Sarah Barsness: Digital Archivist’s Manual

When I joined the staff of the Minnesota Historical Society, the institution was in the process of morphing from a series of special projects to a programmatic approach to digital collecting.  The two archivists who held my position before me laid an excellent foundation for a sustainable program, and I was tasked with continuing the work they started.  I decided that I ought to kick things off by creating a manual for my job, to be written in between collections work and other projects.  

As you might imagine, the process was painfully slow.  Each time I began to think I was nearing the end, something would change.  Staff retired, departments were reorganized, or systems were upgraded — I began to despair ever creating an actual finished product.  My many drafts also chart the change and growth of our communities of practice; the constantly evolving work of my fellow archivists, conservationists, and digital specialists of all stripes has profoundly shaped each version of this document.  

Despite all this change, each iteration of this manual has expanded upon a few core ideas that  have remained central to my approach:

  1. What if we treat digital collections just like we do any other collection that has preservation concerns?  What does that look like?  What tools and skills will be needed to support that approach?
  2. What if we assume that most details of the work will change regularly? Staffing, systems, workloads, formats collected, personal skill levels, even department organizations all change.  How can we structure this work to be maximally flexible?
  3. How can we make a framework to guide decisions for each collection, and to help the institution navigate more fundamental changes to the program over time?

The manual I began nearly seven years ago still isn’t finished in any traditional sense, but I’ve decided that’s how it ought to be.  Change is constant, and just because something isn’t static doesn’t mean it’s not ready to be used or shared.  I hope that you find this document useful, and if you have feedback, ideas, or your own manuals that you’d like to share with me (finished or not), I sincerely hope you do.

Sarah Barsness has been the Digital Collections Archivist at the Minnesota Historical Society for nearly 7 years, where she works with staff across the institution to process, store, preserve, and provide access to digital collections.  Sarah has worked previously at the Wisconsin Historical Society and at Cargill Corporate Archives.  For tweets about digital archives and Dungeons & Dragons, follow her on Twitter @SarahRBarsness.

2 thoughts on “Sarah Barsness: Digital Archivist’s Manual

  1. Tamar January 27, 2021 / 7:56 am

    Much gratitude for sharing the ongoing fruits of your department’s thinking on this front! I am always searching for guidance in how to effectively anticipate and bake in flexible and extensive processes.


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