Improving Descriptive Practices for Born-Digital Material in an Archival Context

by Annie Tummino

In 2014/15 I worked at the New York Metropolitan Library Council (METRO) as the Project Manager for the National Digital Stewardship Residency (NDSR) program in New York City, providing administrative support for five fantastic digital stewardship projects. While I gained a great deal of theoretical knowledge during that time, my hands-on work with born digital materials has been fairly minimal. When I saw that METRO was offering a workshop on “Improving Descriptive Practices for Born-Digital Material in An Archival Context” with Shira Peltzman, former NDSR-NY resident (and currently Digital Archivist for UCLA Library Special Collections), I jumped at the opportunity to sign-up.

For the last two years I have served as the archivist at SUNY Maritime College, working as a “lone arranger” on a small library staff. My emphasis has been on modernizing the technical infrastructure for our special collections and archives. We’ve implemented ArchivesSpace for collections management and are in the process of launching a digital collections platform. However, most of my work with born-digital materials has been of a very controlled type; for example, oral histories and student photographs that we’ve collected as part of documentation projects. While we don’t routinely accession born-digital materials, I know the reckoning will occur eventually. A workshop on descriptive practices seemed like a good place to start.

Shira emphasized that a great deal of technical and administrative metadata is captured during processing of born-digital materials, but not all of this information should be recorded in finding aids. Part of the archivist’s job is figuring out which data is meaningful for researchers and important for access. Quoting Bertram Lyons, she also emphasized that possessing a basic understanding of the underlying “chemistry” of digital files will help archivists become better stewards of born-digital materials. To that end, she started the day with a “digital deep dive” outlining some of this underlying digital chemistry, including bits and bytes, character encoding, and plain text versus binary data. This was followed by an activity where we worked in small groups to analyze the interdependencies involved in finding, retrieving, and rendering the contents of files in given scenarios. The activity definitely succeeded in demonstrating the complexities involved in processing digital media, and provided an important foundation for our subsequent discussion of descriptive practice.

The following bullets, pulled directly from Shira’s presentation, succinctly summarize the unique issues archivists face when processing born digital materials:

  • Processing digital material often requires us to (literally) transform the files we’re working with
  • As stewards of this material, we must be prepared to record, account for, and explain these changes to researchers
  • Having guidelines that helps us do this consistently and uniformly is essential

The need for transparency and standardization were themes that came up again and again throughout the day.

To deal with some of the special challenges inherent in describing born-digital materials, a working group under the aegis of the UC Born-Digital Content Common Knowledge Group (CKG) has developed a UC-wide descriptive standard for born-digital archival material. The elements map to existing descriptive standards (DACS, EAD, and MARC) while offering additional guidance for born-digital materials where gaps exist. The most up-to-date version is on GitHub, where users can make pull requests to specific descriptive elements of the guidelines if they’d like to propose revisions. They have also been deposited in eScholarship, the institutional repository for the UC community.

Working in small groups, workshop participants took a closer look at the UC guidelines, examining particular elements, such as Processing Information; Scope and Content; Physical Description; and Extent. Drawing from our experience, we investigated differences and similarities in using these elements for born-digital materials in comparison to traditional materials. We also discussed the potential impacts of skipping these elements on the research process. We agreed that lack of standardization and transparency sows confusion, as researchers often don’t understand how born-digital media can be accessed, how much of it there is, or how it relates to the collection as a whole.

For our final activity, each group reviewed a published finding aid and identified at least five ways that the description of born-digital materials could be improved in the finding aid. The collections represented were all hybrid, containing born-digital materials as well as papers and other analog formats. It was common for the digital materials to be under-described, with unclear access statuses and procedures. The UC guidelines were extremely helpful in terms of generating ideas for improvements. However, the exercise also led to real talk about resource limitations and implementation. How do born-digital materials fit into an MPLP context? What do the guidelines mean for description in terms of tiered or efficient processing? No solid answers here, but great food for thought.

On the whole, the workshop was a great mix of presentation, discussion, and activities. I left with some immediate ideas to apply in my own institution. I hope more archivists will have opportunities to take workshops like this one and will check out the UC Guidelines.


Tummino Picture

Annie Tummino is the Archivist & Scholarly Communications Librarian at SUNY Maritime College, where she immerses herself in maritime special collections and advocates for Open Access while working in a historic fort by the sea. She received her Masters in Library and Information Studies and Archives Certificate from Queens College-CUNY in December, 2010.

One thought on “Improving Descriptive Practices for Born-Digital Material in an Archival Context

  1. aldenwolf14 February 26, 2019 / 9:07 am

    Hi Annie, that was a fantastic workshop. I am trying to remember the software that they introduced to use, allowing for a bit by bit examination of material (it had this pretty “cool” visualization component)…do you happen to remember?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s