Systems Thinking Started Me on My Path

By Jim Havron

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This is the fourth post in the bloggERS! series Digital Archives Pathways, where archivists discuss the non-traditional, accidental, idiosyncratic, or unique paths they took to become a digital archivist.

I am apparently a systems thinker. When I view an event, problem, or task, I study how it affects other things with which it connects, the processes it involves, potential repercussions and unintended consequences, how it came to be and why. I learned early in life to question statements and strenuously evaluate the evidence supporting or opposing them. This made me an excellent competition debater, since although the topic resolution to be debated was already known, the team wasn’t told whether they would debate for or against it until 30 minutes prior to the debate. This required the ability to see different views on the topic and different ways of interpreting evidence. The importance of evidence in the “big picture” and ongoing processes led me to eventually become an archivist. The big picture of archives today also led me to cybersecurity or InfoSec in IT/IS.

Early Skills and Experiences

My path to archives, and particularly to electronic records in archives, was not a straight one. I originally started college to double major in math and physics. I left school before completing my degrees, and developed other professional skills and experiences. These skills in management, logistics, legacy technology, and communication all became part of my views on and approach to seeing more than an archives-eye view of electronic record production and preservation. They helped to shape my course through school when I returned and allowed me to “sell” my skills to increase experience. I feel one should always take a look at one’s full inventory of experience when one is tackling a task that has ever-changing parameters.

Silos, Collaborative Silos, Venn Views

I was already aware that professional people tended to operate what we refer to now as silos. Many professionals, despite knowledge of peripheral fields, have a core training and set of experiences that strongly define their identity in their professions. I saw many professions as series of overlapping fields. Seeing things as parts of systems, I often pursued tasks that were not usually combined in an efficient manner. 

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Alternative Professional Path

I continued my self-education on technology. My experience had taught me that the vast majority of records were being generated in electronic formats and were not being saved for historical value. Archivists I encountered, working primarily with paper, seemed unconcerned, IT professionals didn’t understand historical value, and the people who generated the records didn’t see value that would offset resources needed for such preservation. When I started my graduate work to become an archivist, I did so with the plan of continuing on into computer information systems (CIS). This field augmented traditional IT with business knowledge and skills. I intended to combine the fields to gain new insights.

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I had several experiences and revelations that helped drive my work:

  • A survey I did in school showed that over 70% of surveyed researchers would prefer access to electronic versions of records online (very unusual and controversial at the time) than more electronic finding aids. However, 100% of surveyed archivists believed researchers would prefer the finding aids.
  • I once (within the last decade) made the statement that repositories that were not online were pretty much invisible. I was literally called a “heretic.”
  • My primary field is security and assurance. I found professionals working with digital assets in libraries promoted very insecure products and techniques.
  • Even IT is not a universal profession and has its own silos.
  • I realized that archivists still have not accepted most records are in databases, requiring preservation of much more information than the data fields.
  • Many born digital records in archives are just electronic representations of documents that can be turned into hard copies.
  • Archivists I know tend to trust the vendor, the person whose job it is to sell the product, when selecting technology to keep records safe over time, not the security professional.
  • Many archivists turn their electronic records over to departments that they do not control, with ever changing personnel and budgets, with unknown security or disaster recovery measures, and frequently unknown storage locations, but feel as long as they can access the records, the archivist has control.
  • The cloud is a vague, poorly understood term, with different, ever changing meanings, yet is often the first choice for record preservation.

The biggest problem and motivation in security and preservation is people.

 

Lessons Learned

Some primary points learned in selecting a path into a career with electronic records preservation and access:

#1 Step back and look at the picture. Is there a special problem or area of need where you have a passion, special skills, or both? Do you have skills that you can use that are different or rare?

#2 Never believe that archives, or for that matter IT, exists in a bubble. The creators of the records will drive the technology.

#3 The easy way to deal with electronic records is often the least secure.

 #4 Technology changes faster than most people imagine, so knowledge and skill acquisition never stops.

#5 There is a desperate yet unrecognized need for people who understand the business function that drives the creation of electronic records, what technology is involved, and yet also can judge the historic value of such records.

