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A Digital Preservation Residency at Dumbarton Oaks Library

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The following is a guest post by Heidi Dowding, Resident at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library in Washington, DC

Autumn on the Arbor Terrace. Photo by Heidi Dowding
Autumn on the Arbor Terrace. Photo by Heidi Dowding

As part of the National Digital Stewardship Residency program’s biweekly takeover of The Signal, I’m here to talk about my project at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.  And by the way, if you haven’t already checked out Emily Reynolds’ post on the residency four months in as a primer, go back and read that first.  I’ll wait.

OK then, on we go.

My brief history in residence at this unique institution technically started in September, but really the project dates back a little over a year to a digital asset management information gathering survey that was undertaken by staff at Dumbarton Oaks.  Concerned with DO’s shrinking digital storage capacity, they were hoping to find out how various departments were handling their digital assets.  What they discovered was that, with no central policy guiding digital asset management within the institution, ad hoc practices were overlapping and causing manifold problems.

Hagia Sophia, a photograph from the ICFA. Photo: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.
Hagia Sophia, a photograph from the ICFA. Photo: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.

This is about where my project entered the scene.  As part of the first cohort of NDSR residents, I’ve been tasked with identifying an institution-wide solution to digital asset management.  This has first involved developing a deep (at times, file-level) understanding of Dumbarton Oaks’ digital holdings.  These include the standard fare – image collections, digital books, etc. – but also more specialized content like the multimedia Oral History Project and the GIS Tree Care Inventory.  I started my research with an initial survey sent to everyone around the institution, and then undertook interviews and focus groups with key staff in every department.

While I uncovered a lot of nuanced information about user behaviors, institutional needs, and the challenges we currently face, the top-level findings are threefold.

First, relationships within an institution make or break its digital asset management.

This is largely because each department has a different workflow for managing assets, but no department is an island.  In interdepartmental collaborations, digital assets are being duplicated and inconsistently named.  This is especially apparent in the editorial process at DO, wherein an Area of Study department acts as intermediary between the Publications department and various original authors.  Duplicative copies are being saved in various drives around the institution, with very little incentive to clean and organize files once the project has been completed.

In this case, defined policies will aid in the development of interdepartmental collaborations in digital projects.  My recommendation of a Digital Asset Management System (DAMS) will also hopefully aid in the deduplication of DO’s digital holdings.

Second, file formats are causing big challenges.  Sometimes I even ran into them with my own research.

DowdingTweetOther times, these were more treacherous around the institution, being caused by a lack of timely software updates for some of our more specialized systems or by a general proliferation of file formats.  A lot of these issues could be addressed by central policy based on the file format action plans discussed by NDSR resident Lee Nilsson.  Effective plans should address migration schedules and file format best practices.

Finally, staff need to be more proactive in differentiating between archival digital assets and everyday files.

By archival digital assets, I mean images from the ICFA or photographs of the gardens; everyday files could be word processing documents.  This behavior becomes particularly problematic depending on where items are saved: many of the departmental drives are only backed up monthly, while a bigger institutional drive collectively referred to as ‘the Shared Drive’ is backed up daily.  So if everyday items are being stored on a departmental drive, there is a much higher likelihood of data loss as there is no backup copy.  Likewise, if archival assets are being put here with no local iteration being stored until the scheduled backup, really important digital assets could be lost.  Finally, this also becomes problematic when digital assets are being stored long-term on the Shared Drive – they take up precious space and are not being properly organized and cared for.

My job over the next few months will be to look at potential Digital Asset Management Systems to determine whether a specific tool would assist Dumbarton Oaks’ staff in better managing digital files.  I will also be convening a Digital Preservation Working Group to carry on my work after my residency ends in May.

Please check out NDSR at the upcoming ALA Midwinter Digital Preservation Interest Group meeting at 8:30am on Sunday, January 24 in the Pennsylvania Room.

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