Spotlight: Interview with Tessa Walsh, Artefactual

bloggERS! is always proud to see our community of archivists learn new skills and progress to new roles that further not just their own careers, but also advance the systems and infrastructures that make up the digital preservation and electronic resources environment. Back in February, Artefactual announced a new hire and we knew we had to get the scoop. Here’s an interview with digital preservationist, Tessa Walsh (@bitarchivist), about her new role and how she has made an impact in the digital preservation landscape.

1. What is your role at Artefactual? What are you doing there now and into the future?

My job title is Software Developer. I spend most of my time on software development-related tasks like programming, reviewing other developers’ code, providing estimates and requirements analyses, writing documentation, helping with client support tasks, and providing training for external developers who want to contribute to Artefactual’s open source projects Archivematica and AtoM, for example through Artefactual’s new Archivematica Product Support Program

Artefactual re-organized internally a few months ago and I am on the Project Development Team, a new group within the company that is focused on fixed term work—things like new feature development, data migrations, theming, analysis, and consulting. I work on many feature development projects, where we implement new Archivematica or AtoM features that are sponsored by clients and then include and support those new features in future public releases of the software. I write code, tests, and documentation, working closely with a systems archivist who manages communication with the client, refines the requirements for the project, and does quality assurance.

In some recent projects we’ve turned those requirements into “feature files” using the Gherkin syntax that can be used as the basis for automated tests. These automated tests help us improve and maintain Archivematica as a project, even as we make some big scalability and performance improvements that involve touching many parts of the codebase. I might also work with other developers and systems archivists, product managers, systems administrators, and others between the original idea for a feature and its inclusion in a public release. So far, I’ve mostly worked with Archivematica, but I’m looking forward to getting more familiar with AtoM as well.

2. What makes you interested in working with software development for digital preservation and archives?

In part, it’s that this niche is such a great confluence of many of my interests. I’m an archivist by training and I’m invested in carrying the cultural record forward with us for future generations and uses. I’ve also been a computer nerd for about as long as I can remember and find a lot of satisfaction in taking software apart and putting it together. In many ways I think my career has been about finding the right balance of these interests and putting myself where I can best contribute to the field of digital preservation. I want to make common digital preservation and curation tasks easier for people doing the work so that they can focus on the most challenging and important parts of their job, whether that’s figuring out a preservation approach for a difficult file format or doing the policy and advocacy work to firmly establish digital preservation as a core activity within an organization.

I started learning software development in earnest during my MLIS program at Simmons College and in the years after as Digital Archivist at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) from 2015-2018. This was motivated by personal interest for sure, but was also a reaction to my situation. As I worked on building the digital preservation program at the CCA and later at Concordia University Library, I kept hitting walls where tools I wanted for some basic preservation and curation functions didn’t exist. Or, where tools did exist but were borrowed from other fields and not built with archival users and use cases in mind.

Then and since, when I’ve run into this type of situation and had capacity, I’ve tried to make some of those missing tools and share them with the broader community as free and open source software. By way of example:

  • Brunnhilde, inspired by a similar project by my Artefactual colleague Ross Spencer, was a response to wanting a user-friendly high-level profiling tool for directories and disk images to help with appraisal, accessioning, and minimal processing.

Screenshots from Brunhilde GUI (left) and HTML report (right).

Screenshots from Brunhilde GUI (left) and HTML report (right).
  • METSFlask resulted from wanting to make it easier for me and others to browse through our Archivematica METS files and get details about the contents of our AIPs without having to read through very large XML files manually.
METSFlask interface
METSFlask interface
  • SCOPE, a collaboration of Artefactual and the CCA, started from a desire to let users browse and search through processed digital holdings, leveraging the descriptive and technical metadata in our finding aids and Archivematica, and download DIPs directly onto a reading room workstation for access without needing to go through complicated reference workflows.
SCOPE landing page. Source: Stewart, Kelly & Stefana Breitwieser. 2019. “SCOPE: A Digital Archives Access Interface.” The Code4Lib Journal, no. 43 (February).
SCOPE landing page. Source: Stewart, Kelly & Stefana Breitwieser. 2019. “SCOPE: A Digital Archives Access Interface.” The Code4Lib Journal, no. 43 (February).
  • Bulk Reviewer developed out of conversations at the BitCurator Users Forum a few years ago about wanting to improve workflows for identifying and managing sensitive information in digital archives by making better use of bulk_extractor reports.
screenshot of Bulk Reviewer interface
Bulk Reviewer

As I got better as a developer, I also started to feel more comfortable contributing to bigger open source projects like Archivematica. Being a maintainer myself has really taught me the value of managing open source projects through well-organized communities, via companies like Artefactual that work hand-in-hand with users and member organizations like the BitCurator Consortium or Open Preservation Foundation.

3. Can you tell us about one project you’re working at Artefactual and why it’s exciting for you?

Right now I’m working on a couple new Archivematica features sponsored by Simon Fraser University Archives that I’m excited about, but I’m most excited about a relatively small change: an addition we’re making to the Archivematica transfer interface that allows users to choose the processing configuration they’d like to use with a transfer from a convenient dropdown list. In terms of lines of code this is a tiny feature but it will be a huge user experience improvement for one of the most common tasks for a large number of Archivematica users. I love projects like that because they get to the heart of my desire to make our tools easier and more pleasant to use.

4. What has been the easiest part of transitioning to working at Artefactual?

By far one of the best and easiest things about starting to work at Artefactual has been how well the company’s values and working practices align with my own. Artefactual embraces open source, “open by default”, and erring on the side of more communication, which are all important values for me as well. And, within the company, everyone is so nice and encouraging of each other. I came out as a trans woman recently, and started using they/them pronouns in the months leading up to coming out. Since day one I’ve gotten nothing but respect from my colleagues, and they have been so kind and supportive in relation to my transition. That really goes a long way to making the work week enjoyable!

