Should We Collect It Because We Can?

The following is a post by Dan Noonan, Digital Resources Archivist at Ohio State University, based on a breakout session at the ERS section meeting of last year’s SAA annual meeting.

With an expanding capacity to store information in the digital age, do archivists still need to consider the size of collections in making appraisal decisions? Is it more compelling to accept a collection that can be held on a few CD’s than one that occupies 30 cubic feet of climate-controlled compact shelving? Should archivists make different acquisition decisions for digital and physical collections? These questions were the topics of a break-out discussion at the 2014 Electronic Records Section of the Society of American Archivists annual meeting in Washington, DC.

Participants identified many examples of document sets not typically accessioned as a whole, either subject to sampling or outright rejection:  timecards and attendance records, correspondence (email), financial records (besides annual reports, budgets, and general ledgers), policies, promotion and tenure files, research data, resumes, and syllabi. Appraisal and selection of these types of materials have traditionally been justified by a lack of resources–space to store documents, supplies to house them, workers to process them. The presence (or potential presence) of sensitive or confidential information has often led archivists to select out whole categories of documents to avoid the risk disclosure.

It could be argued that digital files counter many of the standard arguments for selection and appraisal. With appropriate indexing and metadata, it may be easier to understand and appraise large volumes of digital content. Likewise in a digital environment, locating and redacting sensitive or confidential information could be automated. New tools and systems to manage large collections help support the argument that size may not apply as an appraisal criteria for digital content.

However, session participants also noted that  digital files pose their own special problems. Digital storage may be cheap and getting cheaper, but institutions with digital collections will still require server space for storage, and staff and resources to process, preserve, and provide access to them. And what about more complex digital objects, like audio and video files, research data, and web archives? Preservation quality versions of these files can be enormous and quickly consume all of your available storage space. Maintaining these types of content at scale may require powerful, expensive processing workstations, and more sophisticated metadata and indexing information to ensure their long-term preservation and accessibility.

Ultimately the participants agreed that any decision to acquire (or not acquire) a collection should align with an organization’s core collection development policies. Organizations still struggling may want to create a decision matrix that weighs the costs and benefits of acquisition of different types of content alongside those collection development policies. Such tools, along with staff training, would be helpful for personnel to use when making decisions about whether to accept potential digital acquisitions. Archives also need to appropriately plan for and allocate resources for the long-term preservation and management of collections—digital and physical. For digital collections this type of planning accounts not only for one-time costs of hardware and software purchases, but also for equipment replacement, upgrades, and migration, human resources to operate and manage the equipment, and other overhead. These costs should be annualized and accounted for in the same way as for annual plant operations and maintenance fees, facility rental/lease fees or mortgage payments.

Forever is a long time, and can be difficult to conceptualize in a digital environment. Archival collection policies should be subject to reconsideration, and collection decisions to reappraisal. One participant noted that in the past, archivists regularly excluded things based on format— turning down a paper collection that too voluminous to handle–so archivists can anticipate the conversation will continue in the digital realm.


One thought on “Should We Collect It Because We Can?

  1. Nat Wilson March 24, 2015 / 3:06 pm

    Great points in this article. I particularly like near the end when you point out that decisions regarding accessions of digital material should be grounded in an established collection development policy, and influenced by a cost benefit analysis. This is often how archivists approach physical records and these same principles can be applied to digital records.


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