Systems Thinking Started Me on My Path

By Jim Havron

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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. 

silosOverlapping

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.

Venn_of_4_Overlapping_CultHerit_Profs

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.

 

Lessons Learned

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”.

Path to Professina Vocation

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Havron_working_for_onceJim 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

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Call for Contributors: Archiving Digital Communications Series

Archives have long collected correspondence, but as communication has shifted to digital platforms, archivists must discover and develop new tools and methods.  From appraising one massive inbox to describing threaded messages, email has introduced many new challenges to the way we work with correspondence. Likewise, instant messaging, text messaging, collaborative online working environments, and other forms of digital communication have introduced new challenges and opportunities.

We want to hear how you and your institution are managing the acquisition, appraisal, processing, preservation and access to these complex digital collections.  Although the main focus of most programs is email, we’re also interested in hearing how you manage other formats of digital communication as well.

We’re interested in real-life solutions by working archivists: case studies, workflows, any kind of practical work with these collections describing the challenges of  the archival processes to acquire, preserve, and make accessible email and other forms of digital communication.

A few potential topics and themes for posts:

  • Evaluating tools to acquire and process email
  • Case studies on archiving email and other forms of digital communication
  • Integrating practices for digital correspondence with physical correspondence
  • Addressing privacy and legal issues in email collections
  • Collaborating with IT departments and donors to collect email

Writing for bloggERS!

  • Posts should be between 200-600 words in length
  • Posts can take many forms: instructional guides, in-depth tool exploration, surveys, dialogues, point-counterpoint debates are all welcome!
  • Write posts for a wide audience: anyone who stewards, studies, or has an interest in digital archives and electronic records, both within and beyond SAA
  • Align with other editorial guidelines as outlined in the bloggERS! guidelines for writers.

Experimenting and Digressing to the Digital Archivist Role

By Walker Sampson

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This is the third 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.

On the surface, my route to digital preservation work was by the book: I attended UT–Austin’s School of Information from 2008–2010 and graduated with a heavy emphasis on born-digital archiving. Nevertheless, I feel my path to this work has been at least partly non-traditional in that it was a) initially unplanned and b) largely informed by projects outside formal graduate coursework (though my professors were always accommodating in allowing me to tie in such work to their courses where it made sense).

I came to the UT–Austin program as a literature major from the University of Mississippi with an emphasis on Shakespeare and creative writing. I had no intention of pursuing digital archiving work and was instead gunning for coursework in manuscript and codex conservation. It took a few months, but I realized I did not relish this type of work. There’s little point in relating the details here, but I think it’s sufficient to say that at times one simply doesn’t enjoy what one thought one would enjoy.

So, a change of direction in graduate school—not unheard of, right? I began looking into other courses and projects. One that stood out was a video game preservation IMLS grant project. I’ve always played video games, so why not? I was eventually able to serve as a graduate research assistant on this project while looking for other places at the school and around town that were doing this type of work.

One key find was a computer museum run out of the local Goodwill in Austin, which derived most of its collection from the electronics recycling stream processed of that facility. At that point, I already had an interest in and experience with old hardware and operating systems: I was fortunate enough to have a personal computer in the house growing up. That machine had a certain mystique that I wanted to explore. I read DOS for Dummies and Dan Gookin’s Guide to Underground DOS 6.0 cover to cover. I logged into bulletin board systems, scrounged for shareware games, and swapped my finds on floppy disk with another friend around the block. All of this is to say that I had a certain comfort level with computers before changing directions in graduate school.

I answered a call for volunteers at the computer museum and soon began working there. This gig would become the nexus for a lot of my learning and advancement with born digital materials. For example, the curator wanted a database for cataloging the vintage machines and equipment, so I learned enough PHP and MySQL to put together a relational database with a web frontend. (I expect there were far better solutions to the problem in retrospect, but I was eager to try and make things at the time. That same desire would play out far less well when I tried to make a version two of the database using the Fedora framework – an ill-conceived strategy from the start. C’est la vie.)

I and other students would also use equipment from the Goodwill museum to read old floppies. At the time BitCurator had not hit 1.0, and it seemed more expedient to simply run dd and other Unix utilities from a machine to which we had attached a floppy drive pulled from the Goodwill recycling stream. I learned a great deal about imaging through this work alone. Many of the interview transcripts for the Presidential Election of 1988 at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History were acquired in this way under the guidance of Dr. Patricia Galloway. Using vintage and ‘obsolescent’ machines from the Goodwill computer museum was not originally part of a plan to rescue archival material on legacy media, but Dr. Galloway recognized the value of such an exercise and formed the Digital Archeology Lab at UT–Austin. In this way, experimenting can open the door to new formal practices.

This experience and several other like it, were as instrumental as coursework in establishing my career path. With that in mind, I’ll break out a couple of guiding principles that I gleaned from this process.

1: Experiment and Learn Independently

I say this coming out of one of the top ten graduate programs in the field, but the books I checked out to learn PHP and MySQL were not required reading, and the database project wasn’t for coursework at all. Learning how to use a range of Unix utilities and write scripts for batch-processing files were also projects that required self-directed learning outside of formal studies. Volunteer work is not strictly required, but a bulk of what I learned was in service of a non-profit where I had the space to learn and experiment.

Despite my early background playing with computers I don’t feel that it ultimately matters. Provided you are interested in the field, start your own road of experimentation now and get over any initial discomfort with computers by diving in head first.

This, over and over

 

In other words, be comfortable failing. Learning in this way mean failing a lot—but failing in a methodical way. Moreover, when it is just you and a computer, you can fail at a fantastic rate that would appall your friends and family —but no one will ever know! You may have to break some stuff and become almost excruciatingly frustrated at one point or another. Take a deep breath and come back to it the next day.

2: Make Stuff That Interests You

All that experimenting and independent learning can be lonely, so design projects and outputs that you are excited by and want to share with others, regardless of how well it turns out. It helps to check out books, play with code, and bump around on the command line in service of an actual project you want to complete. Learning without a destination point you want to reach, however earnest, will inevitably run out of steam. While a given course may have its own direction and intention, and a given job position may have its own directives and responsibilities, there is typically a healthy latitude for a person to develop projects and directions that serve their interests and broadly align with the goals of the course or job.

Again, my own path has been fairly “traditional”—graduate studies in the field and volunteer gigs along with some part-time work to build experience. Even within this traditional framework however, experimenting, exploring projects outside the usual assignments, and independently embarking on learning whatever I thought I needed to learn have been huge benefits for me.

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Walker Sampson is the Digital Archivist at the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries where he is responsible for the acquisition, accessioning and description of born digital objects, along with the continued preservation and stewardship of all digital materials in the Libraries.