by Ashley Blewer
This is the first post in the bloggERS Making Tech Skills a Strategic Priority series.
Hi, SAA ERS readers! My name is Ashley Blewer, and I am sort of an archivist, sort of a developer, and sort of something else I haven’t quite figured out what to call myself. I work for a company for Artefactual Systems, and we make digital preservation and access software called Archivematica and AtoM (Access to Memory) respectively. My job title is AV Preservation Specialist, which is true, that is what I specialize in, and maybe that fulfills part of that “sort of something else I haven’t quite figured out.” I’ve held a lot of different roles in my career, as digital preservation consultant, open source software builder and promoter, developer at a big public library, archivist at a small public film archive, and other things. This, however, is my first time working for an open source technology company that makes software used by libraries, archives, museums, and other organizations in the cultural heritage sector. I think this is a rare vantage point from which to look at the field and its relationship to technology, and I think that even within this rare position, we have an even more unique culture and mentality around archives and technology that I’d like to talk about.
Within Archivematica, we have a few loosely defined types of jobs. There are systems archivists, which we speak of internally as analysts, there are developers (software engineers), and there are also systems operations folks (systems administrators and production support engineers). We have a few other roles that sit more at the executive level, but there isn’t a wall between any of these roles, as even those who are classified as being “in management” also work as analysts or systems engineers when called upon to do so. My role also sits between a lot of these loosely defined roles — I suppose I am technically classified as an analyst, and I run with the fellow analyst crew: I attend their meetings, work directly with clients, and other preservation-specific duties, but I also have software development skills, and can perform more traditionally technical tasks like writing code, changing how things function at a infrastructure level, and reviewing and testing the code that has been written by others. I’m still learning the ropes (I have been at the organization full-time for 4 months), but I am increasingly able to do some simple system administration tasks too, mostly for clients that need me to log in and check out what’s going on with their systems. This seems to be a way in which roles at my company and within the field (I hope) are naturally evolving. Another example is my brilliant colleague Ross Spencer who works as a software engineer, but has a long-established career working within the digital preservation space, so he definitely lends a hand providing crucial insight when doing “analyst-style” work.
We are a technical company, and everyone on staff has some components that are essential to a well-rounded digital preservation systems infrastructure. For example, all of us know how to use Git (a version control management system made popular by Github) and we use it as a regular part of our job, whether we are writing code or writing documentation for how to use our software. But “being technical” or having technical literacy skills involves much, much more than writing code. My fellow analysts have to do highly complex and nuanced workflow development and data mapping work, figuring out niche bugs associated with some of the microservices we run, and articulating in common human language some of the very technical parts of a large software system. I think Artefactual’s success as a company comes from the collective ability to foster a safe, warm, and collaborative environment that allows anyone on the team to get the advice or support they need to understand a technical problem, and use that knowledge to better support our software, every Archivematica user (client or non-client), and the larger digital preservation community. This is the most important part of any technical initiative or training, and it is the most fundamental component of any system.
I don’t write this as a representative for Artefactual, but as myself, a person who has held many different roles at many different institutions all with different relationships to technology, and this has by far been the most healthy and on-the-job educational experience I have had, and I think those two things go hand-in-hand. I can only hope that other organizations begin to narrow the line between “person who does archives work” and “technical person” in a way that supports collaboration and cross-training between people coming into the field with different backgrounds and experiences. We are all in this together, and the only way we are gonna get things done is if we work closely together.
Ashley works as at Artefactual Systems as their AV Preservation Specialist, primarily on the Archivematica project. She specializes in time-based media preservation, digital repository management, infrastructure/community building, computer-to-human interpretation, and teaching technical concepts. She is an active contributor to MediaArea’s MediaConch, a open source digital video file conformance checker software project, and Bay Area Video Coalition’s QCTools, an open source digitized video analysis software project. She holds Master of Library and Information Science (Archives) and Bachelor of Arts (Graphic Design) degrees from the University of South Carolina.