“A Trial by Fire Process”: Digital Archiving at the State Historical Society of Missouri (Interview with Elizabeth Engel)

This is the fourth post in the Conversations series

Founded in 1898, the State Historical Society of Missouri (SHSMO) “collect[s], preserve[s], publish[es], exhibit[s], and make[s] available material related to all aspects and periods of Missouri history” (The State Historical Society of Missouri, “About Us”). Supporting this mission is a large staff that includes thirty-five full-time and twelve part-time employees, two research fellows, and a large number of volunteers and interns who work in one of SHSMO’s six Research Centers (The State Historical Society of Missouri, “About Us”). My interviewee, Senior Archivist Elizabeth Engel, serves at the Columbia Research Center on the University of Missouri campus. Elizabeth and her colleagues work to make SHSMO’s collections (e.g. the National Women and Media Collection) accessible to a wide variety of patrons, including film creators, reporters, and researchers from all walks of life.

Elizabeth’s entry into the archival field was due partly to happenstance. After enrolling in the University of Iowa’s (UI) School of Information Science, Elizabeth expected to work in public libraries—especially because she had worked in similar settings during her high school and college years. However, she seized upon an opportunity to complete a work-study assignment at the Iowa Women’s Archives (at the University of Iowa) and promptly discovered a passion for archives. After graduating from UI in 2006, SHSMO initially hired her as a Manuscript Specialist—and the rest is, well, history (The State Historical Society of Missouri, “SHSMO Staff”). As the senior archivist for the Columbia Research Center, Elizabeth’s day-to-day work involves processing collections; fulfilling various public services responsibilities, and developing biographical histories of Missouri’s most well-known citizens. Her greatest responsibility, however, is overseeing the Columbia Research Center’s accessioning efforts—particularly as it pertains to digital content.

Elizabeth’s Research Center has seen a marked increase in the amount of born-digital material that it takes in each year. This point is exemplified by SHSMO’s recent acquisition of Senator Claire McCaskill’s papers, which consists of approximately 3.25 cubic feet AND two terabytes of data. To tackle the challenges of managing such content, Elizabeth and her staff have employed a variety of tactics and tools. While MPLP-inspired collection-level descriptions have sufficed for physical collections, Elizabeth noted that digital content requires a more in-depth description for access and preservation purposes. Elizabeth’s work on other projects—such as the processing of the Missouri Broadcasters Association Radio Archives Collection—reinforced the importance of flexibility, as exemplified by her arrangement tactics (recordings are organized by call sign, and further accruals are added to the end of the finding aid) and description efforts (“some of the file names were in ALL CAPS and I decided to retain that for the time being as well…perhaps it will aid in retrieval).

This theme of flexibility emerged when Elizabeth discussed the different digital archiving tools that SHSMO staff have employed: Duke University’s DataAccessioner and Microsoft Excel spreadsheets (to create and organize metadata); various storage spaces, including network attached storage (NAS) units and a dark archive (both of which are accessible only to certain staff); thumb drives, used to deliver content to patrons; a Microsoft Access database, which serves as the institution’s collection management system; and BitCurator, which SHSMO staff set up to tackle larger and more complex collections (e.g. Senator McCaskill’s papers). Overall, effectively and efficiently managing these digital resources has been “a [constant] trial by fire process,” given the somewhat volatile nature of the digital archives field. In the future, Elizabeth hopes that SHSMO will adopt more user-friendly and compatible software—such as Archivematica and/or Access to Memory (AtoM)—to fulfill its mission. In fact, Elizabeth emphasized that finding such tools—especially cost-effective tools—represents one of the greater challenges facing modern archivists.

For the aspiring digital archivist, Elizabeth recommended seeking out practice-focused learning opportunities. To complement her largely theoretical UI coursework, Elizabeth completed the Digital Archives Specialist (DAS) certificate; scans the field for published literature; and engages in other professional development efforts. She further recommended the workshops provided by Lyrasis as another opportunity to deepen one’s digital preservation knowledge. Elizabeth explained that the twenty-first-century digital archivist must remain flexible and commit to continual learning to stay on top of the field’s recent developments. She also emphasized that these same professionals must also be given sufficient time to learn and experiment with tools and workflows.

Before we digitally parted ways, Elizabeth offered one final and—in this writer’s opinion—exceptionally solid advice:

“You’re going to make mistakes and that’s okay. The DAS courses drilled it into me that ‘Doing something is better than nothing.’ Standards/tools are going to change and you can’t predict that. Sometimes all you can do is digital triage with the resources/time you have, so don’t let the doing things perfectly be the enemy of the good.”



Gentry_Photo_2018.jpgAuthor Bio: Steven Gentry is the Archives Technician for the St. Mary’s College of Maryland Archives. His responsibilities include processing collections and building finding aids; assisting with web and email archiving efforts; and researching tools and best practices pertaining to digital archives and electronic records.

 


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