The following guest post from Kathleen O’Neill, Archives Specialist in The Library of Congress Manuscript Division continues our series of posts reflecting on CurateCamp Processing.
Meg Phillips’s earlier post on More Product, Less Process for Born Digital Collections focused on developing minimum standards for ingest and processing with the goal of making the maximum number of records available to the greatest number of users. The resulting output from a minimum processing workflow would be a bitstream copy of a file with accompanying metadata that is discoverable and available to researchers. But available does not necessarily mean accessible. Which lead me to wonder — is there a sufficient minimum standard for access to born digital materials?
Does a copy of the bitstream constitute a sufficient minimum level of access? It could, when files are in a readable format. A bitstream of a file in an obsolete format, however, might not provide access to the content. Are institutions obligated to provide software and tools to enable the researcher to access the content? Are institutions obligated to migrate file formats?
Regarding migration, one CurateCamp participant remarked, “migration sounds like a lot of process” and compared migration to translating texts for researchers (a comparison I heard echoed elsewhere at the conference). If you are a Martin Heidegger scholar, you would be expected to read German; reference staff would not translate text for you. Should users be expected to have a minimum level of technical expertise? Is that even a fair comparison?
And what of emulation, virtualization and disk images as means to access obsolete file formats and software? The technical and legal challenges associated with emulation and virtualization put those solutions out of reach for the majority of institutions. An informal show of hands revealed that few institutions were capturing disk images and none were serving them to users due to concerns regarding PII and donors restrictions.
The discussion about access was complicated by the fact that born digital humanities research is in its infancy. Archival institutions understand how researchers use paper records and can process and provide access accordingly, but know very little about the researcher of born digital records. Who are our users? And how will they be using the material? What level of technical expertise should be expected?
Several participants urged that institutions to partner with researchers, leveraging researchers’ technical expertise to make born digital collections more accessible, discoverable, and usable. The Accessible Visualization session demonstrated there are a dizzying array of tools for metadata extraction, visualization, and text analysis. A good place to begin is Bamboo DiRT, a registry of digital research tools.
In the meantime, is providing a copy of the bitstream to users a sufficient minimum level of access? Yes…and maybe. It depends on the file, it depends on the user. So in addition to the bitstream copy of the file, I would think a minimum standard for access would include some type of file viewer to increase the possibility the researcher could at least read the content.
What would your institution’s minimum standard for access include?