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Describing Records Before They Arrive: An NDSR Project Update

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The following is a guest post by Valerie Collins, National Digital Stewardship Resident at The American Institute of Architects.

At the American Institute of Architects, the AIA Archives is building a digital repository for permanent born-digital records that capture the intellectual capital of the AIA, or have continuing value to the practice of architecture. In a story that is probably familiar to many readers, the AIA has important digital records that are not currently stored in a central repository, and that are subject to accidental deletions or movement on the AIA’s shared drive. The challenge for our team in the archives is to find and identify these records and provide the AIA with a repository system that will do all of the following: preserve the records, be flexible enough to support the AIA’s changing information needs, and be simple for AIA staff to use in order to deposit their own digital records into the repository.

The project includes interviewing departments to determine the permanent digital records that they produce, choosing a repository system, and implementing the chosen system based on our requirements and the information we’ve gathered from our interviews. We’re in the process of department interviews and settling on our final system requirements, so this blog post will focus on one of the design principles behind how we plan to implement our repository. The main concept driving the design of our repository is “describing records before they arrive.”

Our team at the AIA believes that successful digital curation begins at the time of record creation. The more time that passes between when an important digital record is finalized and when it is moved to the archive, the greater the likelihood that the file or important information about it will be lost or forgotten. In an effort to collapse the danger area between creation and deposit, the model that the AIA is using flips the traditional method of describing records after they’ve arrived in the Archives by describing them before they arrive.

This method is not ideal for most traditional archives, but the AIA Archives has several characteristics, described below, that make this feasible. Other business or government archives may find this method useful as well.

  1. The AIA Archives is not a collecting archives, and has a clearly limited scope of materials it accepts
  2. The designated community of users is the same as contributors (staff members)
  3. The AIA has clearly definable programs. Programs are stable and records created for these programs are mostly the same year after year (which means they can be anticipated by the archivist)
  4. The AIA is a relatively small organization, and the Archives already works closely with many departments

One of the main features of this approach is that we are not structuring our repository around departments – we know they change, and change frequently. So instead of creating departmental collections of records in our repository with programs as subcategories, we are making the programs the main unit of organization – and we are treating departments as the “author” of that program’s records, which will connect related programs together if a user needs to see everything a department has produced. For our project, a “program” is a specific activity, product, or function of the AIA that produces records.

A traditional “fonds” approach to archives is to organize everything around the creating department. In an institutional repository for a university, for example, you may see a list of department collections to browse:

Figure 1: an example of a common academic Institutional Repository collections list.
An example of a common academic Institutional Repository collections list.

If you browse through any of these collections, you’ll probably find papers produced from those faculties, maybe broken down further into collections centered on certain initiatives. This makes sense in the academic realm, where faculties, schools, and departments are slower to be renamed and reorganized, but at the AIA and in other organizations, there is far more fluidity in department organization and names.

When I first started this project in June, I was repeatedly told that “the programs are consistent over time; but departments change frequently.” I was skeptical about the longevity of programs (turns out some of these programs go back to the 1940s, and have produced basically the same kind of records since then). Neither did I understand how quickly departments could change – until we started meeting with current departments and discussing their permanent digital records. These department meetings have been crucial for understanding the records that each department produces, as well as the way in which departments interact with records.

Frequently, a department changes name, major programs are split between departments, or different aspects of a program are managed by different departments. Each record that is submitted to the repository should have metadata that connects it to the name of the department as it existed when the record was submitted, but the record should also be discoverable using the name of the current iteration of that department.

Currently on the AIA shared drive, staff members navigate to their content by clicking through folders that are modeled after the current organizational structure. One of the side effects of organizational restructuring is the challenge of maintaining a continual administrative history for each record and program, while also keeping the repository reflective of the current organizational structure. I mentioned earlier that we plan to treat departments as “authors” of records. Functionally, this would work in a similar manner to an author page (or a faculty profile page in a university IR), where additional information about the author can be found, with links to and from each book associated with that author. This department entity record would hold all of the administrative history of that department, similar to EAC-CPF records that pair with EAD finding aids, one describing the record creator and the other describing the collection.

The idea behind this is that a single update to that entity record as departments change will serve to keep track of the overall department function and role over time. For example, a department currently called “Communities by Design” used to be “Livable Communities” in the 1990s, but the programs the department is responsible for hasn’t changed (except for one, which was moved to another department this year), and neither have the actual records produced for these programs changed much in the interceding decades. The repository should be able to track that a report on a community produced in 1999 was produced by Livable Communities, and the same kind of community report produced in 2015 came from Communities by Design, but that conceptually, these two department names represent the same function in the AIA.

For a more detailed look at how we’re planning to relate programs, records, and departments (and some of the metadata we’ll need to capture at each level) we’ve put together the graphic below:

AIA's planned records description
Graphic detailing AIA’s planned records descriptions.

You’ll notice that we’re using language more likely to be found in records management than in archives – for the most part, we are doing records management for the permanent digital records of the AIA. These records need to be saved in a manner so that staff can find and use them and they need to be preserved adequately for the future. Once we’ve managed this with current records, we’ll work backwards to organize older digital records or retrieve files off removable media.

This is just a brief description of one part of our approach to developing a digital repository to preserve the AIA’s permanent born digital records. Another similar approach is the Australian Series System (PDF). Our approach has definitely been influenced by the nature of departments and records here at the AIA, but there are pieces of it that I think could be a useful approach at other institutions. But the next step for the AIA Digital Repository team is to start implementing our ideas, putting the knowledge we’ve gained from our department meetings to work, and start describing those records before they arrive.

For more information about the National Digital Stewardship Residency program in Washington, DC, see the program website here.


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