In the lead-up to the 2020 BitCurator Users Forum, the session I looked forward to the most was titled “GREAT QUESTION!”. This was a returning session from the 2019 BitCurator conference, and was an opportunity for attendees to anonymously ask digital preservation questions they might not be comfortable asking otherwise. The session showed that no question was too “simple” or “basic” to be worth discussing, and that no matter where you are as a practitioner, there’s always more to learn.
Last year’s session was at the very end of the forum, and ended things on a fun note. Attendees could submit questions anonymously at any point in the conference, and moderators presented these questions for discussion until the session ended. Most of the questions turned into discussions about tools, methods, perspectives, and professional philosophies in a way that made these topics accessible and exciting. It was reassuring to see how much we’re still collectively figuring out as a field, and that sometimes digital preservation work is less about best practices, and more about adapting those practices so they work for you and your institution.
This year’s session, like the rest of the forum, took place over Zoom. The format didn’t change much from last year, aside from switching to a virtual session and adding more ways to answer questions. Question submissions went to a queue visible to the moderators, as well as an Airtable board where everyone could see both questions and answers. This allowed attendees to see and respond to other questions while the main conversation addressed questions one at a time. Questions in the response queue were prioritized through progressive stacking, a technique that gives priority to marginalized voices. In this case, there was a box on the question submission form which attendees could check if they were part of a group historically underrepresented or marginalized in digital preservation spaces (e.g. attendees of color, LGBTQ attendees). Submissions with this box checked were discussed first.
Attendees could submit answers anonymously via Airtable, answer verbally on Zoom, or respond in the chat. Further discussion (and chatter) happened both out loud and in the chat It was fun and conversational, but never chaotic. Question topics ranged from virus scanning and fixity checking, to tool recommendations and workload distribution. There were also questions about advocating for digital preservation, the ethical issues inherent in using law enforcement-derived tools for digital archives work, and handling the emotional toll of doing this work in the current moment. Each question sparked thoughtful, informative, and sometimes funny responses, and the option to submit written answers allowed attendees to keep answering questions after the session ended. The question submission form was left open as well, in case anyone thought of a question once the session was over.
Everyone seemed to get a lot out of the experience, and several people mentioned wanting to do something like it at future conferences, or on a regular basis. It was heartening to see that others had the same questions I did; it really emphasized how much we’re all still learning, and how important it is to have a community of fellow practitioners you can rely on and share ideas with. I liked how casual the session felt; since we used the chat in addition to speaking out loud and answering questions via Airtable, it was easier to expand on a point, talk about what worked, and commiserate about what didn’t. This made it a lot less intimidating to jump into the discussion; no one was staring at you, and you weren’t the only person speaking, you were just chatting with colleagues who had the same kinds of experiences, questions, and problems as you. I’m looking forward to seeing more conference sessions like this in the future, and hope to see similar ones in other venues.
Tori Maches is the Digital Archivist at UC San Diego Library. Her work currently includes developing and implementing born-digital processing workflows in Special Collections & Archives, and managing the Library’s overall web archiving work.