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The Twisty Little Passages to a Career in Digital Preservation

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I have had two conversation recently — one an intern and one with a friend outside our community — about my career path, and career paths in general around digital preservation.

Paraphrasing, well, everyone (who may not know they are quoting the game Colossal Cave Adventure from 1976), it was a maze of twisty little passages, but which were NOT all alike.

Exit Corridor in the Catacombs, Some rights reserved by Maveric2003 on <a href="" target="_blank">Flickr</a>
Exit Corridor in the Catacombs, Some rights reserved by Maveric2003 on Flickr

My original career goal, decided upon when I was 13 years old, was to be an archaeologist and be a curator in a museum.  Yes, really, I decided that when I was 13.

I was distracted, though, by a desire to be in what I perceived as a more creative field, and I actually started college as a studio art major. It took 4 quarters for me to decide that I really did want to follow the dream I identified as a young teenager, and I switched to anthropology. I took archaeology courses and museum studies courses, which allowed me to do hands-on work in museum registration and collection management. I started my Phd in Archaeology, volunteering at the same museum. I knew I wanted to collect, preserve, and research cultural objects.

I was surveying the museum’s human skeletal remains to to report our collection holdings as required by the newly-announced but not yet enacted Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. One fateful day in 1986 the collection manager came down to our storage room and asked me “How would you like to move from the sub-basement to the basement?” Since there was actually natural light in the basement, I said yes. And I found myself working on a major records recon project: we were entering the entire museum accession history into a collection management system that ran on a Pick mini-mainframe as part of the project to inventory and pack the entire collection to move into a new building.

I was hooked.

I discovered concepts that were so new to me, from database schema design to data normalization to controlled vocabularies.  Since this was an ethnographic museum, we we working from objects ranging across thousands of years representing every culture and geographic area, and had vocabulary in probably 100 languages. And we were digitizing, imaging a large archaeological collection and linking those images to the database.  I suddenly became aware of the power of entering and normalizing the records and digitizing the collections to improve scholarly and public access to these extensive and rarely seen objects.  Creating metadata and digital surrogates was going to change archaeological research.

And suddenly I was no longer working with physical objects, but with records and digital surrogates. And that’s when things started to get twisty.  In the years following that I worked in museum IT units and registrar offices, coordinating systems and digitization. I built databases and web sites. I worked in instructional technology, working with faculty to create online teaching resources. I worked in archives and libraries.  And along with way I became increasingly aware of the fragility of what we produced: missing backups for digitized items, the lack of versioning of web sites and online courses, and, in some cases, policies to preserve storage space by intentionally overwriting or deleting courses or online exhibits.  I recognized the need for the preservation of  electronic records, the digitized and the born digital.

So how was this a career path? I learned the following skills and concepts that are now vital to me in digital preservation:

  • Familiarity with IT infrastructure, to better understand what is feasible. This includes hardware, software and web development.
  • The methodology of digitization across multiple genres of items, from text to images to audio and video.
  • Familiarity with a wide range of file formats.
  • Key metadata standards used in the community to describe physical and digital items.
  • An understanding of the acquisition and processing workflows for collection building in cultural heritage organizations.
  • Knowledge of intellectual property law. Everything we work with has rights associated it.

No two people will have the same career path. Mine took me to museums, archives and libraries with a heavy emphasis on IT infrastructure, digitization and software/web development. Someone else may start on a more traditional library or archives path, while others will come out of software coding. The commonalities are a passion for collection building, a passion for preservation and a passion for learning new things. If digital preservation is anything, it is constantly changing, and requires constantly learning about new technologies and formats and possibilities. My job is never the same any two weeks in a row. And that’s the way I like it.


  1. Hey Leslie–
    Ever heard of Howard Mandelbaum and his collection of Old Hollywood photos/videos? After reading your blog post, I wanted to share this short New York Lives video about him. He talks about what a mammoth task it is to digitize all of the media that he’s collected over the years–thought that you’d be able to relate. Hope you enjoy the video:

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