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DPOE Interview with Danielle Spalenka of the Digital POWRR Project

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The following is a guest post by Barrie Howard, IT Project Manager at the Library of Congress.

This post is part of a series about digital preservation training informed by the Library’s Digital Preservation Outreach & Education (DPOE) Program. Today I’ll focus on an exceptional individual, Danielle Spalenka, Project Director for the Digital POWRR Project. Prior to managing Digital POWRR, she was the Curator of Manuscripts for the Regional History Center and University Archives at Northern Illinois University.

Danielle Spalenka
Danielle Spalenka

Barrie: Danielle, first I’d like to applaud the POWRR Project for all its efforts to provide practical digital preservation solutions for low-resourced institutions. For those that aren’t familiar, can you provide a brief overview and recount some of the highlights of the project?

Danielle: Thank you very much Barrie! We are really proud of all that has been accomplished. The Digital POWRR project really began because of a failed attempt to apply for a major digitization grant. The two Co-PI’s of the project, Lynne Thomas and Drew VandeCreek, wanted to digitize a collection of dime novels in the Rare Books and Special Collections department at Northern Illinois University. They applied for an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant to digitize the novels, only to be rejected because they did not have a digital preservation plan built into their proposal. They realized that they probably weren’t the only medium-sized or under-funded institution with this same problem. What resulted was a National Leadership Grant to investigate the problem of, and potential solutions for, digital preservation at institutions with restricted resources. And that’s how POWRR (Preserving digital Objects with Restricted Resources) was born.

From 2012 to 2014, five institutions in Illinois – Northern Illinois University (serving as the lead), Illinois State University, Western Illinois University, Chicago State University, and Illinois Wesleyan University – participated in the study. We investigated, evaluated, and recommended scalable, sustainable digital preservation solutions for libraries with smaller amounts of data and/or fewer resources. During the course of the study, Digital POWRR Project team members realized that many information professionals were aware of the risk of digital object loss but often failed to move forward because they felt overwhelmed by the scope of the problem.

Team members prepared a workshop curriculum based on the findings of the study and presented it to several groups of information professionals as part of the project’s dissemination phase. Demand for the workshops was high – registration filled up quickly and created a long waiting list of eager professionals trying to get into the workshops. Towards the end of the project, organizations of information professionals were still reaching out to team members to bring the workshop to their area. We applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities Division of Preservation and Access to continue giving the workshops, and in January 2015 received funding from the NEH to extend the reach of the Digital POWRR workshops. That is when I came on board as the project director, replacing Jaime Schumacher, who is now a Co-PI on the project with Drew and Lynne.

In addition to the workshop, another highlight from the project has been the publication of a white paper that has been widely read. The white paper recently won the Preservation Publication Award from the Society of American Archivists, which we are really excited about. Our project team traveled across the country and around the world to present the findings from the study. We look forward to continue traveling across the country to provide the workshop (for free!) through the end of 2016, thanks to funding from the NEH.

Barrie: It must be very exciting to be moving POWRR into a new phase. What’s been accomplished to date?

Danielle: Since we received funding from the NEH in January 2015, we have made a few changes to the workshop based on evaluations from previous participants. We have worked with several regional organizations of information professionals who provided letters of support in our grant application to schedule and promote individual workshops. We’ve done workshops in two locations so far, and were able to provide some travel scholarships that allowed institutions with very limited funds to send a representative to the workshop!

Barrie: I know you just wrapped up back-to-back workshops in Portland, OR. What other cities are hosting POWRR “From Theory to Action” workshops?

Danielle: Our next workshop will be another back-to-back workshop in Albany, NY in October, and we’ll be traveling to Deadwood, SD in November. In 2016, so far we have workshops scheduled in Little Rock, AR (April 2016), St. Paul, MN (June 2016) and San Antonio, TX in July 2016. I’m working to confirm dates in a few other locations, including Atlanta. Depending on our budget for 2016, we hope to go to more locations. I’ve had requests to come to Philadelphia, Montana, New York City, California, and even Alaska! As I continue scheduling workshops, I encourage anyone interested in attending to visit our website for updates.

I would like to thank several organizations that have helped us make sure the workshop remains free: the Black Metropolis Research Consortium; Northwest Archivists, Inc.; the Sustainable Heritage Network; Mid-Atlantic Region Conference of Archivists; the East New York Chapter of ACRL; the Midwest Archives Conference; the Digital Curation Interest Group of ACRL; the Oberlin Group; and the American Association for State and Local History.

