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NDSR Symposium: Pushing the Digital Envelope

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The following is a guest post by Kris Nelson, Program Management Specialist at the Library of Congress and Program Coordinator of the National Digital Stewardship Residency.

“If you want to do important work, you have to work on an important problem.”  With these words, Betsy Humphreys, Deputy Director of the National Library of Medicine, effectively summed up the nature of the recent educational symposium “Emerging Trends in Digital Stewardship.”  The day-long symposium was hosted at the National Library of Medicine on April 8th and featured many interactive sessions on the topics of digital forensics, social media archiving, open government and data and digital strategies for public and non-profit institutions.

The residents at their recent Emerging Trends in Digital Stewardship symposium at the National Library of Medicine. Photo by Dawn Aveline.
The residents at their recent Emerging Trends in Digital Stewardship symposium at the National Library of Medicine. Photo by Dawn Aveline.

The symposium was arranged and hosted by residents in the National Digital Stewardship Residency program.  The residency program is near and dear to me as it’s a large part of my daily work as program manager at the Library of Congress.  NDSR has truly blossomed from a conceptualization into a nationally recognized and essential field experience program.   The program is the output of a collaboration between the Library of Congress and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  The planning for the program started in 2010 and the first class of residents began their inaugural journey in September 2013.  This program provides recent graduates the opportunity to receive hands-on training in one of many world-class DC metropolitan area institutions.  NDSR is also being planned for the New York City and Boston areas in 2014 and again in Washington, Maryland and Virginia in 2015.  More program details can be found at and residents have recently had guest blog posts on The Signal.

The symposium began with Humphreys and George Coulbourne, Executive Program Officer of the Library of Congress, emphasizing the many challenges that face the field of digital preservation and the importance of the event for the community.  The multiple layers of complexity and urgency associated with preservation – as reflected at the symposium – validate the tremendous importance of this work.

Christopher (Cal) Lee, a professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science started the sessions by providing a demonstration of the digital forensics tool BitCurator.  BitCurator is a suite of Linux-based open-source digital forensics and data-analysis tools used to help collecting institutions process born-digital materials.  The presentation highlighted how the suite of tools is revolutionizing practices in the archival and library fields.

Lee’s session was followed by the panel discussion “Social Media, Archiving, and Preserving Collaborative Projects,” with panel members Leslie Johnston from the Library of Congress, Janel Kinlaw from National Public Radio and Laura Wrubel from George Washington University.  The discussion focused on using social media as a tool for preservation and outreach, the Twitter archive as a vehicle for academic research, web archiving and the challenges posed by constantly changing technology within social media sites, and the importance of generating metrics on social media impact, not just use.

Leslie Johnston of the Library of Congress speaking at the NDSR Symposium. Photo Credit: Sue Manus
Leslie Johnston of the Library of Congress speaking at the NDSR Symposium. Photo Credit: Sue Manus

The “Open Government and Open Data” panel included Daniel Schuman from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Jennifer Serventi of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Nick Shockey from Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.  The panel discussed how open data leads to transparency and accountability in government with further emphasis on how it impacts all walks of society – citing the archivist and librarian as playing the most important role in accessing this information.

The final panel discussion of the day was titled “Digital Strategies for Public and Non-Profit Institutions.”  Panelists Carl Fleischhauer and Kate Murray of the Library of Congress, Eric Johnson of the Folger Shakespeare Library, and Matt Kirschenbaum of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities discussed and took questions about developing standards and new testing methods and provided a historical perspective on digital collection projects – including lessons learned and the impact of changing technology on similar projects.

To provide you a perspective on the meeting space, there was not a vacant seat in the NLM Lister Hill Auditorium (a demonstration of the commitment to solving problems outlined earlier by Humphreys).   As an educator and program manager, it’s interesting to step back and think about the impact of all these moving pieces from an educational perspective.  Several key points hit home during the symposium:

  1. Data.  LOTS of data.  Leslie Johnston noted that there are currently over 600 billion (yes, 600 billion) tweets currently in the Twitter archive – and the archive grows by 1.5 terabytes per day.  This statistic is incredible and obviously only represents a small piece of the larger puzzle.  The seemingly insurmountable task is how to identify, select, manage and provide data like this so that it is available to researchers and the curious.  We will never have enough trained curators to handle every piece of data, but perhaps through educational programs like NDSR we can be as efficient as possible in handling this material.  This leads to my second point:
  2. When picking data from the data tree, remember, not everything is going to fit into the basket.   It’s unfortunate, but we must make hard decisions from time-to-time because we cannot preserve everything.   I used to train new registration specialists in the U.S. Copyright Office on selection criteria for musical works.  Much of the decision-making was based on what we think the community needs and finds valuable now and in the future.  People working in the library, archive, and museum community, for the most part, have a grasp on selection criteria, but it’s imperative to make those outside of the community understand this importance. As the Library plans for the next NDSR program, I think it will be valuable to incorporate new and different organizations, from both private and public sectors, so that organizations with similar problems can collaborate to identify solutions.
  3. All that data is being used in places and for reasons you may not have considered.   At the symposium Daniel Schuman stated that open data is what is empowering major elements of our society – from weather reports to legislation at the state and federal level.  (Speaking of weather, see resident Emily Reynolds’ TAGS tweet harvesting visualizations from the event which reminds me of a very active weather pattern – perhaps a hurricane or D.C. snowstorm from this winter).   Even traffic information is dependent on open data.  This is valuable, strategic information.   If people truly are educated about (and understand) how to handle and interpret this data, the greater the benefit to our society as a whole.

The symposium inspired curiosity, fostered new connections and offered a valuable opportunity for the exchange of ideas and information.  I was happy to be involved in the process and continue to be impressed with the professionalism and enthusiasm of our residents.  Thanks to all involved in the symposium and for pushing the digital envelope.

For additional information on the symposium, please see blog postings by residents Julia Blase and Emily Reynolds and follow #NDSR14.

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