For me, #5 is what it is all about.

Below is a diagram I did for my mother to help her understand how I had gotten from one place to another, and what the reasons were for my learning and doing special things. It may be confusing without narration, but it gives an idea of my ongoing pathway. It starts with experience and “Imported [into this process] Resources” and moves to working as “Cultural Heritage Cyber Preservation”.

Path to Professina Vocation

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Havron_working_for_onceJim Havron grew up in a family of historians and lawyers, as well as spending time on a debate team, so he learned how easily evidence can be overlooked or misinterpreted. In a professional life that stretched from technology to business to first responder, he discovered that many professionals do not understand the evidentiary value of information created, used, stored or needed by other professionals, let alone how to best rescue and preserve it. His education, professional training, and experience in archives and information systems security have given him opportunities to study this situation from different professional views and apply his skills to archives and heritage issues that involve computer systems and security

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Call for Contributors: Archiving Digital Communications Series

Archives have long collected correspondence, but as communication has shifted to digital platforms, archivists must discover and develop new tools and methods.  From appraising one massive inbox to describing threaded messages, email has introduced many new challenges to the way we work with correspondence. Likewise, instant messaging, text messaging, collaborative online working environments, and other forms of digital communication have introduced new challenges and opportunities.

We want to hear how you and your institution are managing the acquisition, appraisal, processing, preservation and access to these complex digital collections.  Although the main focus of most programs is email, we’re also interested in hearing how you manage other formats of digital communication as well.

We’re interested in real-life solutions by working archivists: case studies, workflows, any kind of practical work with these collections describing the challenges of  the archival processes to acquire, preserve, and make accessible email and other forms of digital communication.

A few potential topics and themes for posts:

  • Evaluating tools to acquire and process email
  • Case studies on archiving email and other forms of digital communication
  • Integrating practices for digital correspondence with physical correspondence
  • Addressing privacy and legal issues in email collections
  • Collaborating with IT departments and donors to collect email

Writing for bloggERS!

  • Posts should be between 200-600 words in length
  • Posts can take many forms: instructional guides, in-depth tool exploration, surveys, dialogues, point-counterpoint debates are all welcome!
  • Write posts for a wide audience: anyone who stewards, studies, or has an interest in digital archives and electronic records, both within and beyond SAA
  • Align with other editorial guidelines as outlined in the bloggERS! guidelines for writers.

Experimenting and Digressing to the Digital Archivist Role

By Walker Sampson

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This is the third post in the bloggERS! series Digital Archives Pathways, where archivists discuss the non-traditional, accidental, idiosyncratic, or unique paths they took to become a digital archivist.

On the surface, my route to digital preservation work was by the book: I attended UT–Austin’s School of Information from 2008–2010 and graduated with a heavy emphasis on born-digital archiving. Nevertheless, I feel my path to this work has been at least partly non-traditional in that it was a) initially unplanned and b) largely informed by projects outside formal graduate coursework (though my professors were always accommodating in allowing me to tie in such work to their courses where it made sense).

I came to the UT–Austin program as a literature major from the University of Mississippi with an emphasis on Shakespeare and creative writing. I had no intention of pursuing digital archiving work and was instead gunning for coursework in manuscript and codex conservation. It took a few months, but I realized I did not relish this type of work. There’s little point in relating the details here, but I think it’s sufficient to say that at times one simply doesn’t enjoy what one thought one would enjoy.

So, a change of direction in graduate school—not unheard of, right? I began looking into other courses and projects. One that stood out was a video game preservation IMLS grant project. I’ve always played video games, so why not? I was eventually able to serve as a graduate research assistant on this project while looking for other places at the school and around town that were doing this type of work.

One key find was a computer museum run out of the local Goodwill in Austin, which derived most of its collection from the electronics recycling stream processed of that facility. At that point, I already had an interest in and experience with old hardware and operating systems: I was fortunate enough to have a personal computer in the house growing up. That machine had a certain mystique that I wanted to explore. I read DOS for Dummies and Dan Gookin’s Guide to Underground DOS 6.0 cover to cover. I logged into bulletin board systems, scrounged for shareware games, and swapped my finds on floppy disk with another friend around the block. All of this is to say that I had a certain comfort level with computers before changing directions in graduate school.