Barrie: I understand that your team looked at the DPOE Train-the-Trainer Workshop training materials in developing your own curriculum, as well as other digital preservation training offerings. Can you share some of your observations?

Danielle: When we first started developing the workshop, we did look at what was currently being offered. We wanted the workshop to follow best practices and standards presented by digital preservation instruction currently available. Many of our project team members attended workshops and training sessions, including the DPOE Train-the-Trainer and offerings from the Society of American Archivists (SAA). We also talked to several digital preservation instructors, including Chris Prom and Jackie Esposito – who teach some of the Digital Archives Specialist courses offered through SAA – and Liz Bishoff.

Our review of the landscape of digital preservation instruction was that it is largely aimed at an audience beginning to come to grips with the idea that digital objects are subject to loss if we don’t actively care for them. There are lots of offerings discussing the theory of digital preservation – the “why” of the problem – and we found that there were limited opportunities to learn the “how” of digital preservation, both on the advocacy and technical sides. We also found that other great offerings, like the Digital Preservation Management Workshop Series based at MIT, had a tuition fee that was unaffordable for many prospective attendees, especially from under-funded institutions. Our goal in this phase is to make the workshops free to attend.

A major goal of the workshop is to discuss specific tools and provide a hands-on portion so that participants could try a tool that they could apply directly at their own institutions. We found that hands-on instruction for a specific, basic digital preservation tool, and critical overviews of other available tools that we tested, are largely absent from some course offerings. In the case of DPOE’s Train-the-Trainer Workshop, we liked how it focuses on understanding digital preservation conceptually by describing its individual steps, and also clarifying the difference between preservation and access. Our workshop diverges from the DPOE curriculum by directly training front-line practitioners and providing a critical overview of how digital preservation services and tools actually relate to the steps, their effective use in a workflow, and how to advocate for implementation.

Barrie: Another fantastic outcome of your project is the POWRR Tool Grid, which I read covers over 60 tools. Let’s say I’m just getting up to speed and found the grid a little overwhelming, so, what would be a good place to start?

Danielle: I’m glad you mention the tool grid, because a lot of work went into its creation. I want to mention that the POWRR Project is no longer maintaining the tool grid. When the first phase of the project ended in 2014, so did our ability to maintain it. Instead, we have thrown our support behind COPTR (Community Owned digital Preservation Tool Registry). They have produced the POWRR Tool Grid v2, which combines the form and function of our original tool grid with the sustainability provided by the COPTR data feed.

For those just starting out, I recommend first considering what type of tool you might be interested in. Are you looking for a tool that can help process your digital materials? Are you looking for storage options? How about a tool or service that can do everything? Looking at the specific function of a tool might be a good place to understand the wide variety of tools better.

While we don’t endorse or recommend any specific tool or service, I do encourage people to take a look at the tools we cover in-depth in the workshop. The reason being that we are more familiar with these tools from our testing phase of the project. For help with front-end processing, I suggest looking at Data Accessioner and Archivematica. I have heard good things coming from BitCurator, which might be of particular interest for those interested in digital forensics. For those more interested in storage, services like MetaArchive, DuraCloud, and Internet Archive would be good to investigate. There are very few services that pretty much do it all (at least in the price range for our target audience), but Preservica and the new ArchivesDIRECT are two we have investigated and discuss in our workshops as potential options for institutions with restricted resources.

Barrie: Any other advice on developing a skillset for managing digital content you’d like to share with the readers?

Danielle: A number of tools and services offer free webinars and information sessions to learn more about a specific tool. Some also offer free trial versions that allow you to gain hands-on experience to see if it might work at your institution. You can download and play with the many open-source tools out there to gain some hands-on experience.

Remember that digital preservation is an incremental process, and there are small steps you can take now to start digital preservation activities at your own institution. You don’t have to feel like an expert to begin! And finally, remember you are not alone! One thing we’ve learned through the study and by traveling to the various workshops is that there are many practitioners who recognize the need for digital preservation but have yet to engage in these activities. An easy way to get started is to see what others are doing and talking about. You can ask a question on the Digital Preservation Q&A forum. You can also learn about the latest in digital preservation activities through blogs like The Signal and the blog Digital Preservation Matters. And finally, you can attend a free POWRR workshop!

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