Bits and Baby Steps: RAO Engages with Electronic Collection Material

By Stacey Lavender and Rachael Dreyer

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

Officially formed and charged in October 2014, the Society of American Archivists Reference, Access, and Outreach (RAO) Section’s Access to Electronic Records Working Group aimed to evaluate current practices and approaches to providing researchers with access to born-digital and electronic material. There were four initial parts of the working group’s charge:

  1. Conduct initial research to determine on which key focus areas related to reference, access, outreach, and preservation work the working group shall focus its efforts.
  2. Compile a bibliography of key resources, including publications, presentations, and workshops, which explore how archival institutions provide access to born-digital and electronic records. Other organizations active with electronic records will also be included in this resource list.
  3. Conduct a survey of the archival profession regarding current practices and attitudes towards providing access to born-digital and electronic records.
  4. Compile and analyze the survey data in order to identify challenges and opportunities which RAO can address.

The fourth part of the charge is currently underway, and while the data analysis isn’t complete, some big-picture trends have emerged.

While just about every respondent indicated that their institution was providing some access to electronic content (both digitized and born-digital), 89.5% of respondents indicated that at least some of their electronic materials are currently inaccessible to patrons.

A significant portion of this inaccessibility can be attributed to the same reasons that most institutions have some inaccessible analog materials. 18% of respondents reported a lack of time and staff resources as the cause of their electronic background, and 16% cited donor and/or legal restrictions as a contributing factor. However, the most common response by far (62%) came from those having trouble providing access to specific formats of materials. This problem of formats (dealing with obsolete media, obsolete hardware, and the threat of media degradation) as a prevalent and ongoing problem in providing access to electronic records was perhaps the strongest trend revealed in the survey.

Another trend that the survey highlighted was the simple fact that respondents are on the lookout for resources and education opportunities related to access to electronic records, and they’re open to using many different options.

Large percentages of respondents indicated an interest in participating in workshops (48.8%), viewing web resources (40.7%), standards/guidelines (34.9%), and professional assistance from archivists or IT professionals (43%). So it’s clear that the interest in educational opportunities and resources is there, we just need to figure out how best to meet that need.

It is also worth noting that the desire to develop partnerships with the IT professionals in our institutions was something that came up more than once in the survey.

In addition to the 43% of respondents mentioned above that were interested in professional assistance from IT professionals, about 84% cited lack of IT support as an obstacle of some concern when it came to providing access to their electronic materials.

We’ll delve even further into these trends (and some others!) in our survey report, which we plan to have out in the next couple of months. Overall it was very heartening to see that for the most part we’re dealing with similar problems, which means we can tackle them together!

Since so many of the concerns around access to born-digital materials focus on the technological constraints and requirements, end-user access has been relegated to a lower rung on the ladder. But here’s the thing: to get to the higher rungs on the ladder, you have to have a stable base with those lower rungs! So, increasingly, the focus has shifted to the end-users’ needs, as well as the need for appropriate levels of arrangement and description. Public-services archivists are keenly aware of the back-end processes—good arrangement and description is essential to assist researchers in navigating those records.

The working group hopes to help RAO archivists, as well as anyone else in the profession, to take concrete steps toward providing research access to born-digital and electronic records at their institutions. If you have ideas or projects that you would like to see the RAO working group take on, we would love to hear from you!

Rachael Dreyer is currently Head of Research Services for Special Collections at the Pennsylvania State University. She was formerly a reference archivist at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming. She’s very interested in balancing the needs of researchers with the technological “challenges” that born-digital collections present. She is Co-Chair of the RAO Access to Electronic Records Working Group.

Stacey Lavender recently completed a two-year stint as the Houston Arts and History Archives Fellow at the University of Houston. She’s most interested in working with born-digital materials, finding new and technologically innovative ways to provide access, and participating in public outreach initiatives to promote collections. She is Co-Chair of the RAO Access to Electronic Records Working Group.

2 thoughts on “Bits and Baby Steps: RAO Engages with Electronic Collection Material

  1. Ed Summers (@edsu) February 16, 2016 / 12:09 pm

    These are very interesting findings, thanks for posting about it! Was the survey question about why no access a multiple choice question or was it open ended. It would be really interesting to perhaps follow up with interviews with that 62% to dig into the format problems a bit more. For example, were there data format problems (no software to view the file), physical media problems (no hardware to read the media), concerns about backups of the media in case it failed, etc. It would be interesting to get real examples of the perceived problems as well.


  2. Mary Manning February 17, 2016 / 11:45 pm

    This is so good to see. What great work you are doing.


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