It’s also so fun to work with other people who like me have one foot in software development land and another in archives and digital preservation. Other “developer-archivist” folks like Ashley Blewer and Ross Spencer, certainly, but not just the three of us. Since Artefactual attracts smart and curious people, many of my colleagues have both domain and technical expertise in lots of different areas that you might not necessarily expect from their job title alone. I’m learning new things from my new coworkers all the time and really enjoying that.

5. What has been the most difficult part of transitioning to working at Artefactual?

Starting a new job in the time of COVID-19 quarantine is strange and difficult. Artefactual has been flexible and generous with its employees in relation to the pandemic and it was my plan from the outset to work remotely from home, so I’ve been less disrupted than many others. But—as I try to remind myself and the people around me regularly—I’m still a human living through collective trauma in relative isolation. I’m not as productive as I normally would be and some days I never quite break through the attendant anxiety and grief. And that’s okay! We’re all doing the best we can in these times, and hopefully trying to take care of ourselves and uplift and help each other out as much as we can.

6. Can you recommend any tips to current archivists who want to get into the computational side of archiving/preservation?

This is a question I get a lot, especially from students and new professionals. I don’t think there are “right” answers, but here are some points that I come back to often:

  • Start with a project, not a technology: You’ll be much more motivated to learn if you’re working toward something that you care about. Yes, read that book or take that online class, but try to apply what you learn to something that interests you or will make something you have to do often easier. For new digital archivists, investing in learning some command line and bash or Python scripting basics can go a long way toward starting to automate repetitive workflows. If that sounds too boring, start by trying to make some digital art or a fun website, and then figure out how to apply it to your professional life later on (or not!).
  • Work in the open, invite feedback: Put your code on GitHub or Gitlab or another git hosting site with an open source license, write and present about what you’re doing, ask for help on Twitter or by email, be friendly and helpful with others.
  • Be patient with yourself: Learning new technology/programming languages is hard and non-linear and occasionally frustrating. When I get stuck on something in my work or learning, I often have to remind myself to step away, take a walk, get some sleep, and give my brain time to come around. 99% of the time when I do that, I end up being able to move past the issue much more quickly than if I just kept staring at it in frustration. And remember: even the most senior developers stop constantly to read the documentation or look up for the thousandth time what the syntax to do x is in a particular language. That’s the nature of the work, not a sign of your skill or aptitude.

7. Where do you see the future of digital preservation going?

I really hope that the future of digital preservation is more inclusive. By that, I mean less intimidating to new professionals, more embracing of new types of organizations and communities outside of the traditional “cultural heritage” bubble, and more diverse and inclusive as a community of practitioners. The archives, library, and digital preservation professions are very white. Bergis Jules spoke about the need to “confront the unbearable whiteness of our profession” in his 2016 NDSA keynote “Confronting Our Failure of Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives,” which should be required reading for anyone working in archives and digital preservation. Michelle Caswell reminded us again last year in her “Whose Digital Preservation?” keynote at iPRES 2019 that this is to the detriment of us all. We collectively and individually lose a lot (not least of which a representative, inclusive, justice-oriented historical record) when our professions are so homogenous. It’s also true that tech-focused “digital” positions that often come with higher salaries are disproportionately filled by men. I think a key part of moving digital preservation forward is addressing some of these structural issues around who is doing the work and how they are treated, by implementing better practices in our organizations, acknowledging and working to dismantle white supremacy in our personal spheres, and promoting and financing groups such as We Here, who support BIPOC archives and library workers.

I also want the future of digital preservation to be more sustainable. I co-authored a paper in a recent issue of American Archivist with Keith Pendergrass, Walker Sampson, and Laura Alagna, in which we suggest changes to our collective thinking around appraisal, permanence, and availability that could help move our profession toward a more sustainable future. We believe that responsibly preserving our cultural record for the future means doing our best not to contribute to trends that existentially threaten that future. I’ve been so happy to see that many of our colleagues in the field agree and have said that they plan to start explicitly considering environmental sustainability as a factor in digital preservation policies and in decisions on appraisal, file format migration policies, fixity checking practices, storage systems and providers, and methods of delivery, and other areas of our practice.

This isn’t a novel observation, but I think the future of digital preservation work is also going to be focused much more on software and dynamic web-based content, and less on static discrete documents that we can preserve natively as files. This is going to challenge us on technical, organizational, and theoretical levels, but I think it’ll be a great catalyst for growing our conceptual models and software tools in digital preservation and for promoting and proving the value of digital preservation broadly. And, I’m so happy there are folks like the Software Preservation Network who are anticipating these changes and doing a great job of laying the cultural, technological, and legal groundwork to prepare us for that future.

7. How do you pronounce “guymager”?

I say “GAI-mager” out of habit, since that’s what I first heard. But, I think that it’s named after its creator, who is French, so it really should be “GHEE-mager”. Considering the number of hours I’ve put into learning French since moving to Montréal in 2015, I should really do better!

profile photo of a person, Tessa,  wearing a floral shirt

Tessa Walsh is a Software Developer at Artefactual Systems. Previously, Tessa implemented digital preservation programmes at Concordia University Library and the Canadian Centre for Architecture as a Digital Preservation Librarian and Digital Archivist, respectively. She is a recipient of a 2019 NDSA Individual Innovation Award and was a 2018 Summer Fellow at the Library Innovation Lab at Harvard University. Tessa holds an MS in Library and Information Science from Simmons University and a BA in English from the University of Florida. In addition to her work at Artefactual, Tessa is the maintainer of several free and open source software projects that support digital preservation and curation activities, including BrunnhildeBulk Reviewer, and METSFlask.

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