By Amber D’Ambrosio
This is the first 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.
This is the warning I’ve received at every conference and workshop since I started graduate school coursework in archives. When I applied for my current position as Processing Archivist & Records Manager, I knew that digital archiving was involved at some level because the job responsibilities included archiving the university’s website. There was also some discussion of digital archiving during the in-person interview, which made me wary.
Prior to this position my experience with digital archiving consisted of a brief introduction to the home-grown system used by the Utah State Archives and some basic information about checksums and multiple copies in multiple locations. My previous position was at a small state university without the infrastructure, funding, or staffing to undertake any kind of digital archiving beyond saving digitized material in multiple places with occasional validation checks by the systems librarian. The closest I came to digital archiving was downloading important records off of the university website to the backed up shared drive used by the library.
I’m still within the first five years of my career as a librarian/archivist, and I remember my graduate program offered a single course on digital records management. I didn’t take it because I didn’t necessarily want to be a records manager, and I wasn’t terribly interested in digital archiving. As an English major, I assumed that I didn’t have the technical knowledge base to make it a viable option anyway.
But here I am. Undercover digital archivist. I’m a digital archivist by necessity because the archives and records I process and manage as part of my job sometimes show up on hard drives and legacy media. I’m also responsible for archiving the website. How did I do it? How did I go from some vague idea of checksums and LOCKSS to undercover digital archivist? I read. A lot. Fortunately, my institution invested in Archive-It for archiving the website and ArchivesDirect (hosted Archivematica) for managing the bulk of the digital preservation activities. I read all of their documentation. I started reading bloggERS! and about the Bentley Historical Library’s Mellon-funded ArchivesSpace-Archivematica-DSpace Workflow Integration project. My predecessor created a preliminary workflow and processing manual based on the early attempt to self-host Archivematica, so I read that and tried to understand it all.
I started attending the Society of American Archivists’ Digital Archivist Specialist certificate courses being offered in this region. I talked to our systems team. I read some more. I looked up terminology on Wikipedia. I took more DAS courses, some of which were more helpful than others. I figured out the gaps in the workflow.
Do I feel like a digital archivist after all of that? Not really. I still feel like something of an imposter.
After all, I don’t get to do much digital archiving in the grand scheme of my job. It’s challenging to find time to focus on processing the digital material through our workflow because it is time consuming. For all that we have ArchivesDirect, there’s proper stewardship to consider prior to ingest into Archivematica. I have gradually added steps into the workflow, including verifying fixity when copying from media to our digital processing drive and when copying from that drive to the secure file transfer protocol provided by ArchivesDirect. There are also the inevitable technical hiccups that happen whenever systems are involved. Human errors play a role as well, like that time someone sent me a duplicate of their entire hard drive before they left their job with no warning or explanation of its contents.
What have I learned? I can be a digital archivist if I have to be, and command line isn’t as intimidating as it always seemed. I learned the basics of the command line interface from our digital asset management librarian combined with the Internet and trial and error. I wouldn’t claim to have even intermediate knowledge of command line, but not being intimidated by it makes digital archiving much easier. Being a digital archivist seems to be mostly a willingness and ability to constantly reassess, learn, adapt, and try something else.
Amber D’Ambrosio is Processing Archivist & Records Manager at Willamette University, a small, urban liberal arts college in Salem, Oregon, where she manages the collections and wrangles ArchivesSpace and Archivematica. In her spare time she writes, reads about early modern London, hikes, travels, and obsessively visits the Oregon Coast.