By Walker Sampson
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.
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.
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.