I answered a call for volunteers at the computer museum and soon began working there. This gig would become the nexus for a lot of my learning and advancement with born digital materials. For example, the curator wanted a database for cataloging the vintage machines and equipment, so I learned enough PHP and MySQL to put together a relational database with a web frontend. (I expect there were far better solutions to the problem in retrospect, but I was eager to try and make things at the time. That same desire would play out far less well when I tried to make a version two of the database using the Fedora framework – an ill-conceived strategy from the start. C’est la vie.)

I and other students would also use equipment from the Goodwill museum to read old floppies. At the time BitCurator had not hit 1.0, and it seemed more expedient to simply run dd and other Unix utilities from a machine to which we had attached a floppy drive pulled from the Goodwill recycling stream. I learned a great deal about imaging through this work alone. Many of the interview transcripts for the Presidential Election of 1988 at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History were acquired in this way under the guidance of Dr. Patricia Galloway. Using vintage and ‘obsolescent’ machines from the Goodwill computer museum was not originally part of a plan to rescue archival material on legacy media, but Dr. Galloway recognized the value of such an exercise and formed the Digital Archeology Lab at UT–Austin. In this way, experimenting can open the door to new formal practices.

This experience and several other like it, were as instrumental as coursework in establishing my career path. With that in mind, I’ll break out a couple of guiding principles that I gleaned from this process.

1: Experiment and Learn Independently

I say this coming out of one of the top ten graduate programs in the field, but the books I checked out to learn PHP and MySQL were not required reading, and the database project wasn’t for coursework at all. Learning how to use a range of Unix utilities and write scripts for batch-processing files were also projects that required self-directed learning outside of formal studies. Volunteer work is not strictly required, but a bulk of what I learned was in service of a non-profit where I had the space to learn and experiment.

Despite my early background playing with computers I don’t feel that it ultimately matters. Provided you are interested in the field, start your own road of experimentation now and get over any initial discomfort with computers by diving in head first.

This, over and over

 

In other words, be comfortable failing. Learning in this way mean failing a lot—but failing in a methodical way. Moreover, when it is just you and a computer, you can fail at a fantastic rate that would appall your friends and family —but no one will ever know! You may have to break some stuff and become almost excruciatingly frustrated at one point or another. Take a deep breath and come back to it the next day.

2: Make Stuff That Interests You

All that experimenting and independent learning can be lonely, so design projects and outputs that you are excited by and want to share with others, regardless of how well it turns out. It helps to check out books, play with code, and bump around on the command line in service of an actual project you want to complete. Learning without a destination point you want to reach, however earnest, will inevitably run out of steam. While a given course may have its own direction and intention, and a given job position may have its own directives and responsibilities, there is typically a healthy latitude for a person to develop projects and directions that serve their interests and broadly align with the goals of the course or job.

Again, my own path has been fairly “traditional”—graduate studies in the field and volunteer gigs along with some part-time work to build experience. Even within this traditional framework however, experimenting, exploring projects outside the usual assignments, and independently embarking on learning whatever I thought I needed to learn have been huge benefits for me.

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Walker Sampson is the Digital Archivist at the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries where he is responsible for the acquisition, accessioning and description of born digital objects, along with the continued preservation and stewardship of all digital materials in the Libraries.

 

Playful Work: Media Carriers and Computers

By Tracy Popp

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This is the second post in the bloggERS! series Digital Archives Pathways, where archivists discuss the non-traditional, accidental, idiosyncratic, or unique paths they took to become a digital archivist.

Geek and Poke Cartoon, "How to Save your Digital Work for Posterity? Alternative 1: Put it on a Disc"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although I am not by title a Digital Archivist, I work very closely with our University Archives and other special collections units to make born-digital content accessible and available for processing. So, how did I get to be the first Digital Preservation Coordinator at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and what does that mean? Let me illuminate that through interpretive dance…no, wait. I’ll just tell you via the parts I *think* have contributed to my ending up here. Dance isn’t something I picked up along the way.

