By Tracy Popp
This is the second post in the bloggERS! series Digital Archives Pathways, where archivists discuss the non-traditional, accidental, idiosyncratic, or unique paths they took to become a digital archivist.
Although I am not by title a Digital Archivist, I work very closely with our University Archives and other special collections units to make born-digital content accessible and available for processing. So, how did I get to be the first Digital Preservation Coordinator at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and what does that mean? Let me illuminate that through interpretive dance…no, wait. I’ll just tell you via the parts I *think* have contributed to my ending up here. Dance isn’t something I picked up along the way.
I’ve had a fascination with media carriers and digital stuff since childhood. When I was elementary school age, I recall spending time in the Southfield, MI Public Library loading up the microfilm machine to scroll through various newspapers committed to the reel. Was I engaged in some sort of deep historical research as a seven-year-old that required I review these polyester rolls for pertinent info? Nope. I seem to recall the process of loading the machine and staring at an illuminated screen while I scrolled through words and pictures engaging in and of itself. Little did I know how much of that I’d be doing later in life…
Through a varied avenue I found myself moving toward a career path in libraries and archives – one that I had not previously considered. I have a BFA in Photography and Intermedia, which, at the time, was the term used for making digital artwork. Concurrently, I picked up a Computer Information Systems minor after finding that building, breaking and rebuilding computer systems in my spare time also proved an engaging way to support myself.
By working on a visual resources project for an Art History professor where I converted slides and cleaned up images in PhotoShop, to a visit to the Conservation Lab at the Eastman House in Rochester, NY and via other library-related activities, I found my way to graduate school at GSLIS (now the iSchool) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. There, I had graduate assistant experiences in audiovisual media and visual resources and worked on a pilot project to recover content from legacy born-digital media. My understanding of computer storage media as well as familiarity with a range of operating systems and types of digital content served as a bedrock on this project. I also had the opportunity to build a digital forensics computing workstation and amaze colleagues with the ability to raise files from the dead with my magical powers. My present position reflects this culmination of education and desire to explore and apply a variety of experiences.
As the digital archives landscape is continually evolving, keeping up with professional organizations and meetings is incredibly important. Notably, I completed a Digital Archives Specialist certificate through the Society of American Archivists and recently attended the born-digital archives exchange at Stanford which was an excellent opportunity to meet with colleagues engaged in digital archives. A range of online resources are helpful too, such as the BloggERS! blog, the BitCurator Google group and myriad tech forums dedicated to solving hardware and software challenges.
Through experience I’ve learned to not be timid about thoroughly investigating hardware and software – modern computer systems aren’t as fragile as one may think – although static electricity can shut things down pretty quickly, so ground yourself. Hands on work is essential to understanding and continued learning. Presently, I’m deep into “breaking” a Linux system which has motivated me to learn command line tools for filtering, scripting and system administration. I’ve also lost personal data and learned the hard way about working with copies, making backups and the fallibility of computer media. So, before you experiment with content make sure it’s not the only copy, of course. 🙂
Tracy Popp serves as Digital Preservation Coordinator at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. As part of her duties she manages the Born-Digital Reformatting Lab and works closely with Library and Archives colleagues to manage and preserve digital collections.