Laying Out the Horizon of Possibilities: Reflections on Developing the OSSArcFlow Guide to Documenting Born-Digital Archival Workflows

by Alexandra Chassanoff and Hannah Wang


OSSArcFlow (2017-2020) was an IMLS-funded grant initiative that began as a collaboration between the Educopia Institute and the University of North Carolina School of Library and Information Science. The goal of the project was to investigate, model, and synchronize born-digital curation workflows for collecting institutions who were using three leading open source software (OSS) platforms – BitCurator, Archivematica and ArchivesSpace. The team recruited a diverse group of twelve partner institutions, ranging from a state historical society to public libraries to academic archives and special collections units at large research universities and consortia.

OSSArcFlow partners at in-person meeting in Chapel Hill, NC (December 2017)
Creator: Educopia Institute

Early on in the project, it became clear that many institutions were planning for and carrying out digital preservation activities ad hoc rather than as part of fully formed workflows. The lack of “best practice” workflow models to consult also seemed to hinder institutions’ abilities to articulate what shape their ideal workflows might take. Creating visual workflow diagrams for each institution provided an important baseline from which to compare and contrast workflow steps, tools, software, roles, and other factors across institutions. It also played an important, if unexpected, role in helping the project team understand the sociotechnical challenges underlying digital curation work. While configuring systems and processing born-digital content, institutions make many important decisions – what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and why – that influence the contours of their workflows. These decisions and underlying challenges, however, are often hidden from view, and can only be made visible by articulating and documenting the actions taken at each stage of the process. Similarly, while partners noted that automation in workflows was highly desirable, the documented workflows revealed the highly customized local implementations at each institution, which prevented the team from writing generalizable scripts for metadata handoffs that could apply to more than one institution’s use case.

Another unexpected but important pivot in the project was a shift towards breakout group discussions to focus on shared challenges or “pain points” identified in our workflow analysis. For partners, talking through shared challenges and hearing suggested approaches proved immensely helpful in advancing their own digital preservation planning. Our observation echoes similar findings by Clemens et al. (2020) in “Participatory Archival Research and Development: The Born-Digital Access Initiative,” who note that “the engagement and vulnerability involved in sharing works in progress resonates with people, particularly practitioners who are working to determine and achieve best practices in still-developing areas of digital archives and user services.” These conversations not only helped to build camaraderie and a community of practice around digital curation, but also revealed that planning for more mature workflows seemed to ultimately depend on understanding more about what was possible.

Overall, our research on the OSSArcFlow project led us to understand more about how gaps in coordinated work practices and knowledge sharing can impact the ability of institutions to plan and advance their workflows. These gaps are not just technical but also social, and crucially, often embedded in the work practices themselves. Diagramming current practices helps to make these gaps more visible so that they can be addressed programmatically. 

At the same time, the use of research-in-practice approaches that prioritize practitioner experiences in knowledge pursuits can help institutions bridge these gaps between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow.  As Clements et al. (2020) point out, “much of digital practice itself is research, as archivists test new methods and gather information about emerging areas of the field.” Our project findings show a significant difference between how the digital preservation literature conceptualizes workflow development and how boots-on-the-ground practitioners actually do the work of constructing workflows. Archival research and development projects should build in iterative practitioner reflections as a component of the R&D process, an important step for continuing to advance the work of doing digital preservation.  

Initially, we imagined that the Implementation Guide we would produce would focus on strategies used to synchronize workflows across three common OSS environments. Based on our project findings, however, it became clear that helping institutions articulate a plan for digital preservation through shared and collaborative documentation of workflows would provide an invaluable resource for institutions as they undertake similar activities. Our hope in writing the Guide to Documenting Born-Digital Archival Workflows is to provide a resource that focuses on common steps, tools, and implementation examples in service of laying out the “horizon of possibilities” for practitioners doing this challenging work.  

The authors would like to recognize and extend immense gratitude to the rest of the OSSArcFlow team and the project partners who helped make the project and its deliverables a success. The Guide to Documenting Born-Digital Archival Workflows was authored by Alexandra Chassanoff and Colin Post and edited by Katherine Skinner, Jessica Farrell, Brandon Locke, Caitlin Perry, Kari Smith, and Hannah Wang, with contributions from Christopher A. Lee, Sam Meister, Jessica Meyerson, Andrew Rabkin, and Yinglong Zhang, and design work from Hannah Ballard.


Alexandra Chassanoff is an Assistant Professor at the School of Library and Information Sciences at North Carolina Central University. Her research focuses on the use and users of born-digital cultural heritage. From 2017 to 2018, she was the OSSArcFlow Project Manager. Previously, she worked with the BitCurator and BitCurator Access projects while pursuing her doctorate in Information Science at UNC-Chapel Hill. She co-authored (with Colin Post and Katherine Skinner) the Guide to Documenting Born-Digital Archival Workflows.    

Hannah Wang is currently the Project Manager for BitCuratorEdu (IMLS, 2018-2021), where she manages the development of open learning objects for digital forensics and facilitates a community of digital curation educators. She served as the Project Manager for the final stage of OSSArcFlow and co-edited the Guide to Documenting Born-Digital Archival Workflows.

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