Crossing the River: An Interview With W. Walker Sampson of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History

W. Walker Sampson, Electronic Records Analyst, Mississippi Department of Archives and History

The following is a guest post by Jefferson Bailey, Strategic Initiatives Manager at Metropolitan New York Library Council, National Digital Stewardship Alliance Innovation Working Group co-chair and a former Fellow in the Library of Congress’s Office of Strategic Initiatives.

Regular readers of The Signal will no doubt be familiar with the Levels of Digital Preservation project of the NDSA. A number of posts have described the development and evolution of the Levels themselves as well as some early use cases. While the blog posts have generated excellent feedback in the comments, the Levels team has also been excited to see a number of recent conference presentations that described the Levels in use by archivists and other practitioners working to preserve digital materials. To explore some of the local, from the trenches narratives of those working to develop digital preservation policies, resources and processes, we will be interviewing some of the folks currently using the Levels in their day-to-day work. If you are using the Levels within your organization and are interested in chatting about it, feel free to contact us via our email addresses  listed on the project page linked above.

In this interview, we are excited to talk with W. Walker Sampson, Electronic Records Analyst, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

JB: Hi Walker. First off, tell us about your role at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and your day-to-day activities within the organization.

WS: I’m officially an ‘electronic records analyst’ in our Government Records section. It’s a new position at the archives so my responsibilities can vary a bit. While I deliver electronic records management training to government employees, I do most of my work in and with the Electronic Archives group here. This ranges from electronic records processing to a number of digital initiatives – Flickr, Archive-It and I think most importantly a reconsideration of our digital repository structure.

JB: What are some of the unique challenges to working on digital preservation within a state agency, especially one that “collects, preserves and provides access to the archival resources of the state, administers museums and historic sites and oversees statewide programs for historic preservation, government records management and publications”? That is a diverse set of responsibilities!

WS: It is! Fortunately for us, those duties are allocated to different divisions within the department. Most of the digital preservation responsibilities are directed to the Archives and Records Services division.

The main challenges here are twofold: a large number of records creators – over two hundred state agencies and committees, and following that, a potentially voluminous amount of born-digital records to process and maintain. I suppose however that this latter challenge may not be a unique to state archives.

I would also say that governance is a perennial issue for us, as it may be for a number of state archives. That is, it can be difficult to establish oversight for any state organization’s records at any given point of the life cycle. According to our state code we have a mandate to protect and preserve, but this does not translate into clear actions that we can take to exercise oversight.

JB: How have MDAH’s practices and workflows evolved as the amount of digital materials it collects and preserves has increased?

WS: MDAH is interesting because we started an electronic archives section relatively early, in 1996. We were able to build up a lot of the expertise in house to process electronic records through custom databases, scripts and web pages. This initiative was put together before I began working here, but one of my professors in the School of Information at UT Austin, Dr. Patricia Galloway, was a big part of that first step.

Since then the digital preservation tool or application ‘ecosystem’ has expanded tremendously. There’s an actual community with stories, initiatives, projects and histories. However, we mostly do our work with the same strategy as we began – custom code, scripts and pages. It has been difficult to find a good time to cross the river and use more community-based tools and workflows. We have an immense amount of material that would need to be moved into any new system, and one can find different strata of description and metadata formatting practices over time.

I think that crossing will help us handle the increasing volume, but I also think this big leap into a community-based software (Archivematica, DSpace and so on) will give us an opportunity to reconsider how digital records processing and management happens.

JB: Having seen your presentation at the SAA 2013 conference during the Digital Preservation in State and Territorial Archives: Current State and Prospects for Improvement panel, I was very interested in your discussion of using the Level of Digital Preservation as part of a more comprehensive self-assessment tool. Tell us both about your overall presentation and about your use of the Levels.

WS: I should start by just covering briefly the Digital Preservation Capability Maturity Model. This is a digital preservation model developed by Lori Ashley and Charles Dollar, and it is designed to be a comprehensive assessment of a digital repository. The intention is to analyze a repository by its constituent parts, with organizations then investigating each part in turn to understand where their processes and policies should be improved. It is up to the particular organization to prioritize what aspects are most relevant or critical to them.

