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Monday, 17 March 2014

'Routine encounters with the unexpected' (or what we should tell our digital depositors)


I was very interested a few months back to hear about the release of a new and much-needed report on acquiring born-digital archives: Born Digital: Guidance for Donors, Dealers, and Archival Repositories published by the Council on Library and Information Resources. I read it soon after it was published and have been mulling over its content ever since.

The quote within the title of this post "routine encounters with the unexpected" is taken from the concluding section of the report and describes the stewardship of born-digital archival collections. The report intends to describe good practices that can help reduce these archival surprises.

The publication takes an interesting and inclusive approach, being aimed at both at archivists who will taking in born-digital material, and also at those individuals and organisations involved with offering born-digital material to an archive or repository.

It appeared at a time when I was developing new content for our new website aimed specifically at donors and depositors and also a couple of weeks before I went on my first trip to collect someone's digital legacy for inclusion in our archive. This last few months alongside archivist colleagues I have also been planning and documenting our own digital accessions workflow. This report has been a rich source of information and advice and has helped inform all of these activities.

There is lots of food for thought within the publication but what I like best are the checklists at the end which neatly summarise many of the key issues highlighted within the report and provide a handy quick reference guide.

Much as I find this a very useful and interesting publication it got me thinking about the alternative and apparently conflicting advice that I give depositors and how the two relate.

I have always thought that one of the most important things that anyone can do to ensure that their digital legacy survives into the future is to put into practice good data management strategies. These strategies are often just simple common sense rules, things like weeding out duplicate or unnecessary files, organising your data into sensible and logical directory structures and naming them well.

Where we have depositors who wish to give us born-digital material for our archive, I would like to encourage them to follow rules like these to help ensure that we can make better sense of their data when it comes our way. This also helps fulfil the OAIS responsibility to ensure the independent utility of data - the more we know about data from the original source, the greater the likelihood that others will be able to make sense of it in the future. I have put guidance to this effect on our new website which is based on an advice sheet from the Archaeology Data Service.

Screenshot of the donor and depositor FAQ page on the Borthwick Institute's new website

However, this goes against the advice in the 'Born Digital' report which states that "...donors and dealers should not manipulate, rearrange, extract, or copy files from their original sources in anticipation of offering the material for gift or purchase."

In a blog post last year I talked about a digital rescue project I had been working on, looking at the data on some 5 1/4 inch floppy disks from the Marks and Gran archive. This project would not have been nearly as interesting if someone had cleaned up the data before deposit - rationalising and re-naming files and deleting earlier versions. There would have been no detective story and information about the creative process would have been lost. However, if all digital deposits came to us like this would we be able to resource the amount of work required to make sense of them?

So, my question is as follows. What do we tell our depositors? Is there room for both sets of advice - the 'organise your data before deposit' approach aimed at those organisations who regularly deposit their administrative information with us, and the 'leave well alone' approach for the digital legacies of individuals? This is the route I have tried to take on our new website, however, I have concerns as to whether it will be clear enough to donors and depositors as to which advice they should follow, especially where there are areas of cross-over. I'm interested to hear how other archives handle this question.


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