Recap: BitCurator Users Forum, October 24-25, 2019

The fifth annual BitCurator Users Forum was held at Yale University from October 24-25, bringing library, archives, and museum practitioners together to learn and discuss many aspects of digital forensics work. Over two days of workshops, lightning talks, and panels, the Forum covered a range of topics around acquisition, processing, and access for born digital materials. In addition to traditional panels and conference sessions, attendees also participated in hands-on workshops on digital forensics techniques and tools, including the BitCurator environment.

Throughout the workshops, sessions, and discussions, one of the most dominant themes to emerge was the question of how archivists and institutions should address the environmental unsustainability of digital preservation. Attendees were quick to highlight recent work in this area, including the article Toward Environmentally Sustainable Digital Preservation by Keith L. Pendergrass, Walker Sampson, Tim Walsh, and Laura Alagna among others. The prevalence of this topic at the Forum as well as other conferences and in our professional literature points to urgency that archivists feel toward ensuring that we are able to continue to preserve our digital holdings while minimizing negative environmental impact as much as possible.

The role of appraisal in relation to the environmental sustainability of digital preservation specifically was a major focus of the Forum. One attendee remarked that the “low cost of storage has outpaced the ability to appraise content,” summing up the situation that many institutions find themselves in, where the ever decreasing cost of digital storage, anxiety about discarding potentially valuable collection material, and a lack of time and guidance on appraisal of digital materials has resulted in the ballooning of their digital holdings.

Participants challenged the notion that “keeping everything forever” should be our default preservation strategy. One common thread to emerge was the need to be more thoughtful about what we choose to retain and to develop and share appraisal criteria for born digital materials to help us make those decisions.

Also related to concerns about the environmental impact of digital preservation, presenters posed questions about how much data and related metadata for digital collections should be captured in the first place. Kelsey O’Connell, digital archivist at Northwestern University, proposed defining levels of digital forensics rather than applying the same workflow to every collection. Taking this type of approach to acquisition and metadata creation for born digital collection materials could help institutions minimize the storage of unnecessary collection data.

The BitCurator Users Forum provides an excellent opportunity for library and archives practitioners to learn new skills and discuss the many challenges and opportunities in the field of digital archiving. This year’s Forum was no exception and I have no doubt that it will continue to serve as a valuable resource for experienced practitioners as well as those just starting out.

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Sally DeBauche is a Digital Archivist at Stanford University and the ePADD Project Manager.

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