I’ve had a fascination with media carriers and digital stuff since childhood. When I was elementary school age, I recall spending time in the Southfield, MI Public Library loading up the microfilm machine to scroll through various newspapers committed to the reel. Was I engaged in some sort of deep historical research as a seven-year-old that required I review these polyester rolls for pertinent info? Nope. I seem to recall the process of loading the machine and staring at an illuminated screen while I scrolled through words and pictures engaging in and of itself. Little did I know how much of that I’d be doing later in life…

Through a varied avenue I found myself moving toward a career path in libraries and archives – one that I had not previously considered. I have a BFA in Photography and Intermedia, which, at the time, was the term used for making digital artwork. Concurrently, I picked up a Computer Information Systems minor after finding that building, breaking and rebuilding computer systems in my spare time also proved an engaging way to support myself.

By working on a visual resources project for an Art History professor where I converted slides and cleaned up images in PhotoShop, to a visit to the Conservation Lab at the Eastman House in Rochester, NY and via other library-related activities, I found my way to graduate school at GSLIS (now the iSchool) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. There, I had graduate assistant experiences in audiovisual media and visual resources and worked on a pilot project to recover content from legacy born-digital media. My understanding of computer storage media as well as familiarity with a range of operating systems and types of digital content served as a bedrock on this project. I also had the opportunity to build a digital forensics computing workstation and amaze colleagues with the ability to raise files from the dead with my magical powers. My present position reflects this culmination of education and desire to explore and apply a variety of experiences.

As the digital archives landscape is continually evolving, keeping up with professional organizations and meetings is incredibly important. Notably, I completed a Digital Archives Specialist certificate through the Society of American Archivists and recently attended the born-digital archives exchange at Stanford which was an excellent opportunity to meet with colleagues engaged in digital archives. A range of online resources are helpful too, such as the BloggERS! blog, the BitCurator Google group and myriad tech forums dedicated to solving hardware and software challenges.

Through experience I’ve learned to not be timid about thoroughly investigating hardware and software – modern computer systems aren’t as fragile as one may think – although static electricity can shut things down pretty quickly, so ground yourself. Hands on work is essential to understanding and continued learning. Presently, I’m deep into “breaking” a Linux system which has motivated me to learn command line tools for filtering, scripting and system administration. I’ve also lost personal data and learned the hard way about working with copies, making backups and the fallibility of computer media. So, before you experiment with content make sure it’s not the only copy, of course.   🙂

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Tracy Popp serves as Digital Preservation Coordinator at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. As part of her duties she manages the Born-Digital Reformatting Lab and works closely with Library and Archives colleagues to manage and preserve digital collections.

Digital Archivist in Disguise

By Amber D’Ambrosio

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This is the first post in the bloggERS! series Digital Archives Pathways, where archivists discuss the non-traditional, accidental, idiosyncratic, or unique paths they took to become a digital archivist.

 

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This is the warning I’ve received at every conference and workshop since I started graduate school coursework in archives. When I applied for my current position as Processing Archivist & Records Manager, I knew that digital archiving was involved at some level because the job responsibilities included archiving the university’s website. There was also some discussion of digital archiving during the in-person interview, which made me wary.

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Prior to this position my experience with digital archiving consisted of a brief introduction to the home-grown system used by the Utah State Archives and some basic information about checksums and multiple copies in multiple locations. My previous position was at a small state university without the infrastructure, funding, or staffing to undertake any kind of digital archiving beyond saving digitized material in multiple places with occasional validation checks by the systems librarian. The closest I came to digital archiving was downloading important records off of the university website to the backed up shared drive used by the library.

I’m still within the first five years of my career as a librarian/archivist, and I remember my graduate program offered a single course on digital records management. I didn’t take it because I didn’t necessarily want to be a records manager, and I wasn’t terribly interested in digital archiving.  As an English major, I assumed that I didn’t have the technical knowledge base to make it a viable option anyway.

memebetter.com-20170622101037But here I am. Undercover digital archivist. I’m a digital archivist by necessity because the archives and records I process and manage as part of my job sometimes show up on hard drives and legacy media. I’m also responsible for archiving the website. How did I do it? How did I go from some vague idea of checksums and LOCKSS to undercover digital archivist? I read. A lot. Fortunately, my institution invested in Archive-It for archiving the website and ArchivesDirect (hosted Archivematica) for managing the bulk of the digital preservation activities. I read all of their documentation. I started reading bloggERS! and about the Bentley Historical Library’s Mellon-funded ArchivesSpace-Archivematica-DSpace Workflow Integration project. My predecessor created a preliminary workflow and processing manual based on the early attempt to self-host Archivematica, so I read that and tried to understand it all.

