An Interview with Erin Barsan—Archives & Collections Information Consultant at Small Data Industries.

An Interview with Erin Barsan—Archives & Collections Information Consultant at Small Data Industries.

by Meghan Lyon

This is the seventh post in a new series of conversations between emerging professionals and archivists actively working with digital materials.

Photo credit: Small Data Industries.

Erin Barsan is a Consultant specializing in Archives & Collections Information at Small Data Industries, a private conservation lab and consultancy firm with a mission to “support and empower people to safeguard the permanence and integrity of the world’s artistic record.” She was the NDSR Art Resident (2017-2018) at Minneapolis Institute of Art, and obtained her MSLIS with an Advanced Certificate in Archives from Pratt Institute in 2015. Before attending Pratt, she studied graphic design and photography as an undergraduate at Columbia College Chicago.


I was interested in how Erin’s background in art influenced the direction of her graduate coursework and affects her style as a professional. During her BFA program, Erin learned critical thinking and analysis, visual literacy, and intentional decision-making—Erin had a professor who’s frequent critique was  “make no arbitrary decisions!” As an LIS student who’s primary interest was archives, Erin chose to study User Experience (UX), specifically Information Architecture. The principles of UX—designing with the end user in mind, putting yourself in their place, doing research before you design—have very much influenced her working style.

At Small Data Industries, Erin works closely with their clients to craft unique digital preservation and conservation strategies for institutions, private collectors, artists studios, and artist estates. While Erin was the NDSR Art Resident at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), she helped conceptualize and document a framework for managing and preserving the Museum’s collection of time-based media art. Day-to-day work of digital preservation includes using those visual literacy and UX principles to develop usable documents, employing LIS research skills to find new information, to learn how to complete a task, or to find people with expert skills that you may not have. Soft skills then come in handy to build relationships with those expert individuals.

In discussing some of the challenges of her work, Erin cited the importance of advocacy to combat the invisibility of digital work, and to educate and raise awareness of the ongoing action of preservation, i.e. nothing is every preserved, only being preserved. There is a great need to explain “complicated things in a very succinct way,” to foster support for preservation initiatives and build collaborative relationships with professionals in adjacent fields. Developing good communication skills is crucial to maintaining preservation programs within any institution. Prepare an elevator pitch to explain your job to someone outside the field, and be ready to describe digital archives and preservation in lay terms, and to share knowledge and encourage excitement about the archival endeavor.

The challenges of Erin’s work are also the rewards. As a consultant, Erin frequently works with new clients, and a preservation strategy that works well for one institution may fall flat for another. “In consulting, there’s a lot of similar problems, but every institution is different. It’s always interesting to try and take best-practices and standards and figure out how they can be applied in these unique situations.” For Erin, finding solutions to complex problems is rewarding since it often involves learning new skills and thinking creatively. She also enjoys helping to ensure that time-based media art and digital archives will be accessible and findable in the future, “I find it really gratifying to know that the work that I’m doing is going to make a difference—because I’ve seen the other side of the coin, when things get lost, and how easily information can be lost.”

For students and new professionals entering the field, Erin’s advice: “Get more internships. Everything that you learn in school is great, but hands-on experience is invaluable and is what will get you a job.” And although technical skills will help you get a job, once you’re on the job, soft skills become more important. Take advantage of the professional community, “we have a very generous community. A lot of times we can be reticent to reach out to other professionals in the field, but I know from experience that people want to help. So reach out!”

Share your experiences with your peers, find a way to connect to the larger community, and discuss what you’re learning or working on. This can be at whatever venue or capacity is comfortable for you, whether it’s presenting at conferences, tweeting, blogging, or something else. Keep abreast of what’s happening, join conversations, follow listservs, contribute to working groups. Invite and listen to other people’s perspectives. Finally, don’t be afraid to advocate for your professional development in the workplace. Imposter syndrome is real, don’t sell yourself and your experience short!


Meghan Lyon is completing the 1st year of her MSLIS degree program at Pratt Institute School of Information. She has a BFA from the Cooper Union, School of Art, and is interested in artist archives, museum libraries & collections, and digital preservation.

Midwest Archivists Conference 2019 meeting (MAC 2019)

by A.L. Carson

The Midwest Archivists Conference 2019 meeting, held April 3-6 in Detroit (in the GM Renaissance Center, which may have the distinction, with its concentric circle design, of being the most bewildering conference center I’ve ever been in), chose “Innovations, Transformation, Resurgence” as its theme. The organizers put out a call for participants to “consider the ways they have transformed their local communities and the world,” and it seemed to have struck a chord: the sessions reflected a sense of rootedness as well as a desire to increase and deepen connections between repositories, their holdings, the communities they represent, and (crucially) those they haven’t.

The programming took a broad perspective on the profession and practice of archives, giving space to multiple approaches and understandings of the work, from imposter syndrome to workflows, resulting in some really generative sessions. I attended a number of sessions focused on surfacing the histories of underserved and marginalized groups in the Midwest, notably “Together, We Make It: Making Collections Featuring Minority Groups More Accessible” and “Documenting the History of HIV/AIDS in the Midwest.”

Two standouts on the technical practice and electronic records side were “Computer-Assisted Appraisal of Electronic Records” and “Archival Revitalization: Transforming Technical Services with Innovative Workflows,” both of which were relevant to my (new) position as a processing archivist. For a play-by-play of some of these sessions, you can check out my MAC Twitter feed (yes, I live-tweet conferences). Both emphasized balancing competing priorities and unequal capacities, familiar themes for anyone working in archives. Leading off “Computer Assisted Appraisal,” Cal Lee reminded everyone that there was no such thing as a perfect machine system (which would remove the human labor from appraisal), and that the goal should never be to create one: that machines are tools, not agents. That emphasis on human action, particularly communicating across and about technological divides, was echoed again in “Archival Revitalization,” which focused on instances of implementation (new processes, tools, and workflows) that were made possible through and in turn assisted human collaboration. Both sessions, too, spoke to the importance of understanding iteration as an integral part of workflows (whether appraisal, processing, or providing access) rather than something to be engineered out of a process.

Thanks to scholarship and grant programs (of which we can always have more), a number of paraprofessionals and short-term or project archivists were able to attend and present, which enriched the programming significantly. There was a strong showing from the regional LIS students, both in their poster session on Friday and the general programming. Having just started my position at Iowa State, this was my first MAC; it was also my first time in Detroit, and overall I was favorably impressed. While the conference center itself is a marvel of hostile architecture (which made literal accessibility a real and not-to-be-downplayed challenge), the intellectual content of the presentations and general attitude of the attendees made it a fairly easy space in which to be a newcomer.

A.L. Carson is a processing archivist at Iowa State University, where they are engaged in developing processing, preservation, and access guidelines for digital records as well as increasing the availability of the traditional collections.