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A National Digital Stewardship Resident at the U.S. Senate

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This is a guest post by John Caldwell.

SD-562, a hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building where the session was held. Image courtesy of Brandon Hirsch.
Meeting in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Image courtesy of Brandon Hirsch.

On Friday, January 29, 2016, I hosted my fellow National Digital Stewardship residents, their mentors, and the NDSR program staff to our cohort’s first enrichment session at the US Senate.

The morning started with two presentations. First, Mark Evans, Director of Digital Archives and Information Resources Management Services at History Associates talked about the challenges of preserving a Senator’s digital legacy. Second, Brandon Hirsch, IT Specialist at the Center for Legislative Archives, a division of the National Archives, shared with us the difficulty in preserving the permanent electronic records of Congress.

Mark talked about how History Associates performs a digital assessment and how one of the important elements of the assessment is to use digital preservation tools such as DROID to identify file formats. A graphical representation can show you where to focus future preservation and description efforts. Unfortunately, the tail can also be misleading; in this collection, there were only 116 email files, but email can be a treasure trove of digital information.

Brandon shared an experience where, in order to extract permanent records that were transferred to the National Archives in proprietary software, Center for Legislative Archives’ staff leveraged virtualization to build a temporary instance of the proprietary application. The recovery operation allowed Center staff to extract and preserve the records in their native format, dissociated from the proprietary container.

Statue of Ben Franklin on the 2nd floor of the Senate Wing. Image courtesy of Valerie Collins
Statue of Ben Franklin on the 2nd floor of the Senate Wing. Image courtesy of Valerie Collins
While this project demonstrated a significant achievement for the Center in terms of preservation, it is not a viable strategy for ongoing and future preservation work. Aside from the increased staff resources devoted to this single operation, the underlying technology used for virtualization changes rapidly. In addition to technological changes, business strategies also change and may alter the long-term support for virtualization products and formats.

This not only introduces additional format sustainability problems, but it seems in the world of digital preservation, archivists, curators and librarians are at the hands of the technology sector. In a short amount of time, tools and systems we rely on can disappear or cease to be supported.

Some more general discussion topics included the idea that considerations for preservation should be baked in at the point of creation; concern over the growing volume of electronic records, especially in government records (the Center doubled its holdings between FY14 and FY15); and how digital preservation concerns will be managed by emulation or migration.

After the presentations, Mark and Brandon demonstrated digital preservation tools and we talked about how these tools can be integrated into digital preservation workflows (for a longer discussion of digital preservation tools, see my Signal blog post from November 2015).

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