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.
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.