Just do it: Building technical capacity among Princeton’s Archival Description and Processing Team

by Alexis Antracoli

This is the fifth post in the bloggERS Making Tech Skills a Strategic Priority series.

ArchivesSpace, Archivematica, BitCurator, EAD, the list goes on! The contemporary archivist is tasked with not only processing paper collections, but also with processing digital records and managing the descriptive data we create. This work requires technical skills that archivists twenty or even ten years ago didn’t need to master. It’s also rare that archivists get extensive training in the technical aspects of the field during their graduate programs. So, how can a team of archivists build the skills they’ll need to meet the needs of an increasingly technical field? At the Princeton University Library, the newly formed Archival Description and Processing Team (ADAPT), is committed to meeting these challenges by building technical capacity across the team. We are achieving this by working on real-world projects that require technical skills, and by leveraging existing knowledge and skills in the organization, seeking outside training, and championing supervisor support for using time to grow our technical skills.

One of the most important requirements for growing technical capacity on the processing team is supervisor support for the effort. Workshops, training, and solving technical problems take a significant amount of time. Without management support for the time needed to develop technical skills, the team would not be able experiment, attend trainings, or practice writing code. As the manager of ADAPT, I make this possible by encouraging staff to set specific goals related to developing technical skills on their yearly performance evaluations; I also accept that it might take us a little longer to complete all of our processing. To fit this work into my own schedule, I identify real-world problems and block out time on my schedule to work on them or arrange meetings with colleagues who can assist me. Blocking out time in advance helps me stick to my commitment to building my technical skills. While the time needed to develop these skills means that some work happens more slowly today, the benefit of having a team that can manipulate data and automate processes is an investment in the future that will result in a more productive and efficient processing team.

With the support to devote time to building technical skills, ADAPT staff use a number of resources to improve their skills. Working with internal staff who already have skills they want to learn has been one successful approach. This has generally paired well with the need to solve real-world data problems. For example, we recently identified the need to move some old container information to individual component-level scope and content notes in a finding aid. We were able to complete this after several in-house training sessions on XPath and XQuery taught by a Library staff member. This introductory training helped us realize that the problem could be solved with XQuery scripting and we took on the project, while drawing on the in-house XQuery expert for assistance. This combination of identifying real-world problems and leveraging existing knowledge within the organization leads both to increased technical skills and projects getting done. It also builds confidence and knowledge that can be more easily applied to the next situation that requires a particular kind of technical expertise.

Finally, building in-house expertise requires allowing staff to determine what technical skills they want to build and how they might go about doing it. Often that requires outside training. Over the past several years, we have brought workshops to campus on working with the command line and using the ArchivesSpace API. Staff have also identified online courses and classes offered by the Office of Information Technology as important resources for building their technical skills. Providing support and time to attend these various trainings or complete online courses during the work day creates an environment where individuals can explore their interests and the team can build a variety of technical skills that complement each other.

As archival work evolves, having deeper technology skills across the team improves our ability to get our work done. With the right support, tapping into in-house resources, and seeking out additional training, it’s possible to build increased technological capability with the processing team. In turn, the team will increasingly be able to more efficiently tackle day-to-day technical challenges needed to manage digital records and descriptive data.


Alexis Antracoli is Assistant University Archivist for Technical Services at Princeton University Library where she leads the Archival Processing and Description Team. She has published on web archiving and the archiving of born-digital audio visual content. Alexis is active in the Society of American Archivists, where she serves as Chair of the Web Archiving Section and on the Finance Committee. She is also active in Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia, an informal group of local archivists who work on projects that engage issues at the intersection of the archival profession and the Black Lives Matter movement. She is especially interested in applying user experience research and user-center design to archival discovery systems, developing and applying inclusive description practices, and web archiving. She holds an M.S.I. in Archives and Records Management from the University of Michigan, a Ph.D. in American History from Brandeis University, and a B.A. in History from Boston College.

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