By Jim Havron
This is the fourth 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.
I am apparently a systems thinker. When I view an event, problem, or task, I study how it affects other things with which it connects, the processes it involves, potential repercussions and unintended consequences, how it came to be and why. I learned early in life to question statements and strenuously evaluate the evidence supporting or opposing them. This made me an excellent competition debater, since although the topic resolution to be debated was already known, the team wasn’t told whether they would debate for or against it until 30 minutes prior to the debate. This required the ability to see different views on the topic and different ways of interpreting evidence. The importance of evidence in the “big picture” and ongoing processes led me to eventually become an archivist. The big picture of archives today also led me to cybersecurity or InfoSec in IT/IS.
Early Skills and Experiences
My path to archives, and particularly to electronic records in archives, was not a straight one. I originally started college to double major in math and physics. I left school before completing my degrees, and developed other professional skills and experiences. These skills in management, logistics, legacy technology, and communication all became part of my views on and approach to seeing more than an archives-eye view of electronic record production and preservation. They helped to shape my course through school when I returned and allowed me to “sell” my skills to increase experience. I feel one should always take a look at one’s full inventory of experience when one is tackling a task that has ever-changing parameters.
Silos, Collaborative Silos, Venn Views
I was already aware that professional people tended to operate what we refer to now as silos. Many professionals, despite knowledge of peripheral fields, have a core training and set of experiences that strongly define their identity in their professions. I saw many professions as series of overlapping fields. Seeing things as parts of systems, I often pursued tasks that were not usually combined in an efficient manner.
Alternative Professional Path
I continued my self-education on technology. My experience had taught me that the vast majority of records were being generated in electronic formats and were not being saved for historical value. Archivists I encountered, working primarily with paper, seemed unconcerned, IT professionals didn’t understand historical value, and the people who generated the records didn’t see value that would offset resources needed for such preservation. When I started my graduate work to become an archivist, I did so with the plan of continuing on into computer information systems (CIS). This field augmented traditional IT with business knowledge and skills. I intended to combine the fields to gain new insights.
I had several experiences and revelations that helped drive my work:
- A survey I did in school showed that over 70% of surveyed researchers would prefer access to electronic versions of records online (very unusual and controversial at the time) than more electronic finding aids. However, 100% of surveyed archivists believed researchers would prefer the finding aids.
- I once (within the last decade) made the statement that repositories that were not online were pretty much invisible. I was literally called a “heretic.”
- My primary field is security and assurance. I found professionals working with digital assets in libraries promoted very insecure products and techniques.
- Even IT is not a universal profession and has its own silos.
- I realized that archivists still have not accepted most records are in databases, requiring preservation of much more information than the data fields.
- Many born digital records in archives are just electronic representations of documents that can be turned into hard copies.
- Archivists I know tend to trust the vendor, the person whose job it is to sell the product, when selecting technology to keep records safe over time, not the security professional.
- Many archivists turn their electronic records over to departments that they do not control, with ever changing personnel and budgets, with unknown security or disaster recovery measures, and frequently unknown storage locations, but feel as long as they can access the records, the archivist has control.
- The cloud is a vague, poorly understood term, with different, ever changing meanings, yet is often the first choice for record preservation.
The biggest problem and motivation in security and preservation is people.
Some primary points learned in selecting a path into a career with electronic records preservation and access:
#1 Step back and look at the picture. Is there a special problem or area of need where you have a passion, special skills, or both? Do you have skills that you can use that are different or rare?
#2 Never believe that archives, or for that matter IT, exists in a bubble. The creators of the records will drive the technology.
#3 The easy way to deal with electronic records is often the least secure.
#4 Technology changes faster than most people imagine, so knowledge and skill acquisition never stops.
#5 There is a desperate yet unrecognized need for people who understand the business function that drives the creation of electronic records, what technology is involved, and yet also can judge the historic value of such records.
For me, #5 is what it is all about.
Below is a diagram I did for my mother to help her understand how I had gotten from one place to another, and what the reasons were for my learning and doing special things. It may be confusing without narration, but it gives an idea of my ongoing pathway. It starts with experience and “Imported [into this process] Resources” and moves to working as “Cultural Heritage Cyber Preservation”.
Jim Havron grew up in a family of historians and lawyers, as well as spending time on a debate team, so he learned how easily evidence can be overlooked or misinterpreted. In a professional life that stretched from technology to business to first responder, he discovered that many professionals do not understand the evidentiary value of information created, used, stored or needed by other professionals, let alone how to best rescue and preserve it. His education, professional training, and experience in archives and information systems security have given him opportunities to study this situation from different professional views and apply his skills to archives and heritage issues that involve computer systems and security