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Communities of Practice Make it Possible: Digital Preservation at Smaller Institutions

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The following is a guest post by Jennifer Gunter King, Director, Harold F. Johnson Library, Hampshire College.

Jennifer Gunter King
Jennifer Gunter King

In July, scholars, entrepreneurs and digital preservation practitioners gathered in Arlington, Va., for the annual meeting of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program and the National Digital Stewardship Alliance, DigitalPreservation 2012.

NDIIPP program management director Martha Anderson, opened the forum by congratulating attendees for being leaders in a less-than-clearly-defined but critical and needed field. However, as Megan Winget, Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Information later observed, being leaders in such a field is a “wicked problem.” David Weinberger of the Berkman Center at Harvard University remarked that we are not in an age of information overload, because the knowledge systems of today are finally vast enough to support the range of knowledge possible. In other words, we have come a long way from the knowledge classification systems at the turn of the 20th century to the knowledge and information networks possible in the digital age.

Coming from a small liberal arts college, I pondered what has motivated me, as a librarian and archivist, to push forward and lead digital preservation activities at my institution. In a breakout session, Planning Digital Preservation at Different Scales for Smaller Institutions (PDF), I explored this question with Jessica Branco Colati of Northeast Document Conservation Center and Deborah J. Rossum of SCOLA.

Jessica kicked off our session (PDF) by describing digital preservation education and assessment programs at the NEDCC. Using the analogy of a bicycle, she explained how NEDCC works with collecting programs to assess where their skills and capacity lie and helps them select a digital preservation “bicycle” that matches their abilities. Some start with training wheels, some with 3-speed bikes. The progression to a 27-speed is incremental, and inexperienced organizations do well to start slow and build up capacity rather than jumping into the Tour de France for their first bike ride.

I focused my portion (PDF) of the presentation on the challenges of developing workflows and methods for managing born-digital records. I learned this is a much more complicated endeavor for a small college than getting a digital archival collection off the ground. We received a start-up electronic records grant from the National Historical Records and Publications Commission that enabled the archives at Mount Holyoke College to begin ingesting born-digital materials. Open-source and accessible tools enlisted for this project included the Duke Data Accessioner, the Archivists’ Toolkit and DSpace. None of these tools satisfies the full range of tasks necessary for digital preservation, but they do support processing digital information in a way that prepares them for preservation. For small institutions, like Mount Holyoke and my new employer, Hampshire College, the larger preservation needs will most likely be met by consortia and collaborative solutions. Amherst College’s Kelcy Shepherd suggested how in her lightning talk, Our Collective Task: Digital Preservation at the Five Colleges (PDF), during the meeting.

Deborah Rossum, Digital Content Manager SCOLA, presents during “Planning Digital Preservation at Different Scales for Smaller Institutions.”
Deborah Rossum, Digital Content Manager SCOLA, presents during “Planning Digital Preservation at Different Scales for Smaller Institutions.”

Deborah concluded the presentation (PDF) by sharing detailed best practices for digital preservation developed at the SCOLA video broadcast archive.

Following the presentations, the audience broke into smaller groups to discuss tangible next steps that could support smaller institutions in building capacity for digital preservation. The discussion touched on the need to:

  • Understand that digital preservation is an evolutionary process. Best cases vary for each institution and over time.
  • Raise the profile of digital preservation.
  • Empower practitioners.
  • Confront the digital divide. Many institutions have not embarked on digital preservation and are being left behind by those relative few who have.

Returning to this Library of Congress-sponsored event, and for the first time in more than a decade meeting up with many of the archivists and librarians I knew as a graduate student at the University of Maryland, I could see the influence the federal libraries have played in setting my course. There is a commitment to preservation and access in federal libraries that urges action now. In so many other types of repositories the main business function is not to preserve our nation’s cultural heritage, but instead to educate undergraduates or, in the case of SCOLA, create a language repository. But small organizations too have crucial digital assets to preserve for the short and long term.

So how do we jump into these new arenas of preservation?

Leaving the DigitalPreservation 2012 conference, I surmised that it is in part through grant-funded programs and projects, conferences, internships and the resources at the Library of Congress to move forward. Our community as a whole plays a critical role in educating library and archival practitioners and galvanizing our efforts, small or large, to preserve digital information. Over time, the digital content we preserve today will become the historic images and documents by which our present age is interpreted in the future.

Comments (4)

  1. We’re hoping to come up with some viable, sustainable options solutions via our IMLS funded grant, Digital POWRR: Preserving (Digital) Objects With Restricted Resources.

  2. I am thankful for the fact that the digital preservation community is starting to address the needs of institutions using “training wheels.” I have a 12-speed bike, but in reality only use about 4 of those speeds. The same is true of digital preservation. Some institutions may never graduate to a Tour-de-France bike, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t digital preservation tasks that are worthwhile for them to tackle.

  3. Lynne, thanks for letting us know about the Digital POWRR project. Keep us posted on your work throughout it !

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