Access to Born-Digital Archives at the Russell Library

By Adriane Hanson

This post is the sixth in a bloggERS series about access to born-digital materials.

Institutional Context
The Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies at the University of Georgia has been providing access to digital archives for about a year and a half. We needed something that was free, web-based (for broader access), and integrated with our existing workflows for paper (to keep it simpler). We ended up using our finding aids for description, our existing circulation system (Aeon) to track requests, and Google Drive to provide access to files.

Finding Aids
Researchers learn about digital files through our finding aids. If there is a series with related papers, we list the digital files at the end of that series. We are trying to balance the need to keep things together intellectually (rather than having a separate “electronic records” series) without taking on the labor-intensive work of integrating the folder list for papers and for digital files.

Container list from the Davison Papers, showing description of digital files.

Digital files are described in the aggregate, not at the item level. For instance, when describing files from a server, only the first 1-2 levels of folders are included in the finding aid. In addition to being a time-saving measure, it makes the finding aid more usable. Researchers get an overview of what the collection contains rather than an overwhelmingly-long list of filenames. When folder titles are insufficient for description, we will add a scope/content note for the folder and/or link to a directory print of the contents of the folder. For examples, see the Eric Johnson Papers or the Eleanor Smith Papers.

The Workflow
The process for providing access to digital files is summarized below and described in more detail in our access policy. This policy will soon be updated to reflect changes in how we use Google Drive.

  1. The researcher requests digital files from the finding aid, just like they do for paper.
  2. The request is routed to a queue in Aeon that I monitor daily.
  3. After some communication with the researcher, I upload a copy of the files to a Google Drive account and share them with the researcher.
  4. The request is changed to “checked out” in Aeon.
  5. The researcher has two weeks to view the files. After that, I delete the files from Drive and mark the request finished in Aeon.

Google Drive as a Virtual Reading Room
In the first iteration of this process, we used Google Drive like a virtual reading room. Permissions were set to view-only and files could not be downloaded or printed. We started with this strategy to address concerns at our library about properly protecting copyright. It worked well for researchers who needed basic access to files but limited the functionality of some file formats (i.e. spreadsheets were frozen as tables) and did not allow researchers to save search results or integrate what they were finding with copies obtained from other institutions.

Photographs from Davison Papers shared with a patron.

Google Drive as a Delivery System
This year, we developed a policy to allow digital cameras in our reading room. During those conversations, we decided that providing copies of born-digital archival materials for personal research use would be permissible under the same fair-use provision of copyright law that allows the cameras. So now, the researcher signs a form agreeing to abide by copyright law and our policies, and then I provide full access to the files via Google Drive, including allowing downloads.

We are happy with this process, at least for now. Ultimately, I would like a system that can pull from our access copies storage automatically and offer researchers tools for viewing and analysis. But while we are working on that, this workflow lets us provide reasonable access to everything in our holdings.

Adriane Hanson is Digital Curation and Processing Archivist at the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies at the University of Georgia, a position she has held for 3 years. She can be reached at ahanson [at] uga [dot] edu.


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