The Council of State Archivists developed a survey based off this model, and all state and territorial archives took that survey in 2011. The intention here was to try and get an accurate picture of where preservation of authentic digital records stands across the country’s state archives.

This brings us to the SAA 2013 presentation. I presented MDAH’s background and follow-up to this survey along with two other state archives, Alabama and Wyoming. In my portion I highlighted two areas for improvement for us here in Mississippi, the first being policy and the second technical capacity.

Although the Levels of Digital Preservation are meant to advise on the actual practice of preservation, we have looked at the chart as a way to articulate policy. The primary reason for this is because the chart really helps to clarify at least some of what we are protecting against. That helps communicate why a body like the legislature ought to have a stake in us.

For example, when I look across the Storage and Geographic Location row of the chart, I’m closer to communicating what we should say in a storage section of a larger digital preservation policy. It’s easier for me to move from “MDAH will create backup copies of preserved digital content” to “MDAH will ensure the strategic backup of digital content which can protect against internal, external and environmental threats,” or something to that effect.

Second, I think the chart can help build internal consensus on what our preservation goals are, and what the basic preservation actions should be, independent of any specific technology. Those are important prerequisites to a policy.

Last, and I think this goes along with my second point, I don’t think policies come out of nowhere. In other words, while it strikes me that some part of a policy should be aspirational, for the most part we want to deliver on our stated policy goals. The chart has helped to clarify what we can and can’t do at this point.

JB: Using the Levels within a larger preservation assessment model is an interesting use case. What specific areas of the DPCMM did the Levels help address? The DPCMM is a much more extensive model and focuses more on self-assessment and ranking, whereas the Levels establish accepted practices at numerous degrees. What were the benefits or drawbacks of using these two documents together?

WS: Besides helping to demonstrate some policy goals, I think the Levels apply most directly to objectives in Digital Preservation Strategy, Ingest, Integrity and Security. There’s some significant overlap in content there, in terms of fixity checks, storage redundancy, metadata and file playback. When you look at the actual survey (a copy of this online somewhere…?), they recommend generally similar actions. I think that’s a good indication of consensus in the digital preservation community, and that these two resources are on target.

While I don’t think there’s a marked drawback to using the two documents together – I’ve haven’t spotted any substantive differences in their preservation advice where their subject areas overlap – one does have to keep in mind the more narrowed scope of the Levels. In addition, the DPCMM has the OAIS framework as one of its touchstones, so you find ample reference to SIPs, DIPs, AIPs, designated communities and other OAIS concepts. The Levels of Digital Preservation are not going to explicitly address those expectations.

JB: One aspect of the Levels that has been well received is the functional independence of the boxes/blocks. An individual or institution can currently be at different levels in different activity areas of the grid. I would be interested to hear how this aspect helped (or hindered) the document’s use in policy development specifically.

WS: I think it’s been very helpful in formulating policy. The functional independence of the levels lets the chart identify more preservation actions than it might otherwise. While some of those actions won’t ever be specifically articulated in a policy, some certainly will.

For example the second level of the File Formats category – “Inventory of file formats in use” – is probably not going to be expressed in a policy, levels 3 and 4 may though. It isn’t necessarily the case though that higher levels correlate to policy material however. For instance level 1 for Information Security is really more applicable to a policy statement than the level 4 action.

JB: One of the goals of the Levels of Preservation project is to keeps its guidance clear and concise, while remaining sensitive to the varied institutional contexts in which the guidance might be used. I would be interested to hear how this feature informed the self-assessment process.

WS: Similar to the functional independence, I think it’s a great feature. The Levels don’t present a monolithic single-course track to preservation capacity, so it doesn’t have to be dismissed entirely in the case that some actions don’t really apply. That said, I felt like really all the actions applied to us quite well, so I think we’re well within the target audience for the document.

The DPCMM really shares this feature. Although it’s meant to help an institution build to trustworthy repository status, it’s not a linear recommendation where an organization is expected to from one component section to the next. The roadmap would change considerably from one institution to the next.

One Comment

  1. TK
    December 10, 2013 at 9:54 am

    As another (non-digital) MDAH archivist, I’d like to point out that as of last week Walker and his expertise are no longer with MDAH; he’s now a digital archivist at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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