I started attending the Society of American Archivists’ Digital Archivist Specialist certificate courses being offered in this region. I talked to our systems team. I read some more. I looked up terminology on Wikipedia. I took more DAS courses, some of which were more helpful than others. I figured out the gaps in the workflow.

Do I feel like a digital archivist after all of that? Not really. I still feel like something of an imposter.memebetter.com-20170622095504

memebetter.com-20170622102324After all, I don’t get to do much digital archiving in the grand scheme of my job. It’s challenging to find time to focus on processing the digital material through our workflow because it is time consuming. For all that we have ArchivesDirect, there’s proper stewardship to consider prior to ingest into Archivematica. I have gradually added steps into the workflow, including verifying fixity when copying from media to our digital processing drive and when copying from that drive to the secure file transfer protocol provided by ArchivesDirect. There are also the inevitable technical hiccups that happen whenever systems are involved. Human errors play a role as well, like that time someone sent me a duplicate of their entire hard drive before they left their job with no warning or explanation of its contents.

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What have I learned? I can be a digital archivist if I have to be, and command line isn’t as intimidating as it always seemed. I learned the basics of the command line interface from our digital asset management librarian combined with the Internet and trial and error. I wouldn’t claim to have even intermediate knowledge of command line, but not being intimidated by it makes digital archiving much easier. Being a digital archivist seems to be mostly a willingness and ability to constantly reassess, learn, adapt, and try something else.

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Amber D’Ambrosio is Processing Archivist & Records Manager at Willamette University, a small, urban liberal arts college in Salem, Oregon, where she manages the collections and wrangles ArchivesSpace and Archivematica. In her spare time she writes, reads about early modern London, hikes, travels, and obsessively visits the Oregon Coast.

 

Inaugural #bdaccess Bootcamp: A Success Story

By Margaret Peachy

This post is the nineteenth in a bloggERS series about access to born-digital materials.

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At this year’s New England Archivists Spring Meeting, archivists who work with born-digital materials had the opportunity to attend the inaugural Born-Digital Access Bootcamp. The bootcamp was an idea generated at the born-digital hackfest, part of a session at SAA 2015, where a group of about 50 archivists came together to tackle the problem facing most archival repositories: How do we provide access to born-digital records, which can have different technical and ethical requirements than digitized materials?  Since 2015, a team has come together to form a bootcamp curriculum, reach out to organizations outside of SAA, and organize bootcamps at various conferences.

Excerpt of results from a survey administered in advance of the Bootcamp.

Alison Clemens and Jessica Farrell facilitated the day-long camp, which had about 30 people in attendance from institutions of all sizes and types, though the majority were academic. The attendees also brought a broad range of experience to the camp, from those just starting out thinking about this issue, to those who have implemented access solutions.

Continue reading

A Case Study in Failure (and Triumph!) from the Records Management Perspective

By Sarah Dushkin

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This is the sixth post in the bloggERS series #digitalarchivesfail: A Celebration of Failure.

I’m the Records Coordinator for a global energy engineering, procurement, and construction  contractor, herein referred to as the “Company.” The Company does design, fabrication, installation, and commissioning of upstream and downstream technologies for operators. I manage the program for our hard copy and electronic records produced from our Houston office.

A few years ago our Records Management team was asked by the IT department to help create a process to archive digital records of closed projects created out of the Houston office. I saw the effort as an opportunity to expand the scope and authority of our records program to include digital records. Up to this point, our practice only covered paper records, and we asked employees to apply the paper record policies to their own electronic records.

