“A Trial by Fire Process”: Digital Archiving at the State Historical Society of Missouri (Interview with Elizabeth Engel)

This is the fourth post in the Conversations series

Founded in 1898, the State Historical Society of Missouri (SHSMO) “collect[s], preserve[s], publish[es], exhibit[s], and make[s] available material related to all aspects and periods of Missouri history” (The State Historical Society of Missouri, “About Us”). Supporting this mission is a large staff that includes thirty-five full-time and twelve part-time employees, two research fellows, and a large number of volunteers and interns who work in one of SHSMO’s six Research Centers (The State Historical Society of Missouri, “About Us”). My interviewee, Senior Archivist Elizabeth Engel, serves at the Columbia Research Center on the University of Missouri campus. Elizabeth and her colleagues work to make SHSMO’s collections (e.g. the National Women and Media Collection) accessible to a wide variety of patrons, including film creators, reporters, and researchers from all walks of life.

Elizabeth’s entry into the archival field was due partly to happenstance. After enrolling in the University of Iowa’s (UI) School of Information Science, Elizabeth expected to work in public libraries—especially because she had worked in similar settings during her high school and college years. However, she seized upon an opportunity to complete a work-study assignment at the Iowa Women’s Archives (at the University of Iowa) and promptly discovered a passion for archives. After graduating from UI in 2006, SHSMO initially hired her as a Manuscript Specialist—and the rest is, well, history (The State Historical Society of Missouri, “SHSMO Staff”). As the senior archivist for the Columbia Research Center, Elizabeth’s day-to-day work involves processing collections; fulfilling various public services responsibilities, and developing biographical histories of Missouri’s most well-known citizens. Her greatest responsibility, however, is overseeing the Columbia Research Center’s accessioning efforts—particularly as it pertains to digital content.

Elizabeth’s Research Center has seen a marked increase in the amount of born-digital material that it takes in each year. This point is exemplified by SHSMO’s recent acquisition of Senator Claire McCaskill’s papers, which consists of approximately 3.25 cubic feet AND two terabytes of data. To tackle the challenges of managing such content, Elizabeth and her staff have employed a variety of tactics and tools. While MPLP-inspired collection-level descriptions have sufficed for physical collections, Elizabeth noted that digital content requires a more in-depth description for access and preservation purposes. Elizabeth’s work on other projects—such as the processing of the Missouri Broadcasters Association Radio Archives Collection—reinforced the importance of flexibility, as exemplified by her arrangement tactics (recordings are organized by call sign, and further accruals are added to the end of the finding aid) and description efforts (“some of the file names were in ALL CAPS and I decided to retain that for the time being as well…perhaps it will aid in retrieval).

This theme of flexibility emerged when Elizabeth discussed the different digital archiving tools that SHSMO staff have employed: Duke University’s DataAccessioner and Microsoft Excel spreadsheets (to create and organize metadata); various storage spaces, including network attached storage (NAS) units and a dark archive (both of which are accessible only to certain staff); thumb drives, used to deliver content to patrons; a Microsoft Access database, which serves as the institution’s collection management system; and BitCurator, which SHSMO staff set up to tackle larger and more complex collections (e.g. Senator McCaskill’s papers). Overall, effectively and efficiently managing these digital resources has been “a [constant] trial by fire process,” given the somewhat volatile nature of the digital archives field. In the future, Elizabeth hopes that SHSMO will adopt more user-friendly and compatible software—such as Archivematica and/or Access to Memory (AtoM)—to fulfill its mission. In fact, Elizabeth emphasized that finding such tools—especially cost-effective tools—represents one of the greater challenges facing modern archivists.

For the aspiring digital archivist, Elizabeth recommended seeking out practice-focused learning opportunities. To complement her largely theoretical UI coursework, Elizabeth completed the Digital Archives Specialist (DAS) certificate; scans the field for published literature; and engages in other professional development efforts. She further recommended the workshops provided by Lyrasis as another opportunity to deepen one’s digital preservation knowledge. Elizabeth explained that the twenty-first-century digital archivist must remain flexible and commit to continual learning to stay on top of the field’s recent developments. She also emphasized that these same professionals must also be given sufficient time to learn and experiment with tools and workflows.

Before we digitally parted ways, Elizabeth offered one final and—in this writer’s opinion—exceptionally solid advice:

“You’re going to make mistakes and that’s okay. The DAS courses drilled it into me that ‘Doing something is better than nothing.’ Standards/tools are going to change and you can’t predict that. Sometimes all you can do is digital triage with the resources/time you have, so don’t let the doing things perfectly be the enemy of the good.”



Gentry_Photo_2018.jpgAuthor Bio: Steven Gentry is the Archives Technician for the St. Mary’s College of Maryland Archives. His responsibilities include processing collections and building finding aids; assisting with web and email archiving efforts; and researching tools and best practices pertaining to digital archives and electronic records.

 


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An Interview With Caitlin Birch — Digital Collections and Oral History Archivist at the Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth

Interview conducted with Caitlin Birch by Juli Folk in March 2019

This is the third post in the Conversations series

Meet Caitlin Birch

Caitlin Birch is the Digital Collections and Oral History Archivist for the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire: she sat down with Juli Folk, a graduate student at the University of Maryland-College Park iSchool, who is pursuing an archives-focused MLIS and certificate in Museum Scholarship and Material Culture. Caitlin’s descriptions of her career path, her roles and achievements, and her insights into the challenges she faces helped frame a discussion of helpful skill sets for working with born-digital archival records on a daily basis.

