Hybrid like Frankenstein, but not helpful like a Spork

By Gabby Redwine

This is the third post in the bloggERS series on Archiving Digital Communication.


The predictions have come true: acquisitions of born-digital materials are on the rise, and for the foreseeable future many of these collections will include a combination of digital and analog materials. Working with donors prior to acquisition can help a collecting body ensure that the digital archives it receives fall within its collecting scope in terms of both format and content. This holds true for institutional repositories, collecting institutions of all sorts, and archives gathered and stored by communities and individuals rather than institutions. Donors sometimes can provide insight into how born-digital items in an acquisition relate to each other and to non-digital materials, which can be particularly helpful with acquisitions containing a hybrid of paper and born-digital correspondence.

I’ve helped transfer a few acquisitions containing different kinds of digital correspondence: word processing documents, email on hard drives and in the cloud, emails saved as PDFs, email mailboxes in archived formats, and others. Often the different formats represent an evolution in a person’s correspondence practices over time and across the adoption of different digital technologies. Just as often, a subset of these different types of digital correspondence are duplicated in analog form.

Examples include:

  • Letters originally written in word processing software that also exist as print-outs with corrections and scribbles, not to mention the paper copy received (and perhaps retained in some other archive) by the recipient.
  • Email that has been downloaded, saved, printed, and stored alongside analog letters.
  • An acquisition that includes email as the only correspondence after a particular date, all of which is downloaded and saved as individual PDF files, but only the most important ones are printed and stored among paper records.
  • Email folders received annually from staff with significant duplication in content.
  • Tens of thousands of emails stored in the cloud which have been migrated across different clients/hosts over the last 20 years, some with different foldering and labeling practices.

When the time comes to transfer all or some of this to an archives, the donor and the collecting body must make decisions about what, if anything, is important to include and how to represent the relationship between the different correspondence formats. Involvement with donors early on can be incredibly beneficial, but it can also cause a significant drain on staff resources, particularly in one-person shops.

What is the minimum level of support staff can provide to every donor with digital materials? What are levels of service that could be added in particular circumstances—for example, when a collection is of particular value or a donor requires additional technological support? And how can staff ensure that the minimum level of service provided doesn’t inadvertently place an undue burden on a donor—for example, someone who may not have the resources to hire technological support or might not like to ask for help—that results in important materials being excluded from the historical record?

At the staff end, hybrid correspondence files also raise questions about whether and how to identify both paper and digital duplicates (is it worth the effort?), whether and how to dispose of them (is it worth the time and documentation?), and at what point in the process this work can realistically take place. Many of the individual components of hybrid correspondence archives seem familiar and perhaps even basic to archivists, but once assembled they present challenges that resemble a more complex monster—one that perhaps not even the creator can explain.

I’m writing from the perspective of someone who has been involved with hybrid collections primarily at the acquisition and accessioning end of the spectrum. If any readers have an example of an archival collection in which the hybrid nature of the materials has been helpful (like a Spork!), perhaps during arrangement & description or even to a researcher, please share your experience in the comments.


Gabby Redwine is Digital Archivist at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale.

One thought on “Hybrid like Frankenstein, but not helpful like a Spork

  1. Kirsty Cox October 9, 2017 / 9:24 pm

    Thanks for the blog! I work at the Alexander Turnbull Library (National Library of New Zealand). I’ve had to deal with this almost every time (at varying levels) when working on hybrid collections but particularly literary papers. They are always a nightmare as possible duplication of drafts (and drafts of drafts etc.) in the end we decided it isn’t worth the effort to ‘weed’ out the duplicates in most instances.

    Also sometimes the duplication is a reflection on the creators state of mind. For instance, several years ago I processed a hybrid collection of a writer who suffered dementia. It was incredibly confusing collection to process as the digital component is where his illness became more apparent and how ‘disorganised’ his brain was becoming.

    Like

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