The Records Management team’s role was limited to providing IT with advice on how to deploy a software tool where files could be stored for a long-term period. We were not included in the discussions on which software tool to use. It took us over a year to develop the new process with IT and standardize it into a published procedure. We had many areas of triumph and failure throughout the process. Here is a synopsis of the project.

Objective:
IT was told that retaining closed projects files on the local server was an unnecessary cost and was tasked with removing them. IT reached out to Records Management to develop a process to maintain the project files for the long-term in a more cost-effective solution that was nearline or offline, where records management policies could be applied.

Vault:
The software chosen was a proprietary cloud-based file storage center or “vault.” It has search, tagging, and records disposition capabilities. It is more cost-effective than storing files on the local server.

Process:
At 80% project completion, Records Management reaches out to active projects to discover their methods for storing files and the project completion schedule. 80% engineering completion is an important timeline for projects because most of the project team is still involved and the bulk of the work is complete. Records Management also gains knowledge of the project schedule so we can accurately apply the two-year timespan to when the files will be migrated off the local server and to the vault.  The two-year time span was created to ensure that all project files would be available to the project team during the typical warranty period. Two years after a project is closed, all technical files and data are exported from the current management system and ingested into the vault, and access groups are created so employees can view and download the files for reference as needed.

Deployment:
Last year, we began to apply the process to large active projects that had passed 80% engineering completion. Large projects are those that have greater than 5 million in revenue.

Observations:
Recently we have begun to audit the whole project with IT, and are just now identifying our areas of failure and triumph. We will conduct an analysis of these areas and assess where we can make improvements.

Our big areas of failure were related to stakeholder involvement in the development, deployment, and utilization of the vault.

Stakeholders, including the Records Management team, were not involved in the selection or development of the vault software tool. As a result, the vault development project lacked the resources required to make it as successful as possible.

In the deployment of the vault, we did not create an outreach campaign with training courses that would introduce the tool across our very large company. Due to this, many employees are still unaware of the vault. When we talk with departments and projects about methods to save old files for less money they are reluctant to try the solution because it seems like another way for IT to save money from their budget without thinking about the greater needs of the company. IT is still viewed as a support function that is inessential to the Company’s philosophy.

Lastly, we did not have methods to export project files from all systems for ingest into the vault; nor did we, in North America, have the authority to develop that solution. To be effective, that type of decision and process can only be developed by our corporate office in another country. The Company also does not make information about project closure available to most employees. A project end date can be determined by several factors, including when the final invoice was received or the end of the warranty period. This type of information is essential to the information lifecycle of a project, and since we had no involvement from upper level management, we were not able to devise a solution for easily discovering this information.

We had some triumphs throughout the process, though. Our biggest triumph is that this project gave Records Management an opportunity to showcase our knowledge of records retention and its value as a method to save money and maintain business continuity. We were able to collaborate with IT and promulgate a process. It gave us a great opportunity to grow by harnessing better relationships with the business lines. Although some departments and teams are still skeptical about the value of the vault, when we advertise it to other project teams, they see the vault as evidence that the Company cares about preserving their work. We earned our seat at the table with these players, but we still have to work on winning over more projects and departments. We’ve also preserved more than 30 TB of records and saved the Company several thousands of dollars by ingesting inactive project files into the vault.

I am optimistic that when we have support from upper management, we will be able to improve the vault process and infrastructure, and create an effective solution for utilizing records management policies to ensure legal compliance, maintain business continuity, and save money.

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Sarah Dushkin earned her MSIS from the University of Texas at Austin School of Information with a focus in Archival Enterprise and Records Management. Afterwards, she sought to diversify her expertise by working outside of the traditional archival setting and moved to Houston to work in oil and gas. She has collaborated with management from across her company to refine their records management program and develop a process that includes the retention of electronic records and data. She lives in Sugar Land, Texas with her husband.

Call for Contributors – Digital Archives Pathways Series

Archivists by their very nature are jacks of all trades, and the same goes for those who work with digital collection materials. Archives programs and iSchools are increasingly offering coursework in digital archives theory and practice, but not all digital archivists got their chops through academic channels, and for many archivists, digital only describes part of their responsibilities.