Caitlin’s Career Path

As an undergraduate, Caitlin majored in English, concentrating in journalism with minors in history and Irish studies. After a few years working as a reporter and editor, she began to consider a different career path, looking for other fields that emphasize constant learning, storytelling, and contributions to the historical record. In time, she decided on a dual degree (MA/MSLIS) in history and archives management from Simmons College (now Simmons University). Throughout grad school, her studies focused on both historical methods and original research as well as archival theory and practice.

When asked about the path to her current position, Caitlin responded, “To the extent that my program allowed, I tried to take courses with a digital focus whenever I could. I also completed two internships and worked in several paraprofessional positions, which were really invaluable to preparing me for professional work in the field. I finished my degrees in December 2013 and landed my job at Dartmouth a few months later.” She now works as the Digital Collections and Oral History Archivist for Rauner Special Collections Library, the home of Dartmouth College’s rare books, manuscripts, and archives, compartmentalized within the larger academic research library.

Favorite Aspects of Being an Archivist

For Caitlin, the best aspects of being an archivist are working at the intersection of history and technology; teaching and interacting with people every day; and having new opportunities to create, innovate, and learn. Her position includes roles in both oral history and born-digital records, and on any given day she may be juggling tasks like teaching students oral history methodology, working on the implementation of a digital repository, building Dartmouth’s web archiving program, managing staff, sharing reference desk duty, and staying abreast of the profession via involvement with the SAA and the New England Archivists Executive Board. “I like that no two days are the same,” she shared, adding, “I like that my work can have a positive impact on others.”

Challenges of Being an Archivist

Caitlin pointed out that aspects of the profession change and evolve at a pace that can make it difficult to keep up, especially when job- or project-related tasks demand so much attention. She also noted other challenges: “More and more we’re grappling with issues like the ethical implications of digital archives and the environmental impact of digital preservation.” That said, she finds that “the biggest challenge is also the biggest opportunity: most of what I do hasn’t been done before at Dartmouth. I’m the first digital archivist to be hired at my institution, so everything—infrastructure, policies, workflows, etc.—has been/is being built from the ground up. It’s exciting and often very daunting, especially because this corner of the archives field is dynamic.”

Advice for Students and Young Professionals

As a result, Caitlin emphasized the importance of experimentation and failure. “Traditional archival practice is well-defined and there are standards to guide it, but digital archives present all kinds of unique challenges that didn’t exist until very recently. Out of necessity, you have to innovate and try new things and learn from failure in order to get anywhere.” For this reason, she recommended building a good professional network and finding time to keep up with the professional literature. “It’s really key to cultivate a community of practice with colleagues at other institutions.”

When asked whether she sets aside time specified for these tasks or if she finds that networking and research are natural outputs of her daily work, Caitlin stated that networking comes more easily because of her involvement with professional organizations. However, finding time for professional literature and research proved more difficult, a concern Caitlin brought to her manager. In response, he encouraged her to block 1-2 hours on her calendar at the same time every week to catch up on reading and professional news. She remains grateful for that support: “I would hope that every manager in this profession encourages time for regular professional development. It may seem like it’s taking time away from job responsibilities, but in actuality it’s helping you to build the skills and knowledge you need for future innovation.”


SAA-bloggERS-headshot-Juli_Folk

Juli Folk is finishing the MLIS program at the University of Maryland-College Park iSchool, specializing in Archives and Digital Curation. Previously a corporate editor and project manager, Juli’s graduate work supplements her passions for writing, art, and technology with formal archival training, to refocus her career on cultural heritage institutions.

Call for Contributors – #digitalarchivesfail: A Celebration of Failure

Here on bloggERS!, we love to publish success stories. But we also believe in celebrating failure–the insights that emerge out of challenges, conundrums, and projects that didn’t quite work out as planned. All of us have failed and grown into wiser digital archives professionals as a result. We believe that failures don’t get enough airtime, and thanks to a brilliant idea from guest editor Rachel Appel, Digital Projects & Services Librarian at Temple University, we’re starting a new series to change that: #digitalarchivesfail: A Celebration of Failure.

So, tell us: when have you experienced failure when dealing with digital records, what did the experience reveal, and why is the wisdom gleaned worth celebrating? Tell us the story of your #digitalarchivesfail.

A few topics and themes to get you thinking (but we’re open to all ideas!):

  • Failed projects (What factors and complexities caused the project to fail? What’s the best way to pull the plug on a project? Are there workflows, tools, best practices, etc. that could be developed to help prevent similar failures?)
  • Experiences with troubleshooting and assessment (to identify or prevent points of failure)
  • Times when you’ve tried to make things work when they’ve failed or aren’t perfect
  • Murphy’s law
  • Areas where you think the archives profession might be “failing” and should focus its attention

In the spirit of celebrating failure, we encourage all authors to take pride in their #digitalarchivesfails, but if there is a story you really want to tell and you prefer to remain anonymous, we will accept unsigned posts.

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

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

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Thanks to series guest editor Rachel Appel for inspiring this series and collaborating with us on this call for contributions!