and information management from a business perspective with a deep understanding of information technology.  The more people understand these two perspectives, the better tools, systems and processes we can develop to preserve digital information.”

One Comment

  1. Anne Van Camp
    March 8, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    What a great blog on a super archivist! My bff Lisa is a pioneer and has given a tremendous amount of her time and energy to making digital archives issues front and center in our professional development. Thank you Lisa and thank you Mike for capturing her achievements. How do you plan to preserve this blog?

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