While all archivists must determine their own path for professional growth, the field of digital archives is also uniquely challenging. Preparation and training for this work require dedication, creativity, and engagement. Processing, preserving, and providing access to digital materials, and expertise in specialized content such as legacy media and web archiving are ever-expanding challenges.

In the Digital Archives Pathways series, we are looking for stories about the non-traditional, accidental, idiosyncratic, or unique path you took to become a digital archivist, however you define that in your work. What do you consider essential to your training, and what do you wish had been a larger part of it? How might your journey towards digital archives work be characterized as non-traditional? How do you plan on continuing your education in digital archives?

Writing for bloggERS! Digital Archives Pathways Series:

  • We encourage visual representations: Posts can include or consist of comics, flowcharts, a series of memes, etc!
  • Written content should be 200-600 words in length
  • Write posts for a wide audience: anyone who stewards, studies, or has an interest in digital archives and electronic records, both within and beyond SAA
  • Align with other editorial guidelines as outlined in the bloggERS! guidelines for writers.

Posts for this series will start in July, so let us know ASAP if you are interested in contributing by sending an email to ers.mailer.blog@gmail.com!

Fail4Lib: Acknowledging and Embracing Professional Failure

By Andreas Orphanides

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This is the fifth post in the bloggERS series #digitalarchivesfail: A Celebration of Failure.

trainwreck
It could be worse.
Image title: Train wreck at Montparnasse
Credit: Studio Lévy et Fils, 1895
Copyright: Public domain

When was the last time you totally, completely, utterly loused up a project or a report or some other task in your professional life? When was the last time you dissected that failure, in meticulous detail, in front of a room full of colleagues? Let’s face it: we’ve all had the first experience, and I’d wager that most of us would pay good money to avoid the second.

It’s a given that we’ll all encounter failure professionally, but there’s a strong cultural disincentive to talk about it. Failure is bad. It is to be avoided at all costs. And should one fail, that failure should be buried away in a dark closet with one’s other skeletons. At the same time, it’s well acknowledged that failure is a critical step on the path to success. It’s only through failing and learning from that experience that we can make the necessary course corrections. In that sense, refusing to acknowledge or unpack failure is a disservice: failure is more valuable when well-understood than when ignored.

This philosophy — that we can gain value from failure by acknowledging and understanding it openly — is the underlying principle behind Fail4Lib, the perennial preconference workshop that takes place at the annual Code4Lib conference, and which completed its fifth iteration (Fail5Lib!) at Code4Lib 2017 in Los Angeles. Jason Casden (now of UNC Libraries) originally conceived of the Fail4Lib idea, and together he and I developed the concept into a workshop about understanding, analyzing, and coming to terms with professional failure in a safe, collegial environment.

Participants in a Fail4Lib workshop engage in a number of activities to foster a healthier relationship with failure: case study discussions to analyze high-profile failures such as the Challenger disaster and the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal; lightning talks where brave souls share their own professional failures and talk about the lessons they learned; and an open bull session about risk, failure, and organizational culture, to brainstorm on how we can identify and manage failure, and how to encourage our organizations to become more failure-tolerant.

Fail4Lib’s goal is to help its participants to get better at failing. By practicing talking about and thinking about failure, we position ourselves to learn more from the failures of others as well as our own future failures. By sharing and talking through our failures we maximize the value of our experiences, we normalize the practice of openly acknowledging and discussing failure, and we reinforce the message to participants that it happens to all of us. And by brainstorming approaches to allow our institutions to be more failure-tolerant, we can begin making meaningful organizational change towards accepting failure as part of the development process.

The principles I’ve outlined here not only form the framework for the Fail4Lib workshop, they also represent a philosophy for engaging with professional failure in a constructive and blameless way. It’s only by normalizing the experience of failure that we can gain the most from it; in so doing, we make failure more productive, we accelerate our successes, and we make ourselves more resilient.

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Andreas Orphanides is Associate Head, User Experience at the NCSU Libraries, where he develops user-focused solutions to support teaching, learning, and information discovery. He has facilitated Fail4Lib workshops at the annual Code4Lib conference since 2013. He holds a BA from Oberlin College and an MSLS from UNC-Chapel Hill.