Philly Born Digital Access Bootcamp

by Faith Charlton

As Princeton University Library’s Manuscripts Division processing team continues to move forward in terms of managing its born-digital materials, much of its focus as of late has been on providing access to this content (else, why preserve it?). So, the timing of the Born Digital Access bootcamp that was held in Philadelphia this past summer was very opportune. Among other takeaways, it was helpful and comforting to learn how other institutions are grappling with the issue of providing or restricting access in relation to what Princeton is currently doing.  

The bootcamp, led by Alison Clemens from Yale and Greg Weideman from SUNY Albany, was well-organized and very informative; and I really appreciate how community-driven and participatory this initiative is, down to the community notes prepared by one of its organizers,Rachel Appel who was in attendance. I also appreciated that the content provided a holistic and comprehensive approach to access, including reinforcement of the fact that the ability to provide access to born-digital materials starts at the point of record creation; and that once implemented, the effectiveness of the means by which institutions are providing access should be determined through frequent user testing.

One point in particular that Alison and Greg emphasized that stood out to me is how the discovery of born-digital content is often almost as difficult as the delivery of that content. This was exemplified during the user testing portion of the bootcamp where attendees had the opportunity to interact with several discovery platforms that describe and/or provide access to digital records. The testing demonstrated that the barriers that remain in terms of locating and accessing digital content are still fairly significant.

The issues surrounding discovery and delivery are something that archivists at Princeton are trying to manage and improve upon. For example, I’m part of two working groups that are tackling these issues from different angles: the Description and Access to Born Digital Archival Collections and the User Experience working groups. The latter has started to embark on both formal and informal user testing of our finding aids site. One aspect that we’re paying particular attention to is the ease with which users can locate and access digital content. I had the opportunity to contribute one of Princeton’s finding aids as a use case for the user testing portion of the workshop; and received helpful feedback, both positive and negative, from bootcamp attendees about the description and delivery methods found on our site. Although one can access the digital records from this collection, there are some impediments in actually viewing the files; namely, one would have to download a program like Thunderbird in order to view the mbox file of emails, a fact that’s not evident to the user.     

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Technical Services archivists at Princeton are also collaborating with colleagues in Public Services and Systems to determine how we might best provide various methods of access to our born-digital records. Because much of the content in Manuscripts Division collections is (at the moment) restricted due to issues related to copyright, privacy, and donor concerns, we’re trying to determine how we can provide mediated access to content both on and off-site. I was somewhat relieved to learn that, like Princeton, many institutions represented at the bootcamp are still relying on non-networked “frankenstein” computers in the reading room as the only other means of providing access aside from having content openly available online. Hopefully Princeton will be able to provide better forms of mediated access in the near future as we intend to implement a pilot version of networked access in the reading room for various forms of digital content, including text, image, and AV files. The next step could be to implement a “virtual reading room” where users can access content via authentication. As these initiatives are realized, we’ll continue to conduct user testing to make sure that what we’re providing is actually useful to patrons. Princeton staff look forward to continuing to participate in the initiatives of the Born Digital Access group as a way to both learn from and share our experiences with this community.    


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Faith Charlton is Lead Processing Archivist for Manuscripts Division Collections at Princeton University Library. She is a certified archivist and holds an MLIS from Drexel University, an MA in History from Villanova University, and a BA in History from The College of New Jersey.

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