Thursday, December 17, 2015

Thinking Digitally

My digital minions: (from L to R) USB DVD/CD player/burner; USB 3.5" floppy drive; USB ZIP drive; and a USB SD card reader.

As some of you know I am currently taking courses in fulfillment of the Society of American Archivist's Digital Archives Specialist (DAS) certification, which I hope to complete in 2016.  DAS certification requires the completion of 9 courses and a test.  The courses cover the topics of models for digital archives, systems that are used to manage digital archival assets, and a variety of courses surrounding electronic records, their appraisal, access, and preservation.

I am mainly focusing on archives-related courses, however I anticipate rounding off that experience by increasing my knowledge in the realm of electronic records.

For today, I wanted to go over my recent course, which was titled "Thinking Digitally."  The reason I want to share some of this with you, dear readers, is that it could come as a surprise that many of the aspects of managing digital materials are derived from the same concerns and issues we experience in the analog realm.

The main thrust of the course was to get participants to think about these issues in a digital sense, then focus on their current skills and abilities and to adapt those when needed to changing environments, requirements, and standards.  The course asked participants to think about the long term ramifications of choices in how digital archives are maintained, especially when dealing with quality factors such as scanning standards, object fixity, and file formats.

We were given instruction on navigating some of the frameworks, models and standards that would be applicable in the digital archives world, such as looking at common metadata schema for digital objects, looking at models for digital archives (like the Open Archival Information System), and evaluating file formats and their preservation needs.

A lot of the discussion around quality was centered on the capture.  Capture is the term we use when scan an image, document, or other material.  The standards used to capture the object determine the quality of the digital object and will have impacts on perceptions of authenticity, impacts on usefulness to patrons, and an impact on future stability and usefulness.  In ensuring high quality deliverables from our work we look at things like pixels-per-inch, resolution, sample rate, color range, bit-depth, window size and compression.

We talked metadata standards and how choosing one standard can impact interoperability of the materials in your system with the materials and structures of other systems, making it harder to share in larger aggregates of archives and other information materials.  Furthermore, in the digital world, some metadata schema allow you capture more detail which facilitates a wider scope of retrieval possibilities for a variety of circumstances.  Some schemas allow you to capture things like preservation metadata (who touched what, when, and how; were things migrated, using what), administrative metadata, and technical metadata (especially useful if materials have unique access requirements, like certain proprietary software programs).

Lastly, we discussed how these concepts inform later actions in the archives, such as access to the materials, display of assets, etc.

All this is to say that transferring documents, images and data of enduring value is not as simple as dropping things into a directory and then searching in Explorer.  One thing that can greatly help with delivering digital assets to this archives (or any, really) is to have a preliminary discussion with the archivist to determine what you have, how it is currently stored/arranged/described, and what potential migrations to more stable formats would be needed.  The more discussion, the easier and more direct the donation or transfer becomes, with the overarching benefit being that there is a lower chance of context becoming un-tethered during the process.

Do you manage electronic records?  Do have work that was created digitally and you are unsure how that can be maintained in perpetuity?  Give me a call and we can discuss.

Till next time,

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