Integrating Environmental Sustainability into Policies and Workflows

by Keith Pendergrass

This is the first post in the BloggERS Another Kind of Glacier series.


Background and Challenges

My efforts to integrate environmental sustainability and digital preservation in my organization—Baker Library Special Collections at Harvard Business School—began several years ago when we were discussing the long-term preservation of forensic disk images in our collections. We came to the conclusion that keeping forensic images instead of (or in addition to) the final preservation file set can have ethical, privacy, and environmental issues. We decided that we would preserve forensic images only in use cases where there was a strong need to do so, such as a legal mandate in our records management program. I talked about our process and results at the BitCurator Users Forum 2017.

From this presentation grew a collaboration with three colleagues who heard me speak that day: Walker Sampson, Tessa Walsh, and Laura Alagna. Together, we reframed my initial inquiry to focus on environmental sustainability and enlarged the scope to include all digital preservation practices and the standards that guide them. The result was our recent article and workshop protocol.

During this time, I began aligning our digital archives work at Baker Library with this research as well as our organization-wide sustainability goals. My early efforts mainly took the form of the stopgap measures that we suggest in our article: turning off machines when not in use; scheduling tasks for off-peak network and electricity grid periods; and purchasing renewable energy certificates that promote additionality, which is done for us by Harvard University as part of its sustainability goals. As these were either unilateral decisions or were being done for me, they were straightforward and quick to implement.

To make more significant environmental gains along the lines of the paradigm shift we propose in our article, however, requires greater change. This, in turn, requires more buy-in and collaboration within and across departments, which often slows the process. In the face of immediate needs and other constraints, it can be easy for decision makers to justify deprioritizing the work required to integrate environmental sustainability into standard practices. With the urgency of the climate and other environmental crises, this can be quite frustrating. However, with repeated effort and clear reasoning, you can make progress on these larger sustainability changes. I found success most often followed continual reiteration of why I wanted to change policy, procedure, or standard practice, with a focus on how the changes would better align our work and department with organizational sustainability goals. Another key argument was showing how our efforts for environmental sustainability would also result in financial and staffing sustainability.

Below, I share examples of the work we have done at Baker Library Special Collections to include environmental sustainability in some of our policies and workflows. While the details may be specific to our context, the principles are widely applicable: integrate sustainability into your policies so that you have a strong foundation for including environmental concerns in your decision making; and start your efforts with appraisal as it can have the most impact for the time that you put in.

Policies

The first policy in which we integrated environmental sustainability was our technology change management policy, which controls our decision making around the hardware and software we use in our digital archives workflows. The first item we added to the policy was that we must dispose of all hardware following environmental standards for electronic waste and, for items other than hard drives, that we must donate them for reuse whenever possible. The second item involved more collaboration with our IT department, which controls computer refresh cycles, so that we could move away from the standard five-year replacement timeframe for desktop computers. The workstations that we use to capture, appraise, and process digital materials are designed for long service lives, heavy and sustained workloads, and easy component change out. We made our case to IT—as noted above, this was an instance where the complementarity of environmental and financial sustainability was key—and received an exemption for our workstations, which we wrote into our policy to ensure that it becomes standard practice.

We can now keep the workstations as long as they remain serviceable and work with IT to swap out components as they fail or need upgrading. For example, we replaced our current workstations’ six-year-old spinning disk drives with solid state drives when we updated from Windows 7 to Windows 10, improving performance while maintaining compliance with IT’s security requirements. Making changes like this allows us to move from the standard five-year to an expected ten-year service life for these workstations (they are currently at 7.5 years). While the policy change and subsequent maintenance actions are small, they add up over time to provide substantial reductions in the full life-cycle environmental and financial costs of our hardware.

We also integrated environmental sustainability into our new acquisition policy. The policy outlines the conditions and terms of several areas that affect the acquisition of materials in any format: appraisal, agreements, transfer, accessioning, and documentation. For appraisal, we document the value and costs of a potential acquisition, but previously had been fairly narrow in our definition of costs. With the new policy, we broadened the costs that were in scope for our acquisition decisions and as part of this included environmental costs. While only a minor point in the policy, it allows us to determine environmental costs in our archival and technical appraisals, and then take those costs into account when making an acquisition decision. Our next step is to figure out how best to measure or estimate environmental impacts for consistency across potential acquisitions. I am hopeful that explicitly integrating environmental sustainability into our first decision point—whether to acquire a collection—will make it easier to include sustainability in other decision points throughout the collection’s life cycle.

Workflows

In a parallel track, we have been integrating environmental sustainability into our workflows, focusing on the appraisal of born-digital and audiovisual materials. This is a direct result of the research article noted above, in which we argue that focusing on selective appraisal can be the most consequential action because it affects the quantity of digital materials that an organization stewards for the remainder of those materials’ life cycle and provides an opportunity to assign levels of preservation commitment. While conducting in-depth appraisal prior to physical or digital transfer is ideal, it is not always practical, so we altered our workflows to increase the opportunities for appraisal after transfer.

For born-digital materials, we added an appraisal point during the initial collection inventory, screening out storage media whose contents are wholly outside of our collecting policy. We then decide on a capture method based on the type of media: we create disk images of smaller-capacity media but often package the contents of larger-capacity media using the bagit specification (unless we have a use case that requires a forensic image) to reduce the storage capacity needed for the collection and to avoid the ethical and privacy issues previously mentioned. When we do not have control of the storage media—for network attached storage, cloud storage, etc.—we make every attempt to engage with donors and departments to conduct in-depth appraisal prior to capture, streamlining the remaining appraisal decision points.

After capture, we conduct another round of appraisal now that we can more easily view and analyze the digital materials across the collection. This tends to be a higher-level appraisal during which we make decisions about entire disk images or bagit bags, or large groupings within them. Finally (for now), we conduct our most granular and selective appraisal during archival processing when processing archivists, curators, and I work together to determine what materials should be part of the collection’s preservation file set. As our digital archives program is still young, we have not yet explored re-appraisal at further points of the life cycle such as access, file migration, or storage refresh.

For audiovisual materials, we follow a similar approach as we do for born-digital materials. We set up an audiovisual viewing station with equipment for reviewing audiocassettes, microcassettes, VHS and multiple Beta-formatted video tapes, multiple film formats, and optical discs. We first appraise the media items based on labels and collection context, and with the viewing station can now make a more informed appraisal decision before prioritizing for digitization. After digitization, we appraise again, making decisions on retention, levels of preservation commitment, and access methods.

While implementing multiple points of selective appraisal throughout workflows is more labor intensive than simply conducting an initial appraisal, several arguments moved us to take this approach: it is a one-time labor cost that helps us reduce on-going storage and maintenance costs; it allows us to target our resources to those materials that have the most value for our community; it decreases the burden of reappraisal and other information maintenance work that we are placing on future archivists; and, not least, it reduces the on-going environmental impact of our work.


Keith Pendergrass is the digital archivist for Baker Library Special Collections at Harvard Business School, where he develops and oversees workflows for born-digital materials. His research and general interests include integration of sustainability principles into digital archives standard practice, systems thinking, energy efficiency, and clean energy and transportation. He holds an MSLIS from Simmons College and a BA from Amherst College.

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