Ensuring Born-Digital Access at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library

By Rossy Mendez

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

By exploring the contents of a drive, archivists can obtain information about the contents of folders, the size of files, and details of creation. They can determine what hierarchies are in place by observing a file’s structure and nesting. Despite the richness of metadata available for digital records, archival description remains one of the biggest challenges of processing born-digital collections.

One of the ways that the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University has maximized EAD description has been to explore the definitions of EAD elements. Before I address how the Mudd Manuscript Library is doing this, I would like to provide a bit of a background of the library.

The Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library is part of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division at Princeton University. The Library houses and provides access to the university archives and public policy collections. In addition to 30,000+ linear feet of physical records, there are several collections of born-digital records that include student newsletters, the records of a former dean of the graduate school, and more recently, student activism.

Nearly all the staff at Mudd participate in the reference rotation. The benefit to this all-hands-on-deck approach is that the technical services team gains greater insight into how patrons use the collections and finding aids.

At Mudd, patrons can access born-digital collections remotely through the finding aids website.  Individuals can filter out digital material by selecting the “Available online” option from the faceted search menu or by accessing individual folders or items within a collection. By clicking “View Content,” patrons are linked directly to pdfs, images, and even videos. For restricted records, patrons with the appropriate credentials can use their username and password to access files.

Screenshot of Finding Aid for Tiger Hockey Email Newsletters, Princeton University Archives
Screenshot of Finding Aid for Tiger Hockey Email Newsletters, Princeton University Archives

Archivists at Mudd believe that description is an important part of providing access.

Three principles should drive the creation of born-digital description:

  • A user should be able to know what and how much born-digital content exists.
  • A user should be able to know where the digital content lives within the finding aid and have easy access to that content.
  • Moreover, a user should be able to deduct the context of record creation.

One of the most significant changes Mudd archivists made to local EAD description was to the <extent> element. Initially, archivists conceived of the <extent> field as the physical space files occupied in a drive: records were indicated in measures of files and bytes. However, a significant number of patrons do not understand this information. Replacing bytes with “Digital folders” and “Digital files” as a unit of measurement allowed patrons to learn about hierarchies and the arrangement of collections. Furthermore, the inclusion of the word “digital” provided a further indication of the nature of the material.

In addition to <extent>, the <unittitle> element plays an important role in differentiating between digitized and born-digital content. Since the access path is the same for all content, the word “digital” in the title statements at the series and subseries level provides a quick way to tell which sections have born-digital content.

Lastly, the <phystech> element ensures that patrons have as much information about the creation of the digital record as possible (including, for example, the type of computer used) and can address potential compatibility issues.

As archivists we should aim to provide complete access to our records. Good archival description releases the patron’s burden to investigate technical aspects and allows them to focus on what is most important: discovering information and sharing it with others.


Rossy Mendez was formerly a Public Services Project Archivist at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. Currently, she is a Project Archivist at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where she is working on processing the museum’s audio-visual collections and collaborating in the creation of a museum-wide metadata schema and the implementation of Archives Space.

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